The horrible racism that adopted children endure

Picking up Tom in Seoul in 1995.

Picking up Tom in Seoul in 1995. Photo: Supplied

Changing a nappy on a plane isn’t easy and it didn’t help to know we were being watched. The eyes of our fellow passengers bored into the backs of our heads - the novice moves of new parents; alternative entertainment to the in-flight film. Our newly adopted son looked over my shoulder, and through eyes that might have been painted on with two strokes of black ink and a calligraphy brush, he watched them back. I like to imagine he was thinking, “Who are you to make judgements about me?”  Strapped into seats in a mass of genetic sameness, the cargo of people remained anonymous.  But we had committed a public act.  No longer protected by our middle Anglo ordinariness, we had adopted a baby from another country and joined a minority group.

At new mothers’ group Cherie liked to talk about the size of her baby’s penis and her sister’s plastic leg. She was good for me. She gave me insight into how some people think and I learned to refine my answers to the questions we would be asked for years to come about our children; to find a balance between lightness and brevity. I tried not to take myself too seriously. When she asked me: “How do you know he doesn’t have AIDS?” or “Was his mother a prostitute?”  I answered her patiently and refrained from snarling in return, “How could you call your child Talon?” When I saw her husband’s death notice in the paper a few years ago, I remembered Cherie and the early lessons she’d taught me.

But the lessons weren’t all about me. Racism emerged early when my son was called Ching Chong boy in the toilet block during his first week of primary school. He sensed that this was unchartered territory and was reluctant to tell me what had happened. The grade six perpetrator's path would intersect with ours again years later, in the inevitable way of country towns; with mine as a teacher of students who had dropped out of school and with my husband’s as the young man’s defence lawyer in court. The primordial urge to tear the boy apart with my bare hands, as I might have done had I got to him at the time of the  attack on my child, had subsided by then.

Tom's first day of school.

Tom's first day of school. Photo: Supplied

Racist comments have peppered the children’s school years and ranged from old favourites (I learnt as a child that ‘Chinamen’ kept coins in their ears), to the more creative, ‘Koreans fuck dogs to make bread’. My son has been called an Asian faggot on Facebook and told to go back to where he came from by strangers in the street. I have witnessed people talking to our children in the loud slow voice some people use when talking to people who don’t speak English, sometimes despite having just heard them speak. I have seen drastic improvements in helpfulness when someone on the other side of a counter realises we are together.  My son doesn’t leave the house on Australia Day; the Cronulla riots of 2005 struck a particular chord with him.   

People who live within the confines of an Anglo-Celtic world (many politicians for example) don’t believe Australia is a racist country because they don’t see it up close. We see it; sometimes blatant, often subtle. Ethnicity is worn like a national costume with judgments and assumptions attached. Negative stereotypes are slapped on the wearer like an armband. We squirm when we see North Koreans goose-stepping in a military parade or people destroying chickens during an outbreak of bird flu in China. We cringe when we hear politicians banging the populist drum about asylum seekers or 457 visas. Our hearts sink when we see footage of a woman on a train screaming at two young men that her grandfather had fought in the war to “keep black c---ts like you out of the country”.

In 1886 the anti Chinese cartoon named ‘The Mongolian Octopus’ reached across the pages of The Bulletin, his tentacles poised to squeeze the life out of ‘white’ Australian men, women and children.

The body depicts a menacing Chinese character with shaved head and bad teeth; the tentacles labelled with names of diseases, debauched pastimes and drugs. One of them is wrapped around a piece of furniture and labelled ‘Cheap Labour’.

Racist policies in Australia are no longer enshrined in laws such as the White Australia Policy but scratch the surface of commonly held views and the octopus still lurks. So spare a thought for the non-Anglo-Celtic Australians who live here too, particularly children; and remember: dog whistlers don’t bother whistling if there is no-one to whistle.

67 comments

  • What the writer describes is typical, childish behaviour from children. The kids in the toilet block would have used derogatory names on a fat kid, just like they do for ethnic looking kids. Wasn't really a racial matter, more of a maturity matter.

    I was an Asian kid who grew up in Sydney for all of my life and experienced some name calling, just like many many other kids. Didn't bother me, just call them names back. And get on with life.

    Commenter
    Milsie
    Location
    The Hills
    Date and time
    June 20, 2013, 9:16AM
    • Typical childish behaviour it may be, but it makes you wonder where they learn the words "ching chong" from....

      Commenter
      CSKN
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 10:13AM
    • I think you might find that the issues in a country town where there are a handful of people from Asia is far different to the issues in Sydney. In many country towns Asians are very different and picked on because of that. In Sydney, Asians are 'normal' but seen as a threat (ie 'too many' Asians). The level and type of abuse/racism is quite different. And if you are Asian in sydney and someone picks on you, well you have support (assuming some of your frieds are also Asian background). Whereas in the country, who do you turn to?

      Not that its acceptable in either location, of course.

      Commenter
      ASD
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 11:01AM
    • Totally agree. I was teased a lot at school for being a wog so I used to call the white kids skips and it was all fine. Some people need to take a concrete pill.

      That's what kids do.

      Perhaps people were staring at you on the plane, not because you had an Asian baby, but because you were changing the baby's nappy at your seat in front of everybody? Use the Lavatory. That's what its for!

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 11:08AM
    • Agreed. It takes a very long time to civilize children, and for many, many years kids can be incredibly cruel.

      What was most disturbing about this piece was the underlying feeling that the author adopted a child of a different race as some kind of progressive status symbol. Her fellow passengers are racist "cargo people" for reasons not clearly explained, but she's used her adopted child to join an exciting new minority.

      Commenter
      James Hill
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 11:11AM
    • What an ignorant comment. Way to just sweep everything under the rug. You sound like you live in one of those anglo-communities, NO this isn't just a matter of school yard bullying. Do you really think these children grow up and change their racist thoughts?. They do not. Anyone who has ever experienced racism knows that it doesn't end. No matter what age you are you experience it. 98% of the time those children grow up to be the adults with the same racist beliefs.

      Commenter
      davidson333
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 11:17AM
    • I disagree - because the worst things that have been said to my wife and daughter have been committed by adults. My wife's house was vandalized in her childhood growing up during the Hansen years. The reason why we will never change the flag is because people quietly link the flag in the top corner to what they think underwrites the nationality of this nation. This is not school yard bullying! This is division based on privilege. Send your children overseas to a nation where white privilege is not dominant and you will INSTANTLY change your tune.

      Commenter
      chris
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 11:17AM
    • Adrian - were you also called a "wog faggot" as this boy was? Did strangers on the street come up to you and tell you to "go back where you came from"? Did you actually read the entire article or do the very "Australian" thing of reading the first few sentences and thinking that is enough to throw in an ignorant comment?

      Commenter
      Stupidity Isn't Racist
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 12:27PM
    • Milsie - typical childish behaviour perhaps. But an adopted child has as additional challenge. While you were lucky enough to be bought up in your birthfamily & probably had relatives that look like you and some cultural and community connections, that has been removed from our adopted children. So they learning to deal with very difficult issues surrounding adoption (ie: in the case of my children poverty and abandonment). These are hard issues for kids and the racism adds to the perception that they are somehow not wanted and don't fit in.

      Commenter
      Twocam
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 1:30PM
    • @milsie, @adrian, Really!
      Just because it happened to you as a kid doesn't make it normal and ok. Kids tend to act out the behaviour modelled to them by parents and peers and adopt such attitudes when they grow up. For example many adults who are abusive or alcholics were often abused as children or brought up in homes where parents were alcholics. Surely the same logic applies for the attitudes we develop towrads people of other races.

      Commenter
      GussJG
      Date and time
      June 20, 2013, 2:18PM

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