The day I saw my own racism

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On the weekend I noticed I was becoming light-headed and my vision a little blurry. Worried I took myself to the doctor and discovered my blood pressure was unusually high.

“Are you worried about anything?” he asked me as he listened to my heart. I flicked through my mental catalogue of nervous obsessions, unsure where to start.

Like many people I’m struggling in the face of daily headlines about terrorism and war. I know I’m not alone when I hear worried chatter at the supermarket, at the hairdressers, at the pub…all wondering ‘what this could lead to?’  On many occasions I’ve heard some of this fearful chatter turn into angry observations about Muslims and refugees.

Fear is a powerful thing. It plays with your heart, your vision and your mind. But when harnessed the right way, fear can also change lives. Let me come back to that thought in a moment. First I want to take you back to another moment in time when I felt incredibly anxious.

The date was 14 September 2001. My husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) and I were travelling to Ireland so I could meet his family for the first time.  Our plane was one of the first to take off in Australia after airspace had been closed as authorities tried to comprehend the extent of the September 11 attacks.

To say I was nervous is an understatement. I was terrified. The idea of stepping on a plane felt crazy and foolhardy in my anxious and confused mind. And I know I wasn’t alone. At the airport that day, the farewells seemed to linger.

To get to Ireland we had three different flights. Each time we boarded a different plane I glanced at the passengers scanning their faces to see if they were nervous like me. And I confess…I was also looking for something more sinister.

On our final flight from London to Dublin, as I settled into my seat, I looked up and saw three men sit down in the seats across the aisle from us. Three dark haired, brown skinned strong young men, speaking softly to each other in a language I didn’t understand. My mind started to spiral.

I turned to my husband. “Look…” I whispered, nodding in their direction.

My husband leaned forward looked at the men and then looked at me.

“What? Look at what?” he said.

“Them. Don’t you think they look a bit suspicious?” I said.

“What? Why? Relax. You’re being silly,” he said, returning his gaze to his newspaper.

Feeling a bit embarrassed I sat back in my seat. But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t keep one nervous eyeball on the men throughout the rest of the entire flight. I did, much to my husband’s bemusement.

When we finally touched down in Dublin we stood in the aisle with our bags and waited for the plane’s doors to open. The men stood in front of us, chatting to each other, probably as excited and relieved to arrive at their final destination as I was.

My husband leaned forward and whispered in my ear. “Just because they look a certain way, doesn’t mean they’re terrorists,” he whispered. And he should know. As an Irishman who travelled frequently between England and Ireland during The Troubles, my husband had more than his fair share of pat downs and tests for explosive materials.

In that moment my unconscious bias was pried open and exposed for me to see. It wasn’t a proud moment as I reflected on the way my mind ‘filled in the gaps’ to create a picture in my head of these men I knew absolutely nothing about. But it is also a moment and I am grateful for – an experience I draw from today to continually challenge and assess my thinking.

A recent study claims that Muslims in Sydney experience discrimination at three times the rate of other Australians. The study, which was conducted by Western Sydney and Charles Sturt universities, found that 57 per cent of Muslims have experienced racism, 62 per cent of this occurring in the workplace or when seeking employment.

It is so easy to have our thinking distorted by fear and stereotypes. Unconscious bias affects so many areas of our lives.  The wild assumptions about people we know nothing about – our neighbours, our colleagues or the families in our children’s schools.

But it is also just as easy for a person to gently hold up a mirror and say: “just think about what you are saying for a minute.”

That moment of self-reflection can change a life. That is the power of harnessing fear. And that is the opportunity we have handed to us today.

But as I scroll through the hateful and hysterical online spats between so-called ‘lefties’ and ‘right-wingers’, the emotionally charged accusations of stupidity and ignorance, I can’t help but worry we could be in danger of missing this opportunity.

And this is what fuels my fear.



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