• When I encountered racism in my retail job at a supermarket chain, I didn’t talk back. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
"It seemed normal not to speak up when hearing this sort of thing. But it weighed heavier and heavier on me as time went by," writes Wongatha man Travis Akbar.
Travis Akbar

9 Sep 2019 - 9:42 AM  UPDATED 16 Apr 2021 - 1:07 PM

I didn’t understand racism growing up. I was a victim of it without always realising it. I have some great friends that I met in year 2 but there were a few kids that insulted me daily. Abo, coon, boong and terrorist were common. I never really said much in return, and that normalised it. Playing footy, there was a player in one opposition team who told I should’ve been pushed off the cliffs with my ancestors – I didn’t know what it meant at the time.

Years later, when I encountered racism in my retail job at a supermarket chain, I didn’t talk back either. It was Christmas time and I was serving a woman with the usual conversation: “How are you?, “How’s the weather?” Then I asked her about her Christmas planning, which seemed to surprise her. “Oh, do you people even celebrate Christmas?”  she responded. This was a regular occurrence over Christmas and Easter while I was on checkout. I was also frequently asked, “Where are you from?”

“Australia,” I’d say.

“Well, where were your parents born then?”

This line of questioning was embarrassing and hurtful. I didn’t understand why my identity was being questioned, regularly, at that. I’m part of a culture that belongs in this country, and has done for tens of thousands of years, and my identity was still being questioned because I looked different by someone whose family would have been here, at most, for a couple hundred years.

I also experienced racism from co-workers. “You’re one of the good ones,’ my store manager told me several times. I’d been touted to go through the company’s ‘Retail Leaders’ program, to become a proper department manager but every intake, there was always just “one more thing” HR wanted me to learn.

When I took part in a company contest that judged who provided the best service in company, my Store Manager told me I had to somehow fit into the story that I was Indigenous because it was “the flavour of the month”. Being a hard worker wasn’t enough.

I got fed up when I was introduced to our new regional manager. “This is Travis, he’s Aboriginal” my manager said. The regional manager and I were both shocked. I ended up telling my store manager that if I didn’t get onto the Retail Leaders program, I was going to quit. He said that he would ensure I would be put onto the program if I was Duty Manager for 12 months. I was ignorant enough to shake his hand in agreeance.

A focus of my new role was reducing shoplifting in the store. I caught a lot of non-Indigenous people stealing health and beauty items, or café owners taking stock for their shop. Only once, I caught an Indigenous shoplifter, he had meat and vegetables and showed the CCTV to my manager, as I had done every time I caught someone.

With a disgusted tone came “ugh, Aboriginals”. I was shocked, but cowardly, I kept my silence. As a kid in school, I’d take whatever was dealt to me in my stride, so it seemed normal not to speak up when hearing this sort of thing. But it weighed heavier and heavier on me as time went by.

Shortly after, I discovered my name hadn’t been put forward for the ‘Retail Leaders’ program. I’d been lied to for years. It seemed in-store diversity was more important than hard work.

I resigned.

These experiences have taught me that I need to look out for myself. Hard work alone doesn’t get you anywhere, in my experience, it keeps you exactly where you are – working. But looking after yourself mentally is also as important as making sure your employer is doing right by you. So, I decided that I wouldn’t stay quiet next time I was in that situation.

After about six months at my next job, an opportunity in Ceduna, South Australia (near where I grew up) had come to my attention. It came up in discussion with a customer, his reply was “Ceduna, too many stinking Abo’s down there”. I looked him in the eye and said proudly, “I’m Aboriginal”. He stared back, then looked to the ground and scuttled out.

I’d finally stood up for myself in a situation I’ve been in hundreds of times before. This was a moment the made me realise I had a voice. 

Now when it happens, I don’t stay silent. I will more than happily pull someone aside to speak with them about racism and it’s affects. Having a voice has given me more energy, it’s improved my mentality and improved the relationship between me, my wife and my kids. I’m proud of who I have become.

Travis Akbar is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country. He is a film critic and freelance writer. You can follow Travis on Twitter @TravAkbar.

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