Even If You’re Citizen Of The Year, They Only See Another Black Guy With A Bag
On a Friday afternoon in August this year, I was racially profiled in a supermarket in Sydney’s south while shopping for fruit and yoghurt.
As I walked through the store, I noticed a staff member following me through the aisles, watching me as I shopped. I knew immediately what was happening -- it was a scene all too familiar. But I shrugged it off and continued shopping.
I went to the cash register and paid for my items, and then BOOM. I was confronted by about five employees. They stood around me and asked to remove my backpack, which they opened and rifled through. Inside, they found items from another store I’d bought earlier in the afternoon. They yanked them out and handled them, before giving them back to me.
I could have told them about all my accomplishments, but I knew they wouldn’t care. All they see is another black guy with a bag.
The store later apologised to me, but it's treatment I've come to expect.
All my life, I’ve tried my hardest to get places and be noticed for the good things I do in the community.
My mother moved us from Albury to Sydney while my siblings and I were young, to get a better life and a better education. That has always stuck with me, and I’ve always tried to make the most of my opportunities and make a positive impact on those around me. In 2010, at my school’s Year 6 presentation awards, I received the Principal Award for my primary school.
In the nine years since, I've been a student with the Clontarf Foundation, which helps better equip young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men for education and employment. I’ve been part of the Sutherland Shire Youth Council. I’ve volunteered for the SES, for mental health and youth initiatives, and been a youth leader at my church. I’ve met the Prime Minister, Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and Prince Edward and talked about community building and youth leadership.
But my most prized achievement is winning the 2019 Sutherland Shire Young Citizen Award, and being the first Indigenous person to ever receive that honour.
But none of that matters -- not when they only see a black man with a bag in a shop.
It’s like I've wasted years to promote a better image of Indigenous people in the community -- I could have gone off the rails many years ago, and become another statistic in the eyes of the justice system in Australia.
When I’m faced with such blatant racism and discrimination, what do I do?
I “act white”.
This term was made famous by Bill Cosby in 2004. Some people don’t agree with it because it feels like a person’s betrayal of their culture or people by assuming the expectations of the white community.
I can’t talk about the reality of other Indigenous brothers and sisters because we all have different experiences, but my reality is that I need to be aware of my surroundings and “act white” while I'm out in public. This has become second nature to me now. I have travelled all around the country, and it’s the same wherever I go -- I “act white”, but I’m still seen as black.
Like the time I was in Adelaide for a church meeting, and a couple of friends and I wanted to get some chocolate and drinks to have while we played card games in our hotel room. We were followed around the petrol station by the elderly white attendant, who was very indirect with his staring while we shopped.
This was the first incident of that day.
Later, we walked from our hotel to my friend's car parked on the street next to a big park. The driver was talking to my uncle -- a white man. It didn’t take long for a police car to show up. The officers pulled over and parked on the opposite side of the road, watching us, and didn’t leave until my uncle walked over to ask what was going on.
This is the nature of racism and racial profiling -- you’re always being watched, always being suspected of doing something wrong. You can win the Young Citizen Award, but if you look like me, it means nothing.
You learn to be resilient. You “act white”. You forget about it.
When it really hurts, I talk about it with my partner, who is white.
When I’m at home and I see a racist comment or post on social media, I leave the app and watch some empowering videos, or read about my culture and I try to be like those people I see.
I read about Reverend Charles Harris and Dr Charles Perkins AO -- both inspiring leaders who fought for our people and freedom. Dr Charles Perkins was a civil rights activist who dedicated his life to achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He was a key member of the freedom bus which visited towns across NSW in 1965 with university students to protest discrimination.
Rev Charles Harris was the running force behind my beloved church the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), endorsed by the Uniting Church in Australia in 1985. Rev Charles supported and encourage ATSI churches as president of UAICC. His vision and mission are still with the committees of the UAICC to this day. I am proud to be the Chairperson for the UAICC National Youth Committee.
After I was racially profiled that day, I wrote a post about it on social media. People started to rally behind me. I hope that the wider community learns from this, so that other people won't be in the same boat I was in in August. Humans have learned from their mistakes in the past, so why can't we move on from racism?
To do it, we need more education and experience. I urge you to go out to different communities to experience how older people are living. We need to educate the young while they're in school, and help them understand that racism isn’t right -- it hurts people and families. Go to your local Land Council, or participate in Aboriginal community groups in your area.
Get involved, learn, experience, and then pass on the knowledge.