Friday, October 30, 2009

"F***ing scum" - the phone call I received this week.

A fellow blogger recently showed me some love, recommending my site as "a blog that discusses current racism issues in Australia". Which is true I guess, and I'm always grateful for some blog love... but it made me do a double-take of sorts.

Is that what my blog has become? Looking at my list of recent posts, it is certainly a theme there. So yes, maybe I have become the guy who is always blogging about racism. It certainly is not what I had in mind in the heady days when I started this blog; back then it was a light-hearted blog about travel, culture and food that no one read. And then the "curry-bashing" phenomenon put Australian racism in the headlines. I blogged about it, and people were reading. And once I investigated the issue, I started seeing racism's tendrils everywhere.

I've had the occasional comment about me seeing racism where it doesn't exist. And this is possible. But at the same time, even when you're not looking for racism, on occasion the racism finds you.

I had a missed call on my phone this week, and a voicemail message was left. It was short and to the point, made by some youngish-sounding guy with an Australian accent. Two words: "F***ing scum." And then he hung up. No traceable number.

I assure you this is not the everyday kind of phone call I receive. And I'm not the kind of person who has too many enemies. But I'm pretty sure I know why I received it this week.

My mother is overseas right now, and her phone calls are being redirected to me. And she isn't the kind of person to have too many enemies either. But she is an important person in Melbourne's Indonesian community, and runs a business translating and interpreting in Indonesian. Open the Melbourne phone book and look for "Indonesian" and my Mum's number is the first one that sticks out at you.

I mention this, and also racism, because this is certainly not the first time we have received abusive, threatening phone calls on that number. Almost every time there is an issue of contention between Indonesia and Australia in the news, by coincidence some fool decides to ring us up and abuse us. It happened around the time when East Timor was achieving independence with the help of Australian troops, and Indonesian-military-backed mobs were attacking civilians. It happened when an Australian man was shot by Indonesian police, quite a few years ago now. It happened when Australian tourists were killed in the Bali Bomb.

The phone calls are either generally abusive ("You f***en c***s," etc) or threatening, of the "You're gonna pay" or "We know where you live" variety. The first one I heard was when I was in my teens and had the misfortune to answer the phone and get threatened with violence. I'm not sure what Indonesia had done back then, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't my fault, or my Mum's.

This week, 60 Minutes was running an emotive promo for a story this Sunday about the Balibo 5 (Australian journalists allegedly murdered by Indonesian soldiers in East Timor in 1975). According to the ad's voiceover, "5 young Australians... murdered in cold blood... executed by the Indonesians. On 60 Minutes, Liam Bartlett names the killers... demands justice... but these mongrels don't give a damn."

You should be able to watch the promo here.

I can only assume that the guy who called me "F***ing scum" had probably seen that promo. Of course, it could be that it's someone that I (or my Mum) had personally pissed off, but I doubt it. We are both, surprisingly, quite nice people.

(Dude, on the unlikely chance you are reading this - I didn't do it! I wasn't there, ok?)

Being on the receiving end of abuse and threats of violence is not pleasant, just in case you were wondering. Not that we've ever taken these calls particularly seriously, but they still leave a "what if..." lingering in your mind.
"What if we are being seriously targeted?"
"This person is clearly a bit unhinged... what if they decide to follow through with their threat?"

It was only two weeks ago that an elderly Filipino man was beaten to death by a drunken redneck, because he thought the man was Japanese. So I don't think I'm being paranoid when I don't just laugh this stuff off.

Of course, had anyone bothered to ask, both my parents and I always opposed the Indonesian military takeover of East Timor, and are quick to condemn whatever wrongs the Indonesian government may commit. Mum even spent the best part of a year working for the UN in East Timor to aid in their transition to independence.

But no, that is insignificant, isn't it? By virtue of the blood that runs in our veins, we are somehow responsible for what some soldiers did in East Timor did 34 years ago. We are somehow responsible for what the Bali Bombers did. As Indonesians, in some people's eyes, we are all the same. That, my friends is f***ing racism.

I await the screening on 60 Minutes on Sunday. Wonder if I'll get any more friendly phone calls.

Related posts:

Racists are out to get me! Aiyah!

"Send them all back"... even if they are Australian

Comebacks to racist and stereotypical comments


  1. Hi,
    I really feel for you. I don't think you are being paranoid. I grew up living the expat life all over SE Asia (I am Indian) and moved here for uni a few years ago. The racism here can be unnverving. It can really get you down sometimes. Of course, for me, it's mainly limited to verbal taunts on the bus and at train stations. Uni and hospitals/clinics (where I sometimes go for study placements) are generally totally free of racism, however. I guess that's because the education factor.

  2. ^ Thanks for your comment. Although I feel that Australia has a tremendous upside, and there's nowhere else I'd rather live, we still have problems to iron out. The fact that you or anyone else would face verbal taunts in public while just going about your daily business is a sad indictment on a society. Contrast that with so many countries in the developing world, where someone of foreign appearance might be treated as a curiosity, but usually with smiles and friendliness.

  3. Maybe this is just a cultural "P.C." difference between the US and Australia, so I could be reading it wrong, but "These mongrels don't give a damn!" seems a bit odd... I mean, I don't know the story it's talking about, so perhaps these people they are describing are horrible killers, but I'm surprised a journalist would use such inflammatory and unobjective phrasing in a report... is that normal?

  4. @ Frenchie - it is all too normal actually. The "mongrels" being described are not the killers, but the Indonesian politicians and authorities who don't consider the 34-year-old case a priority and are reluctant to take action on it.

    Remember - inflammatory language will get more attention, ignite more passions and thus increase ratings.

  5. Oh my goodness..that's awful! I didn't realise things were that bad over there.

    Found your blog through Banana Lounge.

  6. @ scp - for the most part, things aren't that bad. Most of us can go through life largely unaffected by racism and that sort of thing. But there is always that ugly side which rears its head now and then.

  7. I think Australians tend to have a 'she'll be right' attitude when it comes to a lot of things, including racism. We're less politically correct compared to other places, which means that we often let racist stuff (the good-intentioned, the bad-intentioned, and everything in between) slide.

    Personally, I haven't experienced much racism in Australia. I was brought up here; even though I look like a migrant, I don't sound like a migrant. I've noticed that the public are more intolerant towards non-native speakers.

    Then again, I've noticed a lot of racism amongst the ethnic minorities, directed towards other ethnic groups and towards white people. Actually, I think there's a lot of racism that is disguised as racial/national pride amongst these communities. This racism is not acknowledged, it's ubiquitous, and it's very hard to combat.

  8. @ Thuy: I second that about racism amongst ethnic minorities. I've observed Asians complaining about racism from white Aussies, then in the same breath go on to make remarks disparaging "Abos".

  9. Hmmm. Strange...I've always thought Australians are ultra PC to the point that it's suffocating and frustrating. I often think: 'If you're thinking it, just say it so I can dish out some rebuts!' In fact, I've got a couple of Aussie friends who are now living in Indonesia and seem to really struggle with the unPCness of Indonesians with words such as 'bule' (faded/white) which on the most part carries no derogatory connotations.

    I'm a native speaker of English, but apparently that's not enough. I don't act Australian you see. And I've got an American, not Australian accent to boot coz I didn't grow up in Oz. Was it on this blog or elsewhere that I mentioned how my friends said Aussies are okay with Asians who act and talk like an Aussie. They're okay with the ones who hardly speak English coz they're kinda cute. But the inbetweens (like me), they don't like that.

    Racism among migrants - yes, I've heard an Asian migrant disparaging 'Abos' too. At the time I didn't know what that meant or that it was derogatory. But later thought, WTF?

    But as for the other racisms - uhm, I think there's a difference between racism and prejudice. There's a lot of prejudice between groups in Asia, but many of them are of the nature of, 'I don't like you. You don't like me. We're even.' There are many also which are definitely racism where group A looks down on group B (racism) and group B can't shake off that feeling of being made to feel inferior and is resentful of this (prejudice). Hence, I get annoyed when ppl say there's racism against white ppl in Australia - that's just not possible given the situation. Prejudice yes, racism no. Neither are pleasant to experience, but they feel very different (and I'm speaking from experience).

  10. @ fromthetropics: I'll have to part company with you on the whole "racism vs prejudice" thing. The idea that only the dominant power-holding group can be racist doesn't work for me. I know it may be the sociological definition of racism, but I prefer the man-in-the-street definition of racism.

    And yes I am aware that historically white racism has been more destructive than anyone else's racism. But power is not just institutional but situational. And while I don't buy the whole "white folks are the real victims of racism" that some fools try to argue, I don't wanna let POCs off the hook either. I think we sometimes let POCs get away with having shitty attitudes because we are reluctant to use the "R" word for anyone other than whites.


  11. Uhm. I think you're going a few steps ahead of me with my own argument but taking it in the wrong direction (or at least not the direction I'd go). i.e. You're making incorrect assumptions about what I think of POC attitudes. Making a distinction between racism and prejudice is not the same as letting POCs 'off the hook'. Both are equally ugly (and detrimental to the individual holding such attitudes, even if it's resentment towards your so-called 'oppressors' because there is no justification for such attitudes).

    And it's not really a sociological definition either considering how my parents, who are lay people (man-in-the-street) who don't read a thing on stuff like this, would only ever use the word 'discrimination' to describe native Indonesian attitudes toward the ethnic Chinese minority, and never use the word 'racism' for that. This is despite how sometimes this 'discrimination' (or prejudice) can get out of hand and cost many lives. But they would definitely use the word 'racism' to describe white Australian attitudes towards POCs. They would also use the word 'racism' to describe ethnic Chinese attitudes towards the ethnic Malays and Indians in Singapore. Like I said, neither is pleasant. And both can end up in extremes (e.g. Bali bombings - extreme hatred there). But the feeling of 'unpleasantness' you get when you encounter it on an individual level on a day to day basis is distinct from each other. I think academics, as they often do, simply created a flowery definition for something that the people experiencing it already knew.

    In my experience, prejudice encompasses most things racism does, including hatred, resentment, stereotyping, etc. But prejudice/discrimination doesn't have the capability of making you 'feel inferior' when encountered on an individual level, whereas racism does. 'Unpleasant' yes, but not 'inferior'.

    Also, on the point about situational - yes, if you take the Indian (particularly northern Indians) and Chinese out of the Singapore context, and say, move them to Indonesia or Australia, then it's prejudice going both ways. Both think they're superior to the other and are capable of letting the other sense this attitude. But then again, on the most part neither cares what the other thinks either. (Well, I suppose in that case you could say they're both 'racist' towards each other, but I'm not sure there is much power in it when it's going both ways.)

    So, when POC migrants have shitty attitudes towards Aborigines, for example, yes, I'd classify that as racism. And yes, it really is shitty. And no, it's not acceptable anymore than white racism.

    Does that make a bit more sense and closer to how you feel about shitty POC attitudes? Because I actually think we agree about shitty POC attitudes. The seeming disagreement may stem from the fact that, as you've mentioned elsewhere, you' haven't really experienced much racism yourself, so perhaps haven't had first hand experience on the difference in how the two feels. But I don't know, I'm just guessing and trying to make sense of what looks like a disagreement, but is probably not.

  12. @ fromthetropics: My view of prejudice vs racism has always been that racism is prejudice based on race. (Prejudice could otherwise be based on what suburb you live in, your social class, gender, your appearance, etc)
    I dunno how correct this definition is, but I figure it's pretty close to what the average person thinks.

    I figure we are pretty like-minded about racism and attitudes. I guess my point is this: the struggle against racism ultimately takes place in the real world and the court of public opinion. Not in the academic world. And I think that statements such as your earlier one: "racism against white ppl in Australia - that's just not possible given the situation", and semantic discussions over the difference between prejudice and racism, are part of the academic world. I'm not saying they are incorrect, but they don't really make sense out in the real world.

    Try to tell white people that they cannot be victims of racism in Australia and they'll think you're talking crap. Not only that, they'll think its the "Left-wing intelligensia" trying to excessively pander to minorities at the expense of whites.

    I've had my share of racism in my life. I don't like to exaggerate it because it doesn't compare with what some other people endure. But I have plenty of examples, and they are not only by white people but by Indonesians and Indians as well. None of which compare to the incident where a white friend of mine was bashed by Asian guys for the crime of having an Asian girlfriend. Or the white girls raped by a Lebanese gang in Sydney who believed all Aussie girls were sluts.