Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Race relations


What causes racism? How does it start? I have long had a photo of two little First Nations boys on my desk. Obviously good mates, they are smiling broadly, happy to be together. It’s an old photo, taken in the 60s, so I often wonder what happened to them. My elder granddaughter really only noticed the picture for the first time when she was about four. One holding trenchant opinions even then, she announced, and I’m translating directly: I don’t like blacks. I don’t know whether she registered my immediate and sharp intake of breath. But her statement came as a shock.

Of course I told her what I thought of this declaration, and later mentioned the episode to my son, who sighed. ‘We’ve been fighting this battle for a while now,’ he said. ‘And it seems we’ll just have to keep on fighting it.’ Later, when we were having lunch in town, a Nigerian street vendor approached our table. He was a big man, very tall and dark. I glanced at Antigone, and saw her sitting rigidly: she was simply scared, and not inclined to be reassured by his flashing smile.

There were no First Nations people living in the township where I spent several formative years, but we had our Chinese vegetable man. The adults were uniformly kind to old Louey Tong, but the children spread wild yarns about him: these were clearly influenced by too many stories about big baddy Fu Manchu and perhaps parental noises about the Yellow Peril. My parents, however, poured scorn on these lurid fantasies of the goings-on in opium dens so that I, for one, was never scared of Louey, who, my mother said, would not have hurt a fly.

The first indigenous person I ever saw was singer Harold Blair, internationally famous then for his rich tenor voice. Our teacher was a Christian gentleman, as I remember, without a racist bone in his body, and he it was who made sure Mr Blair came to talk to our class at school: I think we all found him kind, interesting and approachable, and I still remember being fascinated by the sight of his pink palms and fingernails, for most of us had little idea of what to expect of somebody different.


'It is always important to remember our shared human heritage and acknowledge the fact that we all bleed and suffer in the same way.'


Perhaps that’s at the heart of the matter: the difference, and the fear of it. Historically, we have tried to manage the fear via labels and categories: think of the ancient Greeks and their idea that anybody who did not speak Greek was a barbarian because of the bar-bar sounds that they made. In the old Australia, Chinese were lumped together as those who worked abandoned gold mines and claims, and who did the jobs that nobody else would do. But at one point a Chinese man saved the life of my great-great-grandfather in the Buckland Valley, and my Christadelphian great-great-grandmother reportedly did her best to help the few Chinese women in the area.

I suppose that we are all racists in a sense: we all feel most at home and most secure with members of our own group, because we know the cultural ropes and understand the shorthand of conversation. But it is always important to remember our shared human heritage and acknowledge the fact that we all bleed and suffer in the same way. And to understand that no group has the right to persecute another.

Children, of course, keep on growing and learning in every way, including those of understanding and empathy. Antigone is about to turn six. Now that summer has arrived in the northern hemisphere, the beach is a favourite spot. Here the African vendors stroll up and down, selling dresses, ethnically-inspired jewellery, various knick-knacks, and handy items such as torches and sunglasses. Theirs must be a hard and precarious life, but they are always in good spirits and invariably cheerful and polite.

A week ago we enjoyed a family meal at a favourite beach taverna. After a hearty tucking-in, my three grandchildren set about playing on the sand and with the pebbles. Suddenly Antigone appeared with a request: she wanted a woven bracelet as sold by one of the Africans. These bracelets come in bright colours and various lengths, so they need to be tied on; then the length needs to be trimmed according to requirements.

Given her history, we were surprised, but her father took her to a Nigerian vendor, where she made her choice. It turned out that she wanted her chosen item as an anklet; it also turned out that she was very relaxed about the whole business of tying and cutting. And she and the vendor charmed each other. A breakthrough, we felt. Antigone has conquered her fear, and is learning about diversity.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Group of friends sitting on a gate. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Racism, Greece, Children



submit a comment

Existing comments

This is an honest and clear account of our deep problem of accepting people who look and sound different to the mainstream.
When I went to primary school in the 1940’s in Adelaide, I was taught that we all belong to the Human Race. When did this change?

Jennifer Raper | 01 July 2022  
Show Responses

When I attended school in the 60's the human race in Australia did not include Aboriginal people as Australia began in 1788.
I think racism roots in not having the truth. Truth is as you said we are all human.... especially in God's eyes.

Jan Wright | 03 July 2022  

A very perceptive piece, as always, Gillian. I suspect that the initial reactions of white children to dark skinned people are caused by unfamiliarity, but either confirmed or rebutted by the reactions of parents, teachers and peers.
An interesting thing is the way teenagers of all cultures and colours now adopt the multi-braided hairstyle originally seen only among Africans. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery!

Juliet | 01 July 2022  

Racism, in the analysis of those who have assumed the privilege to speak on behalf of those whom they nominate to be victims, has evolved to become 'systemic' racism, where racism is said to exist when society through inertia tends to see and do things in the way that those of the majority element have become habituated to seeing and doing. Sort of like writing left handed in a right handed world. Or sitting in a wheelchair at a crossing where the pavement doesn't slope into the road.

Except that left handers and wheelchair riders don't become wildly indignant that others are right-handed or are able to step off an edge.

roy chen yee | 02 July 2022  

'trenchant opinions'; 'sitting rigidly'

Baptism only goes so far, forgiving the sin of the existence of the proclivity but not the proclivity itself. After that, it's institutions which determine whether the feelings produced by conscience are produced, in fact, by Conscience.

roy chen yee | 03 July 2022  

You've got to be taught, to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught, to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught
You've got to be carefully taught.

Hammerstein and Rogers (South Pacific)

Ginger Meggs | 03 July 2022  
Show Responses

This and the other responses so far are obsolete (except, perhaps, outside the West).

Today the claim is that the white people of the West are unconsciously racist because they are 'systemically' racist, ie., because of the material successes of their culture, they are innately and intrinsically racist and there is almost nothing they can do about it because it is ingrained by the fact that they can't help but see the world only through their eyes because those eyes are guided, not very surprisingly, by a successful series of histories. All they can hope to become, in this cultural Marxist myth, is an ally who will frequently stumble by misspeaking. Yes, the grosser forms of racism exist, but only in the backward parts of the world, but where we are, the thinking is that otherwise inclusive and kindly people are racially myopic.

Ok, whatever. But there you go.

roy chen yee | 05 July 2022  

It's a survival instinct to be wary of unfamiliar people and places but if we are lucky we learn from our parents, teachers or peers that appearances can be deceiving; so as we grow we learn to judge people by other more reliable means, like observing their behaviour towards others etc. I think Gillian's story reminds us that, though we might be fearful at times, we are not born racists, if we learn from the right mentors, we become less fearful of strangers and more accepting of difference. Thanks Gillian, thought provoking as always!

Stephen Hicks | 04 July 2022  

Thank you Gillian for this very thought provoking article about our response to difference. I think that fear is the basis of many of our prejudices and it is only when we unpick the reasons that we can accept the diversity. Well done for pointing out the need for education at a level that is acceptable and transformative.

Maggie | 04 July 2022  

It is interesting that the Quran says that God created race so people could recognise each other. That makes common sense. I saw a documentary on the course of the River Shannon through the Midlands of Ireland recently and not surprisingly everyone was White Irish. Places like Dublin and Belfast are obviously more diverse. It is interesting that South Asians are gratefully accepted in Ireland because they are much needed medical professionals. The former Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar is of Indian descent on his father's side. As far as I am aware, there are no racist jokes nor nicknames circulating about him. Ireland has always seemed a sane and civilised place to me. There are obviously racists there and much of their hatred is directed towards African refugees. Whether we like it or not, it is becoming a multiracial and multireligious world. How we deal with that, individually and collectively, will have a tremendous effect on the future. Interestingly enough, the most serious war raging at the moment is between white people in the Ukraine. The possible spillover into Taiwan will initially be Chinese against Chinese.

Edward Fido | 05 July 2022  

Similar Articles

A meditation on grief and consolation

  • Barry Gittins
  • 28 June 2022

Joined by our son, I dug four feet down, two feet across, into wet, clayish soil. Deep into the darkness. We can see Cinder’s resting place from our bedroom window, not far from a little apple tree we’d planted some weeks before. She would have loved the spot, we think.


The book corner: The Matter of Everything and the Premonitions Bureau

  • Juliette Hughes 
  • 28 June 2022

How do we know that what we call knowledge is knowledge? How do we know that we know? The two books I have been reading here are both about kinds of knowing. Suzie Sheehy is a particle physicist from my old stamping ground, Melbourne University. Sheehy’s story is of passionate hunters for nothing less than the meaning of everything.