Today was another gorgeous day in Oz: sunny, 80 degrees (or 27 since I’m supposed to be learning Celsius) and a light breeze. I rode the ferry into the CBD and visited the Australian Museum, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The (mostly) natural history museum is well-designed and easily accessible to kiddos, while being informative and interesting for adults as well. Look forward to a museum-focused post coming your way soon. There’s something a bit more serious on my mind right now, though, so let’s get on with it.
As I was skimming across the deep blue waters between Manly and Sydney, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly content. The sun warmed my face and I was thoroughly relaxed on my bench, breeze ruffling my hair and keeping me cool. Autumn in this country is perfection. The day was so nice I decided to walk the mile or so to the museum instead of catching a bus. While I walked I kept thinking, “This is my life. This is where I live.” Because honestly, it still feels quite surreal, even after 9 weeks of living here.
Once I reached the museum, I quickly lost myself in the exhibits. I’m somewhat of a (huge) dork and I love learning. Visiting a museum by myself was such a luxury– no one to hurry me or get bored, able to move at my own pace and read as much as I wanted about each exhibit. (I now realize that I might actually be turning into my Mama– at least I know where I get my curiosity!)
A large portion of the Australian Museum is dedicated to the history and experience of many Aboriginal tribes. As I read about these native people, their culture and practice, their laws and traditions, I realized this was a group about whom I know very little. I’m unfortunately well acquainted with racism in America, but the racism in Australia is much more of an unknown for me. However, Australia’s racism is still very real, very present, and very destructive.
As I wandered through the quiet halls, reading about indigenous people and learning about their heritage, I was deeply moved. I was also hit with an ugly reality: I live here, I call this place home, and I don’t even know anything about the original inhabitants of this land. I waltzed onto this continent, American passport in hand, and felt no qualms about being here. I felt, in short, entitled to be here.
I continued exploring the museum for another hour or so, and once I had seen everything (and after buying some adorable Aussie animal sticker books for my niece and nephew) I left the building and walked out into the sunshine. I crossed the street and entered Hyde Park, finding a splashing fountain encircled by flowers and low stone steps, so I sat down to reflect.
Living in a foreign country is a privilege. I feel a responsibility to learn the customs, history, and tradition of the place I call home. But it’s more than that. The Wall Street Journal has a blog dedicated to the expat experience, and they recently published this post asking the question, “Who is an expat anyway?” While the blog focused on the expat experience specifically in Hong Kong, the take aways are applicable anywhere. “Expat” (expatriate: someone who lives somewhere other than their native country) is a term that almost exclusively applies to Western, overwhelmingly white, people.
Think about it. A Latino man working on a farm in California is considered a “migrant worker.” The family who moves to Tennessee from China is labeled as “immigrants.” But when my American-self moves to Australia, I’m an expat. And that word conveys all my privilege. I’m choosing to be here, and my husband is considered an asset to the business world because he possesses “critical skills”– IT skills, in his case. I have a passport that entitles me to move, somewhat freely, between most countries in this world.
Since moving here, I’ve had the unusual experience (for me) of being easily identifiable by a personal characteristic. Sitting on the bus, I look like almost everyone around me, but when I open my mouth to thank the bus driver as I tap-off, boom! I’m American, and everyone around me knows it. (This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a foreign country, but it is the first time I’ve been a resident, so the feeling is very different from my tourist experiences elsewhere.) I find myself wondering, “What do people automatically assume about me when they hear me talk? Is it positive? Negative? Deserved or not so much?” Before moving here, I never would have included “American” in a list of the top 5 ways to describe myself. I actually had to complete this exercise when I was in Teach for America training, and I’m pretty sure my identity centered around: female, Christian, educated, adventurous, and book-lover. If I made that list today, American would be one of the most important ways I would identify myself.
I’ve found myself so frustrated in conversations about America, especially American politics. Everyone has an opinion, and I find myself making apologies, keeping quiet when I have so much to say. What I really want is to yell, “Stop telling me how America is or isn’t! I live there. I actually know!” And suddenly it seems so obvious to me. The white settlers in Australia ultimately believed, because they were White Westerners, that they knew what was best for the Aboriginals, and they carried out those beliefs until the native people, the ones who were here first, were marginalized, segregated, and oppressed. Then I think to my real home, in the States, where racism is still very much alive. Why are White people leading the conversation on racism, especially when that narrative is so often: “Does racism really still exist?” We aren’t the ones who are supposed to have an opinion on that.
The oppressed, the repressed, the marginalized communities get to have an opinion, because guess what, they know how it actually is. My frustration at being told how things should or shouldn’t be in America is honestly inconsequential when I start to imagine the frustration so many people of color experience on a daily basis. We need to shut up and start listening to the voices that actually matter, the voices of the people who know because they live the experience. My voice does not matter when it comes to racism. I have a responsibility to acknowledge my incredible privilege– a privilege I have simply because I was born to White, upper-middle class parents, not because I did anything to earn it. And once I acknowledge this privilege, my responsibility is to listen. Listen to those around me who are living lives different than mine because of their skin color, or their ethnicity, or their economic status. I need to learn how to be an ally by actually listening, not telling someone what I know, because my experience is not his or her experience, and my experience doesn’t really matter in this arena.
“Oh, you’ve been to America for two weeks and watch a lot of CNN? I’m glad you’re interested, but you don’t really have any basis for your opinions of how my country operates and what “we” are all actually like.” It’s so easy to understand in this context, but when applied to racism in America, it can suddenly feel more convoluted and confusing. But I am starting to really see, and understand, how privilege works. This isn’t something I was oblivious to previously to moving to Australia, but my limited experience in being “other” than the main has really taught me how little I understand. So here’s to growing, learning, shutting up and truly listening– because my privilege comes with responsibility, and that is not something to be wasted.