So last weekend I was travelling on a train minding my own business, on my way to see Do The Right Thing at the Kino Cinema on Collins Street. They were celebrating 30 years of being open in Melbourne, and so were showing 80s and 90s films, and offering tickets at 1987 prices, as well as $1 popcorn, so you know I was down. I was excited, I was running a little late, and also, I noticed that I couldn’t see that well. And so the eye saga began.
It turned out that I had an inflammation in my right eye, which reduced my vision in a small enough way not to cause immediate alarm, but big enough that it remains an hourly annoyance. I’m currently doing my best impression of a pirate writing this, one eye closed, chewing gum, trying not to think pessimistically about the possibility that I could go blind. My doctor assures me this is unlikely but I am only trained in paranoia, not medicine, so who am I supposed to believe, really?
OK, but dramatics aside, I’m on a treatment plan of many, many eye drops with the hope that eventually my doctor will give me the all clear. The medical care I received from my GP all the way to the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, has been top notch, and also made me extremely thankful to be British and therefore have access to reciprocal healthcare, and my own private health insurance. I’m sure I will remain in the thankful stage until I receive my medical bill, at which time I’ll be missing the NHS extra hard, not that I didn’t appreciate it when I was back home – I knew a good thing when I had it.
In the meantime, I’ve been doing that thing we all do when we are suddenly struck with an ailment; thinking dreamily of days gone by, when I had two fully functioning eyes. Specifically, I am considering more deeply what I have seen so far here in Melbourne, what has opened my eyes, and what has made me want to shut them.
To put no finer point on it, this country has a race problem. This is neither a shock or horror to anyone who knows anything about Australia’s history, even if you’ve only ever gotten the brief highlights, like me. But it shows itself, this problem, in different ways, and I’m fortunate enough to be living in one of Australia’s most diverse cities, where these conversations can and do take place, and where a brighter light is being shone on the struggles of people of colour, or more generally, on marginalised communities within society.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to go into an academic rant about this – quite frankly I have neither the knowledge or the neutrality to do such a thing – but I will point out some of the things that I’ve witnessed or gotten involved in during my three months here in Melbourne, as a person of colour.
Comedy is subjective.
But it has a specific tone here that other countries with a colonial history, such as the US and the UK, have moved beyond in the last ten, twenty and thirty years. There is still a ways to go when it comes to considering diversity in this medium, and I write about one experience I had with it here, over on my medium.com page.
Art is political and proficient.
This is true of many cities of course. But Melbourne is famed for its literary activity though, it’s active libraries, art exhibitions and the like. I recently visited a creative space called Afro Hub, which is a bar, a restaurant, and an arts venue; hosting poetry, Jazz bands and art exhibitions, and trying to raise the profile of the African diaspora in Melbourne.
I braved the open mic there, performed some poetry, and witnessed a profound discussion about what is and is not cultural appropriation. Spoiler alert: I don’t have the finite answer, but it was a huge conversation that could have gone on forever. What I noticed however, was how quickly and how serious the conversation became in this safe space, with a mixture of people from all over the world, but also how charged it felt, and how new; an indication that perhaps these conversations were not happening as frequently in the big wide world of Australia just yet.
All CV’s are not created equal.
I heard a story from a friend of a friend about their struggle to find employment here, despite travelling to Melbourne specifically to study and eventually gain two degrees. After a couple of years between jobs, they finally had a breakthrough when they changed their non-English name to something more “palatable” on paper, and were soon offered interviews. To actually get the job, they were given advice about having to act uninterested at interview, more lax, even less intelligent, like someone the interviewer could imagine themselves having a beer with. And low and behold, employment was found. I wondered if white Australians had to go through the same rigmarole to find employment here.
Ironically, I didn’t have the same experience, because I have an English sounding name outside the realm of my writing life, and I joined a sector that is famously filled with left-leaning liberals. I felt that in light of that story, I got off pretty easy, and also that there were still many aspects of the country that I was oblivious too.
The public conversation about race has a long way to go.
Again, I’m really not saying anything new for anyone who lives here, but for those who don’t, here’s a taste of the progress so far. There’s a new podcast out here called It’s Not a Race; it’s the first of its kind, and the first episode talks about blackface and the public conversations prominent TV figures have had about it in the last few years. Many of these (white) TV personalities spoke openly and freely when sharing their belief that blackface was not offensive or wrong from an Australian perspective, so it couldn’t possibly offend anyone.
In case you were wondering, blackface is always wrong, just FYI.
What is interesting though, is the way that these conversations have to take place, where racism, and hints of it have to be broken down, and explained to the offender, in an effort to infiltrate a long established cultural trend in Australia that involves the oppression of people of colour. It is not in the same way as in the UK or the US, but also, it sort of is, minus maybe a few decades.
The light at the end of the tunnel is bright.
I’ve already met so many black and brown people who interact with this stuff, who love Melbourne, who feel safe enough to share their views and work towards raising up people of colour. I’ve also met white people with the same agenda and willingness to be a little more woke. I think of Melbourne as a slowed down version of London, with just as much culture, flavour and attitude, but with less people and even more need for diverse groups of people to gather and cultivate their own spaces, with perhaps a little more patience for the slow changes that are beginning to take shape.
I hope that eventually I get my full sight back, so that I can continue to take in all the amazing, wonderful and teachable things that happen here. I get the feeling there’s a whole lot more to see.