Encountering racism on the road

Sand blowing over the rocks

The thing about travel is the wealth of experiences that accompany it. We meet new people, see new sights… and are exposed to all manner of different world views.

Some of these world views don’t quite gel with our own. Some jar. And some are just plain wrong.

This was the case when travelling around Australia. Don’t get me wrong. I met incredible people. I had an amazing time. The whole trip was extraordinary in many, many ways. But every now and again, I would run into some seriously off kilter behaviour that just didn’t seem to fit into my view of what Australia was about. And that behaviour was what I came to refer to as casual racism.

Casual, of course, is not really a term that should be applied to racism, in much the same way that you wouldn’t say that someone casually raped someone else. It was just the way that what appeared to be completely outlandish statements, from my point of view at least, were just dropped into conversation, as if it was perfectly normal.

Much like observing the weather, pointing out that there seemed to be some clouds on the horizon, and then, almost as an afterthought, suggesting that some folks of coloured skin should probably be quietly poked off a cliff. And then back to the weather.

Rock art hand

So. My trip around Australia. I use Australia as an example because it’s the most recent place I have been, although I am aware that racism is hardly a problem unique to one country, nor am I labelling all Australian’s as racist. (I can almost feel the comment box beginning to quake in its boots already).

Let me give you an example.

I was travelling through the centre of Australia, and was in the East McDonnell ranges. These are a series of mountain ranges near Alice Springs which feature excellent walking and remarkably pretty mountainous scenery, particularly for a part of Australia I had long believed to be flat. My knowledge of Australian geography when I started out was fairly poor.

Water reflections McDonnel Ranges

At one of the campsites we were staying at, we met a middle aged rather jovial Australian couple, with whom we spent some time discussing a variety of topics, including the weather (usually you can’t talk too much about the weather near Alice Springs, what with it being sunny roughly 100% of the time), the quality of the local drinking water, and the high quality of the local walking options.

Somewhere towards the end of the conversation, we mentioned that we were heading up towards Katherine next, at which point the gentleman pointed out to us that it was, of course, “full of fucking abo’s”.

I think the gears probably fell out of my dialogue engine at this point, and the many years of British politeness training kicked in to avoid the car wreck of the conversation that was suddenly happening around me. I looked across at my travelling companion, who appeared to be as flummoxed as I was. There were some mumbled “oh?” type noises, followed by some general nodding and bobbing of heads, before we extricated ourselves from the whole topic, and escaped to our vehicle, to wonder quite what the hell that had been about.

Cloud reflection lagoon beach Tasmania

We had not, by this point on the trip, had much encounter with Australia’s original inhabitants, the aboriginal people who had been around as a culture for roughly 40,000 years before the Europeans showed up and, well, kinda ruined everything. And there was a reason for this. Large numbers of Australia’s remaining aborigines live in isolated communities – often alcohol free zones – which require entry permits to visit. One example of this is Arnhem land, which takes up a sizeable chunk of the Northern Territory.

Other encounters with aboriginal people as we travelled around Oz were fairly limited. We had a long chat with a fellow who ran an internet cafe in Katherine, who shared all sorts of stories and knowledge about aboriginal culture. Other than that, we just saw a few groups of people chilling out on the grass, or enjoying the sunshine. We couldn’t quite see what caused this somewhat overwhelming reaction from a minority of people we met, and it wasn’t something I seemed to be socially programmed to deal with.

Again, I should emphasize that this wasn’t a regular occurrence. But it wasn’t a one-off either. And looking back, I kinda wish I had some exciting story to tell about how I had been able to morally crusade around the country, righting the wrongs in people’s belief systems. But obviously, this wasn’t the case. Encounters with casual racism were brief and fleeting, usually because we just got the hell out of there whenever we could. I don’t believe I ever quibbled or argued against it. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps it wasn’t my place. Perhaps confrontation just wasn’t where I was. I have no idea.

Waterfall - Tasmania - Australia

I would love to know what your thoughts on this are, because I admit, this sort of thing really confuses me. Coming up against a world view that is so in opposition to your own, but then not having the capability or, perhaps, bravery, to face up to it and point out that it is wrong, seems somewhat like perhaps I failed in some way.

What, after all, is the point in believing in something if you aren’t willing to stand by your cause? Should I have engaged in argument, or was the quick exit option sufficient? Let me know what you think, and how you have dealt with similar situations, in the comments below.

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