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'When I Moved Away From Rural NSW, I Realised The World Isn't So Nice Sometimes'

Jemma Irving was adopted from South Korea as an infant and grew up in the small town of Barraba, north of Tamworth, NSW.

She joined Harley Breen's 'Taboo' this week, the show about "laughing with people you shouldn't be laughing at" to describe what it's like growing up in Australian when you're not white. 

As told to Michaela Morgan.

I had a great childhood, I grew up on a sheep farm in Barraba, NSW, and all the kids, all my friends, we were very close-knit.

 I think the hard thing for my parents was, because we grew up in that community, I didn’t experience anything [racist] because there was nothing to talk about. Except for a few small incidents, but I just brushed them off.

It wasn’t until I moved out of that protective bubble that I was like, "Oh hang on, the real world isn’t so nice sometimes."

Photo: Supplied.

When I started experiencing the big, confronting things was when I moved away from my family and friends and went off to university. 

I was petrified. I’d moved out of the rural Tamworth and Barraba region where everyone knew me to a big university in Newcastle. 

One after the other, I’d start noticing even simple things like I’d walk into a shop and be completely ignored and then the next person who happened to walk in, who was Caucasian, would get greeted immediately. There was a lot of questioning, I would ask myself, ‘Am I being over sensitive?’

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I think that’s something that’s been a thing through my whole life and it’s only now that I’ve realised, no, I wasn't [being sensitive], these things are building up and that’s what racism is.

Simple things like someone would walk up in front of you and say, "Oh, do you speak English?" or "go back to where you came from" or "what are you doing here?" or something like that.

Photo: Network 10.

And then the bigger incidents, when I was pushed over and spat on by someone in a shopping centre. I’m not apologising for this person, they were very drunk and intoxicated, but I came up the escalator and they seemed to think I was in their way.

The hardest thing for me was that not one person came to help me, they all just stared or pretended they didn’t see it and quickly shuffled off.

The most important thing for the conversation that the four of us [on ‘Taboo’] wanted to get across was that it is the buildup of those smaller instances that are just constantly there to bring you down and now that they’ve started happening with my kids and I, I mean that’s been the hardest thing.

I went to one of the big supermarkets and when you spend a certain amount you get those little tokens. I was there with my son and the kid in front of him got handed all of them, literally all of them and he was watching all of that going, ‘wow, I’m really excited’.

Photo: Network 10.

Then the lady looked at me, looked at my son and gave him one and said, ‘there you go’.

They’re the small incidents that happen to be occurring to you all the time that start to grate away at your self worth and my son noticed it and he’s only four.

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He said to me, "Mummy, how come that boy got all the pop-ups?" and I had to lie and say that they’d spent more money than us so we were only entitled to one.

'Taboo' has forced a bit of healing for the four of us on Taboo, it was much more liberating than we thought it was going to be.

Photo: Network 10.

The classic thing we hear about racism is the violin, that you’re a whinger.

But I think the main thing about racism is, it is an uncomfortable topic and we’re uncomfortable talking about it.

I’m happy to admit that I’ve been part of that system [of racism] as well. In my twenties, I’ve said a lot of racist comments because it was ignorance, I’m happy to admit that.

What I absolutely love is that saying that goes: the first thought that comes through your mind is what you’re pre-conditioned to think and your second thought is what defines you.

And I try and live by that now.

'Taboo' Airs Thursdays At 8.30 on 10 and WIN Network.

Featured image: Network 10.