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International student speaks out on racism

Nkandu Chipale Mwenge

Tue Apr 09 2013


SOUTH African student Nkandu Mwenge speaks out on racism and his personal brush with a less savoury side of Melbourne. But it’s the lack of dialogue on race, he says, that’s most concerning.


Having lived and studied in South Africa, a country where race and ethnicity determine how and with whom one socialises with, I needed to know if I would be subjected to racial discrimination when I moved to Melbourne to complete my university education.

So I asked friends of mine that reside here to tell me what to expect.

All of them gave me a slightly modified version of the same answer, “You may never experience any racial discrimination during your stay. And if you do it will only happen once, twice at most. So if it does happen, don’t pay too much attention to it.”

These assurances coupled with the media spin to attract international students to Australia convinced me that I wouldn’t have to worry about racism.

On a night out, two incidents made me confront my naivety in believing my friends and in buying into the marketing gimmicks.

The first was overhearing a group of people in a pub whisper racist remarks about me. Hard as it was, I did as advised and ignored them.

The second was on my way home – someone used the n-word and made snide remarks about me being a Sudanese refugee. I ignored that too, but the “pretend it doesn’t hurt” response has never really worked well for me.

I believe that not reacting increases the dehumanising effect of being racially abused. And one civil way of reacting is opening up a dialogue.

I believe that not reacting increases the dehumanising effect of being racially abused. And one civil way of reacting is opening up a dialogue. The lack of a dialogue on race, at this moment, concerns me more than getting racially abused.

I suspect that one of the reasons there is not enough discussion on race is because some international students may feel it is not elegant to speak about such matters. This is completely understandable.

I have spoken to several international students and they said they have formed amazing relationships with local students. They love living in Melbourne and some of their best memories happened here. So speaking out is difficult because they don’t want to misrepresent Melbourne and the amazing Melbournians and Australian friends they have made.

But there is a problem and it won’t just go away because we refuse to acknowledge it.

If Julia Gillard, Australia’s Prime Minister, made what appear to be xenophobic remarks, as was noted in this Herald Sun article to pander to some voters’ dislike of foreigners, then there is a significant section of the population that such rhetoric appeals to, and this group of Australians may be inclined to abuse international students.

In an article published in this magazine last year about the efforts by the Australian Human Rights Commission to deal with the racism foreign students face, a poll was run to find out if the readers of Meld have experienced racism.

At the time I read the article, about 84 per cent of the 56 respondents said they had experienced racism. While the sample size is not a large enough number to make statistical inference, it is indicative of how widespread racism is in Melbourne.

Discrimination of any kind is dehumanising and something that no one should be subjected to. That is why I feel more international students should speak about it so that increased efforts are made to reduce racial attacks.

Or maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong and Melburnians do not have a racism-ignoring problem and I’m just a cheap moralist – but only a discussion would correct my perceptions.

Is racism an issue here in Australia? Have you experienced any form of racism as an international student? Share with us your stories and perspectives in the comments section below.