Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Stories of Refugees & Racism in Australia | Paul Dellit
I am five years old and it is my first week of school, ever. Last week, not having any brothers or sisters, it was up to me alone, from within my fort made of sofa cushions and armed only with a cap pistol, to defend white privilege and stolen land against a marauding band of dispossessed American indigenes. Now, I am led into a class of, what seems to me, hundreds of kids. The class is divided down the middle with big-kid second-graders on one side, and me with the little-kid first-graders on the other. My grandma has already taught me some letters and numbers, so when the teacher asks questions, sometimes I put my hand up and get the answer right. And sometimes the teacher tells the big-kid second-graders, "Why can’t you be like that first-grader and at least try? He’s only just started school, and yet he knows more than you and you’ve been here for a whole year." After this happened a few times, Tarquin, my friend who sits next to me, says I should stop putting my hand up because it was making the big kids angry.
On about the third day at school, I am waiting, as usual, for my mother to pick me up and chatting away to Tarquin when I notice a big kid, standing around with a group of big kids, looking at me. He calls out to me, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. Tarquin tells me his name is George and he’s one of those migrant kids and that he had already bashed Tarquin up just because of his name. George, who is bigger than me and dark like a red Indian, suddenly runs over and throws me into a big muddy puddle and begins punching. Tarquin runs away but soon comes back and starts throwing rocks at George. Then I feel a dull thud on the side of my head which makes me dizzy. I feel blood running down my cheek. George runs away and Tarquin comes over and helps me up. Tarquin is crying. He says, "Sorry Paul. I was aiming at George." And I reply, "It’s okay. And I still want you to help me fight the Indians." It didn’t make sense, but I was feeling very dizzy. Then a big girl, whom I can’t see properly because I’m so dizzy, takes me to the teacher and they bandage me up so much Mum doesn’t recognise me when the big girl is walking me home. She walks right past us and we have to call out to her. Mum takes me home and puts me in the bath. Next week I start school again, but at another school where there are not many migrant kids, but still some bullies.
Years later, and I have given up intrepid Indian fighting in favour of becoming a father. I have two sons, the elder, Mark, is seven. I married his mum, Valerie, in Malacca, Malaysia. She is from the Portuguese Eurasian ethnic group which began early in the sixteenth century when the Portuguese, by force of conquest, incorporated Malacca within their empire.
Mark attends the local public school. He is a dreamy kid and sometimes finds it hard to concentrate, perhaps retreating into himself because he is noticeably darker skinned than the rest of the class. One day his teacher (I’ll call her Mrs. Smith), obviously frustrated by his lack of attention, says to him: "If you want to be known as the Little N-word Boy around here, Mark, just keep it up." This is reported to Val that afternoon by the distressed mother of one of Mark’s friends. She explains that her son had asked her what the teacher had meant. Later, when I arrive home from work, Val and I discover, by circuitous discussions with Mark, that he too doesn’t know what the teacher meant.
Val and I decide to keep Mark at home until we have a clear understanding of what the school intends to do. I hand-deliver a letter addressed to the principal the next morning. It outlines our concerns and includes my office phone number. The school principal calls to invite me to a meeting at the school that afternoon. I expect an apology and an outline of planned remedial actions. Instead, I am invited into a room, to sit on a chair facing six others which are occupied by the school principal, the deputy principal, two teachers’ union representatives, and two teachers, there to support Mrs. Smith.
After denials and protestations of Mrs. Smith’s innocence, it is suggested to me that my mixed marriage might be the cause of Mark’s attention-seeking resort to lying. Finally, the school principal makes clear that unless I present Mark for questioning by the same panel, the matter will be considered closed. I reply that my son will not be re-traumatised by exposure to the same kind of star-chamber tactics I have just endured. I leave. Val and I enrol Mark at the local Catholic school the next day.
That evening I write to the Commissioner for Community Relations, Al Grassby, appointed by the Labor Government in 1974, whose connections within the Labor movement are a matter of public record. Grassby’s letter in response to mine echoes my own dismay and amazement. Soon after receiving that letter, I am invited again to meet with the school principal. This time only he and the deputy principal are present. Mrs. Smith, he advises, has returned to her home in Queensland for family reasons unrelated to the alleged incident. I am offered a qualified apology, absent any admission of guilt. The school principal invites me to re-enrol Mark at his school. My anger rises to white hot. I surmise that Mrs. Smith’s departure and this qualified apology have been prompted by Grassby’s intervention with the teachers’ union along the lines of: "If the A.C.T. teachers’ union wants to be known as a haven for and promoter of racism, just keep supporting Mrs. Smith."
I employ a dramatic pause at this point of the meeting, as if I am considering re-enrolling Mark at their school. Then I look up and hold the school principal’s attention with a look of steely resolve. What I say next, in the bloodless tone of a situation analysis, was, in effect: "You both know that I have written to Al Grassby, and you can both imagine what he wrote back to me. What amazes me is the gall of you two. You must think I’m as stupid as the both of you. You think you can bluff your way out of this mess you have made for yourselves by having me gesture that everything is alright 'because the father has re-enrolled his kid.’ I work in a policy area of the Public Service and am a union workplace delegate. I am going to make it my business to see that the both of you, Mrs. Smith, and the union reps who turned up at your little star chamber performance, are sacked or put behind a desk in some administrative dungeon within the bowels of the Education Department. None of you are fit to be in contact with children, let alone guide their development. And I will begin with a letter to the Canberra Times. Prepare to be famous." The school principal was visibly shaken, and his deputy was in tears. I had become the bully.
As I realised on my drive home from the school, had I carried through with those threats, the publicity involved would have re-traumatised my son. I would have graduated from "bully" to "ruthless bully" and the issue would no longer be about concern for my son so much as my ego and my desire for revenge.
To conclude, other than for the psychopath, the impulse to bully another person is driven by some uncontrolled or unresolved emotion. The migrant boy was a post World War II refugee living in a Quonset hut migrant camp, driven by the tumult of emotions and depravations that such an experience involved. Resources were not available to help resolve his emotions nor help him and all of those displaced people to better settle into Australian society. The same may be said of Australia’s treatment of present-day refugees.
We may assume that Mrs. Smith’s racism was the result of socialisation in an environment which normalised racism. But the powerful teachers’ union, which no doubt held sway over the principal and teachers at the school, decided to flex their muscles to protect a member rather than act ethically against racism. The teachers’ union and the school decided to victimise a student, instead of loving him, just like a partner in a relationship who abuses (usually his) partner instead of loving her. My own, albeit temporary, act of bullying, I believe, demonstrates that however motivated by justifiable outrage, there is a temptation to see bullying as a remedy.
Paul Dellit is a Southern Cross University student in the final stages of a Bachelor of Arts degree.