International Students

I am Brown Before I am Human

17 July 2018

Written by anonymous.

The speech given at the University’s exchange program information night still makes me scoff:

“Be prepared to be treated differently in America because you speak with an Australian accent.”

Firstly, Americans love the accent. Secondly, I find it remarkably unfair how this is not something they ever had to worry about. Lastly, the colour of my skin always trumps my nationality, behaviour, and intelligence: I am brown before I am human. These are the words I often recite to myself to avoid further disappointment in this city, of which I am a rightful citizen.

I am brown before I am human. This is something I’ve learnt to live with staying in Melbourne. It isn’t something I’m okay with. It shouldn’t be, but it is how I adapted to a society that often sees me as an alien. However, I didn’t realise how unconscious and involuntary this adaptation was until my exchange program in Wisconsin.

Naturally, I was prepared for the worst, having heard so much racism on American news and my friends’ negative experiences in isolated small American towns. It was a lovely surprise though, when people in the University of Wisconsin — Madison treated me with respect and included me from day one. I was offered a part-time job after distributing resumes within a week. Even when I visited other cities, nobody looked at me like I was different. I was approached by strangers in classes, parties, and bars to strike up random conversations and to just have fun.

In short, I was treated normally. I let my guard down and enjoyed myself thoroughly. I felt included. I didn’t have to put extra effort to looking “well-educated” during the day and “Western” and sparsely-clothed just so I could get into clubs after 11pm. No longer did I need to overthink my next sentence or figure out how to approach classmates first during discussions and keep them interested. I didn’t feel insecure when I didn’t want to drink alcohol or pay for an overpriced meal. I let my guard down because I no longer needed it.

But, from the moment I landed back in Melbourne, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. It dawned on me how feeling normal and included was a privilege for people who looked and spoke like me here. It’s not something we were taught to endure growing up, we learned it as a form of survival. I’m always afraid of saying the wrong things to the white locals I see in my tutorial classes. Why do they keep to themselves? Why do they think I won’t understand their jokes and “intellectual” conversations? Why do I always get a surprised remark about the fact that I can speak proper English when I’m from a “third world country”?

No, I’m sorry but I’m not Indian just because I’m brown. Please don’t say you feel sorry for us when we fast during Ramadan or look for halal meat or wear a hijab. Don’t try to convince us we’re being oppressed and unreasonable. There’s a reason we do it. And please don’t think you should be the one to proofread an assignment just because you’re a white Australian.

I feared America because I heard of the frequent injustice that happens to people who look different. I was excited to come to Melbourne because it was voted the most liveable city in the world. Yes, Australia is known to be rather racist but the racism and exclusion felt by international students aren’t spoken of at all. This lack of awareness could be the reason locals don’t try to change or why international students think it’s normal to not be a part of the local community. We didn’t grow up here, so it shouldn’t feel like home, right? WRONG!

We’re all in the same boat here. We are all working hard to get through university. We share similar vices: partying, sex, Netflix, splurging on food and other materialistic things. We struggle with our mental health.

So, here’s a wild idea. If you grew up here or look and speak like a local, use your social status and privilege to help people around you feel included. Branch out from your highschool cliques and approach that non-white international student next to you first. Exchange your cultures and interests. Invite them to your next hangout. Actually introduce them to your friends instead of leaving them alone in a corner. You have the upper-hand here.

Rather than handing out fliers and speaking about injustices, put some of your words into actions. Raise awareness and keep this topic circulating till it’s no longer a problem.

All we want is to be human.


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