My taxi driver and I had been talking for a few minutes. He was friendly enough, and I assumed had only been living in Australia for a year or two. I never got around to asking.
We’d been discussing why I was on the coast, and what I did for a living, when he abruptly asked me about my beard.
My beard is longish these days. Somewhere between 15 and 20cm I’d imagine. Certainly a much longer beard than average, even in these days where the beard reigns supreme. “About two years”, I replied.
He paused for a moment.
“Do people make fun of you because of it?”
I looked at him again – he had a few days growth but hardly enough to warrant any mockery aimed at him.
“No”, I replied, “And even people who might say something probably look at my size and figure it’s too dangerous to.”
He paused again. Then pointed up at his head, “People often make fun of this. Often.”, he said.
A turban. I’ve lived in a capital city now for over two years, and I see all manner of attire of varying cultural significance or affectation. It hadn’t even registered that he was wearing a turban, no more than the colour of his shirt had been something I’d paid attention to.
The question made me sad – and angry. If he’d encountered just one or two racists he might not have said anything, but often, a word he added quietly, almost seemingly with a hint of shame, meant that it wasn’t a minor occurrence.
I wanted to assure him that he was encountering a sad side of living in a regional area, but even as the words started to form, I remembered the Frankston bus incidents in Melbourne, and the berating Jeremy Fernandez encountered on a Sydney bus.
So all I could say was “I’m really sorry. You don’t deserve that. No-one does.”
It’s not OK to say racism is ad-hoc and sporadic in Australia. It’s an undercurrent to the entire country. It’s what enables the entire perfidious asylum-seeker treatment that seemingly considerable percentages of our population approve of.
It’s to our shame that a taxi driver has to tell those tales. It’s to our shame that people have to experience it.
Maybe one day we’ll stop being afraid of differences, and start celebrating them. Until then, we are lessened.