As an Aussie-born Ethiopian, the first kind of micro-aggression I ever came across was the ignorance people here have about my background. During my first few years of school many teachers and students enquired about where I was from and my answers were met with responses such as: “Ethiopia, where’s that?”, “Did your parents come here because they were starving back in Africa?”, and – my personal favourite – “Ethiopia? Yeah my cousin went there when he was backpacking in south-east Asia”.
A particularly upsetting experience happened when I was in year one and watching the Lion King in class. During the opening scene, in which The Circle of Life is sung in Zulu, my teacher decided to pause the tape, look straight at me and ask, “Rebka, would you mind translating this for the rest of the class? It is in your native tongue, after all”. Of course, my confused, non-Zulu speaking six-year-old self simply replied with, “Sorry Miss, I don’t know what they’re saying”.
That was the first of many similar incidents that I faced in school and continue to face today. And while the ignorant stereotyping and homogenisation of Africa is a global issue, I have always felt that Australians are especially clueless about the continent.
I’m sure we can all agree that colonialism and slavery are horrific but they gave Europe and the Americas the upper hand in terms of exposure to other cultures. While those regions have had contact with black Africans and have included them in their societies for centuries (albeit in a dehumanising manner), white Australia only really started seeing Africans as immigrants during the 1980s.
I figured that this lack of exposure, combined with the media’s lazy depiction of Africa, was the root of Australia’s obliviousness towards it.
Is this not the digital age? What excuse do people have, in 2015, to be ignorant? I feel like the problem has switched from not being able to know, to choosing to not care.
Growing up, I always had this niggling feeling of inferiority when I saw that frown of confusion on people’s faces when I tried to explain where I was from. I felt like I was causing a hassle by refusing to speak about my background in a more generic way. How dare I be so specific and complicated as to say I was from Ethiopia, couldn’t I just say “Africa”? And that’s what I eventually started doing.
But every time I did it, I felt like I was selling a tiny part of my soul. Am I, and people like me, not worth learning about? Most Australians can tell an Englishman from an Italian, so why do you assume me and the Nigerian boy from the grade below are cousins?
It’s no secret that African American culture is prominent in contemporary society. It plays a huge role in music, movies and social media. Don’t get me wrong, it’s sick, but that portrayal and the stereotypes that come with it have affected black Africans around the world in many ways, including here in Australia.
For me, the biggest issue is that people here think they have black Africans all figured out because they’ve seen a few episodes of Oprah and got front row tickets to Beyonce’s concert. When I was in year 11, my religion teacher was handing out jelly beans. A girl near me innocently remarked “black jelly beans are so pointless, nobody ever eats them”, to which another student replied: “Well they probably have to, since some people would think it’s racist if they don’t.”
“Who would think that,” I asked.
“Well no offence, Rebka, but black people are a bit oversensitive when it comes to the whole racism thing,” she replied.
The matter of factness in her tone was what got to me the most. Like she knew it all, when in reality I was probably the only black person she knew in real life. She spoke as though she was the reasonable one, like she was some well-rounded, nuanced individual and I was the crazy, angry, race-card-pulling black woman. It was so painfully obvious that her assumptions had been based on stereotypes from American media. I mean jelly beans, really?
African American stereotypes have also affected our behaviour as black African Australians. In the western world, African American culture is the most palatable form of blackness. We often mimic African American mannerisms and stereotypical behaviour.
Looking back at my younger teen years, I remember playing into those stereotypes for social approval. Making “hilarious” references to my non-existent weave (cringe), excessively using the “n” word (cringe x 3) and listing “twerking” as one of my talents (cringe level: one million) were just a few of the things I did as a high schooler to fit in to the African American stereotype.
There’s really nothing wrong with any of these things but they’re not me. I recently found out that white public school kids in London go around saying “wagwan” or call themselves “oyinbo” and I was consumed with envy. It amazed me that the diaspora has had so much impact on English culture and how they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not.
African immigrants haven’t been in Australia long enough to create a subculture. We don’t have anything to claim. So for now, we’re either stuck pretending or must settle for being outcasts. I know it’s a transitioning period for us, I know it won’t be like this forever, but it still sucks.
Australia is a nation that prides itself on being laidback and down to earth. The idea of everyone having a “fair go” is something most Aussies claim to value. So when marginalised people speak out against oppressive forces, I guess this image of fairness is threatened and people simply don’t want to face it.
Speaking out, or “having a whinge” as many here like to call it, is also at odds with the great Australian tradition of not “giving a shit” about anything except sport. If you get too serious with people, they just tune out and see your passion as tedious, offensive even.
I mean, why talk about systematic oppression, when we could just throw some steaks on the barbie and have a beer? Australia’s “laidback” attitude is inconsistent at best and deliberately silencing at worst.
Sharing our experiences with racism is especially hard as black Africans here, because we are also subject to the “aggro race-card-pulling” archetype that is peddled by the media. Even in Australia’s most “progressive” spaces such as universities, conversations around racism seemingly always stop at Islamophobia and the experiences of black Africans are ignored. On the rare occasion that they aren’t, it is always through an American lens (thanks a lot Tumblr).
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Being black African Australians, we are blessed enough to be in a community that is expanding in the digital age. We are not alone. We have the advice, support and relatable experiences of an entire global diaspora in the palm of our hands.
Seriously, if it wasn’t for Twitter, I’d still be pronouncing the “g” in “Igbo”.
Time and again we have been proven as incredibly charismatic and resilient people. I am confident that our Australian community will be no different.