Is Steve a racist? Susie is a Woman of Colour! What do our race, ethnicity and family backgrounds bring to how we approach the world? Guest Alice Pung chats about wolf-whistles, writing her family and racist friends
Hey, Susie. Hey, Steve,
Dr Steve 0:06
Are you a racist?
I don't I don't know. I hope not. And are you a racist?
Dr Steve 0:14
Apparently I didn't know I was. And it turns out I am.
That's not good.
Dr Steve 0:20
I know, wasn't the best news.
Let's back up. Back up.
Dr Steve 0:24
I can't remember what it was now. But something made me look at the Harvard implicit bias test, you know, you know, whether
I feel like I've seen it or done it, but years ago,
Dr Steve 0:34
it's a it's an online test, I suppose test is the right word assessment or whatever, that aims to calculate one's preference for faces of certain certain kinds, you know, what that says about us? And I guess the underlying assumption of it, or the underlying thing that it demonstrates is that, of course, I don't think of myself as a racist, and I don't, I like to believe that I don't behave in a racist way. But that, according to the Harvard implicit bias assessment takes effort, and that we have automatic biases that we may not even be aware of, and that behaving in certain ways, and controlling how we behave is a kind of a higher level activity.
What what are our automatic biases? I mean, for a white person, easy white people? What about for a non white person?
Dr Steve 1:25
Yeah, absolutely. for white people it is for, for a white person, it is for a white face, one of the interesting findings appears to be that even for a person of color, they are actually neutral when it comes to faces of people of color. And the the assumption is that what such people are doing are managing to overcome most but not all of the bias. That's, that's throughout society. So they've kind of pushed back as far as they can. But it's only got them to zero, and they don't actually apparently feel positive about the faces of people of color, and therefore presumably their own face. That's, that's how I would read it. Anyway.
That's interesting. And I think for our listeners, at this point, who do we should disclose that you are a white man, and I am not a white woman, I am a woman of color. And that is interesting. And I think that what I would say that that's actually something I I identify with in terms of how I think about myself and how I think about other people. Well, certainly then in the in the past, I have and I've really worked quite hard on on those biases that I see in myself to try and be positive about being a woman of color and identifying, you know, what society identify not as a not as a white woman. And that's really over the last few years, especially since I've had children making trying to make sure that I am really positive about about the way I look and the way the way she looks to my daughter.
Dr Steve 2:50
Um, I've been laboring under the misapprehension that I could imagine what that must be like, I'm losing faith in my confidence. That is, in fact, the case.
I'm pretty sure that everybody has things they don't not don't like about themselves. But But no one conforms to no one looks like the people we see on TV and the people we look we see in the magazines, right? Because for a start, they're really rushed. So everybody wants to be taller or thinner or less sports or something. innately everybody, most people, many, many people can a white man really understand what it is to be a woman of color. pretty difficult, because my lived experience is of course, many, many years of racism. Second looks snide comments, wondering if there is bias in the decisions that people are making about me. second guessing myself, all that stuff. So how can an ally no matter how sympathetic feel like they know what that feels like? Because they can't. So I don't talk about this much.
Dr Steve 3:57
I don't I can't. How long have we known each other now? 20 years? I don't know that we've ever talked about this. You and me if we
No, no, I wouldn't have thought so. And I don't talk about it with in general much. Because it's all about agreement. I don't want to be the person lecturing my friends, actually, about Hey, Steve White man. It's what I had a rough day. It's because I'm not white. That's that's not that's not a fun basis for a friendship,
Dr Steve 4:24
I am relieved to discover that my failings are your fault for not bringing it up. So thank you.
I am not taking on the role as an educator for my friends. You can all deal with that your own way. What do I do? I read books, I read articles. I identify as a woman of color. If it's part of a discussion, then I know that that's the place that I'm coming from. And that's my experience. I talked to my daughter about why it's a good thing to have brown skin. I want to make sure that as much as possible. She has that internal understanding of who she is. So That when she hits the inevitable comments or questions, or racism out of it racism, that she will know how to respond to it in a way that I didn't as a child,
Dr Steve 5:11
how does it feel that you're giving her scripts? Or you're giving her a mindset? Or how do you describe that?
I wonder if it's a kind of a do over for my, for my child sending out mini me better arms then than I was. I mean, she she looks a lot like me, she does, she has brown skin. I think that looking at her, she does not look like a white child in a way that my son does, by the way, just quirks of quirks of genetics. So am I giving her a script? No, but I'm I'm saying to her, I'm making her aware that racism exists. And I'm being positive about what it is to to look the way we do so. I say I mean, right from when she was very young, I told her how lucky we are to have these brown skin and that the poor white people actually have to paint themselves to get to get brown legs. She couldn't believe it. Oh, no, it's true. You buy this stuff in the shop, little things like that trying to be positive, trying to call it out, and that we have brown skin and and to be positive about why that's a good thing.
Dr Steve 6:15
But how do you react to you know, those kind of cute videos of very young children playing together and but companied by rather sentimental commentary about children not seeing color, and that it's invisible to them at that age, suggesting I suppose that it's something that that were born pure and then get corrupted by the way that we're taught or something.
I think that the idea that it's a good thing to not see color is now an outdated one. And certainly for me, I don't want people to not see the way I look, I don't want them to say Oh, you're just as good as a white person. What is what I hear what if someone tells me they don't see color? I acknowledge that I live as a woman of color. And if people really want to understand who I am, then that is part of my identity. So not seeing color. Not that helpful. Because it's it's a denial of, of part of who I am. So So Steve, this is in some way. One of the reasons I don't talk about this a lot is it is hard for me to talk about without getting defensive and cross. And I am so my father was Australian Born Chinese. He was born in Queensland, his family have been in Australia since the 1870s. And you see how I feel I need to say that because one of the things as a child, I used to get a lot of Where do you come from? And even now, sometimes from from rude people who can't seem to understand, do you speak Chinese? No, my family, my Chinese family came from China in 1870. That's a really long time. I don't speak Chinese. So becoming so yes, I become defensive about it, because of the years of questioning and assumptions that people have made. And my father was, I think, very conflicted about really hard to grow up looking Chinese, in Queensland, and in the during World War Two, and after. And one of the key events in his life was that he was given a teaching scholarship. And then it was taken away when they realized that he was child. He was Chinese, by race. And this was and then it made all the newspapers it was. And the the official line was, well, you couldn't have a Chinese are an Aboriginal teaching. Yeah. Queensland in the, in the 1950s. wonderful place. And that really, that affected him, I would say for the for the rest of his life in many ways that kind of institutionalized racism. Yeah. So it's it's difficult to talk about with white people, because no matter how much of an ally, my friends are, this is not the lived experience of anybody else. So for me, part of becoming the person I am is to feel happy and confident about the way I look. And like everybody, there's lots of things I would change about the way I look. But the more about now, I feel really confident in saying that those are more about height and weight, too many cupcakes, all that stuff, not the color of my skin. So part of that defensive reaction for me. Well, my family have been in this country since 1870. What about yours? Part of that is I hate that. I'm forced to say that because also does that make me more acceptable and more valid than somebody who has just moved to Australia and looks the same way I do, or look similar to me? And that's what I'm doing when I say that. Really? I feel like I'm saying, Well, what do you what are you talking about my family been in this country for 150 years. So it feels like I am negating them. I'm making it sound like we are better than the people who just arrived. And that is not I hope the way I feel. So it's part of what makes it difficult for me. Does that make sense? Absolutely it does. It's
Dr Steve 10:13
a real catch 22, isn't it? I mean, if you don't talk about it, then you're not bearing witness. And if you do talk about it, God, can't you stop going?
Well, exactly, let's, let's go back to how you're racist. Tell me more about that.
Dr Steve 10:27
So it turns out that I fall squarely into this is a massive database. It's it's been done many, many, many 1000s of times by people of all different ages and demographics, and everything that I have a preference for white faces. And the way that it works is that it asks you to respond to words with, you know, positive or negative words, but they're matched with with a face, and you have to respond as quickly as you can. And what it does is it very sneakily, and unfairly in my view, it kind of catches out what you do before your better self kicks in. And because it says bitter, ugly, sad, and it's matched with a white face that gets one reaction. If it's matched with a black face, then it gets a faster reaction because you associate black faces with negative values.
This is I'm sure knowing you Well, not a conscious thing for you.
Dr Steve 11:20
Even though it does make me it makes me uncomfortable, of course, because you know, you'd like to believe about yourself that you're, I wasn't going to say that you don't see color, because I don't I've never believed that I've never really, in fact, I wish I knew what the research was about very young children, whether they see it and just don't care, or whether they're somehow almost literally colorblind, which I kind of doubt
the flip side of this the catch 22 is, by the way, I'm very suspicious of men who really like Eurasian women. And that's not even a joke. I've made a few. And it makes me feel really squeaky for obvious reasons. So I don't want to be objectified. But I don't want to have my my color erased as well. So where does that leave us? Why can't we all just get along? I'd like to welcome Alice Pung. You write movingly about family growing up and race in Australia.
Alice Pung 12:16
Thanks, Susie. Thanks, Steve.
Steve and I spent an episode talking about race and self identity. And what it is for me to be a woman of color. Where I was horribly inarticulate, I discovered that one of the things that happens when I start talking about my own identity, as a, as a woman of color is that I freeze up. And I can't find my words. And then we said, Who should we get as guests. And I said, Well, it would be amazing to have someone like Alice Pung and who you are. Oh, wonderful.
Alice Pung 12:48
Thank you for having me.
So I do find it hard to discuss these issues. As far as about myself personally, and I'm, I'm good to talk about race and ethnicity and the way the world should be. But as soon as it becomes personal, I do I do find it very difficult. And I think this is because my father, my Australian Born Chinese father was really in a lot of denial about his background. And he grew up in Queensland in the 1940s and 50s. And it was very difficult for him. So he never talked about being Australian Born Chinese or what that meant to him. And I think it's taken me a long time to reconcile the way that I look. And the way that people respond to me, with the, the Anglo environment I was brought up in and that I'm now surrounded by. So I feel in many ways quite detached from my identity as as a woman of color, and what that means. I've wondered if your cultural background, does that bring you strength? How does that does it give you the ability to to talk about it.
Alice Pung 14:03
What I found interesting is, as a writer, I, I can write about these things, I still feel the same levels of discomfort as you're talking about in my own race and ethnicity. And that's because most of us 90% of the time, don't wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say oh my gosh, I'm Asian Australian or I'm Indian, Australian or Fiji and Australian, you don't see yourself as a race or ethnicity. I think the only time that comes into plays when people point out differences. We barely look at ourselves in the mirror when we go about our day to day things. So I grew up in a very multicultural environment. I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. So I guess that's where my experience might differ from your Suzy just because we're surrounded by yellow and brown people and I didn't know Until I went to university that Australia was quite an Anglo country. And that that was a real, a real revelation to me. And then I realized, I lived in what they called an ethnic enclave, you know, and that class had a lot to do with these things as well.
Dr Steve 15:22
Alice, I remember something that I think it was William James said about when two people are together in the room, there are four people present. I'm not sure if I've got the math, right. But the idea was that there's there's our own self identity, there's the way that we appear to others. And there is the way that we feel as if we appear to the other person. Certainly talking to Suzy, it came across a little as if there was almost a little bit of a distance between herself and her identity. I do you relate to that at all?
Alice Pung 15:51
Ah, Steve, yeah, that makes perfect sense. Often you think you are completely responsible for how others perceive you. So if you portray yourself a certain way, you hope that people will read you a certain way. But I think a large part of our identity is determined by other people. And I'll give you a real life example of this. Two years ago, when I was quite pregnant with with one of my sons, and I was picking up the other boy from childcare. You know, I grew up in a rough neighborhood. So if someone wolf whistles at you, or if someone someone calls out to you in the street, if you perceive it as a threat, even as a 16 year old, I would get these cars full of people older than my dad, they'd wind down their windows, because they just watch full metal jacket, and they'd yell out things like me love you long time. And if your 16 year old school girl, you feel a bit threatened by that. So that's always this paranoia has always been in me. So this, um, this man who is painting Melbourne Business School, because I was walking past, he had his overalls on, he called out to me and I looked up, and I was heavily pregnant. And my mother went through a few pregnancies. And, you know, I have some younger siblings. And I remember going to shops in braybrook. And, you know, people giving her vile looks as if she was here to breed and to live off the dole, because Mind you, this is a very working class neighborhood. And I used to go into high point shopping center when I was babysitting my siblings. And, and the shopkeepers or the, you know, the sales clerks who weren't that much older than me, there might have been 18, or 19, would also give me quite disgusted looks like what what is she got herself into this teenage Mom, I wasn't, I just was with my toddler sisters. So in front of Melbourne Business School, in the present day, here I am, you know, seven, eight months pregnant. This man calls out to me, I'm bracing myself to make a run for it. And he goes, Oh, boy, well, you're such a legend. That's wonderful. What you're doing, you know, being a mom, was the biggest surprise of my life. And I realized, Oh, you know, I was I was dressed in my suit, because I just come from my work at the Fair Work Commission. And suddenly people read me differently, even though was entirely the same person. So I guess that's what happens. You think you're asserting identity, but people read you differently. And, and I, I was prejudiced against that poor man painting Melbourne Business School, just because I thought, oh, gosh, he's one of those working class men who resent us for being in this country. And he wasn't.
Dr Steve 18:42
What did he mean, though? Why do you get congratulations in the street for being pregnant?
Alice Pung 18:47
I don't know. I think he was just one of those people who liked kids.
Alice, you mentioned class, what are your thoughts on on how race and class intersect? Is it about how people perceive and perceive you? And what is it for a person and for the individual as well?
Alice Pung 19:06
Oh, I think class has a lot to do with how race is perceived Susie? Just because you know, no one, there was a lot of racism when I was growing up just because there's a very working class neighborhood, and unfortunately, a recession hit in the 1980s, which meant a lot of breadwinners, mostly men lost their jobs. And then, because the red was so cheap in the area, that's when a lot of immigrants started moving into braybrook and Footscray. And there was a lot of resentment. And yet, a lot of these quite racist quite openly racist people. You know, I see them at our doctor's clinic, Dr. King's clinic and I loved him, and he was, he was Asian Australia and he was a Malaysian doctor, and I you look around his clinic and you would know that look, 60% might vote for One Nation, but they didn't see him as an Asian, because he was quite a useful member of society. He was a kind man. And so even now, because, you know, sometimes I help people with their workplace issues. I've got training and employment law, no one sees me as you know that, that those, those cheeks that come here to steal our jobs, and because they don't see me as having stolen anyone's jobs, they need free employment advice. So um, this thing that there's this narrative we have about immigrants, if you don't make yourself useful, then your burden on society. And I guess that that's where the class aspect comes in. And then if you're too wealthy, like the mainland Chinese that, you know, I see down Colin street who, who have every right to go into the ermi store and buy themselves a scarf, they get a lot of resentment, because they are, you know, they're, they're above this nation in Australia.
So as long as we stick to our place, which is being clever and helpful. Yeah, but, but not too rich. In Rome, okay. Alice, your your writing is, is very personal. It's intensely personal. What are the protective mechanisms that that you engage for being so revealing about your background and your personal life and your family?
Alice Pung 21:25
When I wrote my first book, I started when I was quite young, so you don't really think about these things. Just think about telling a story. Think about, you're hoping in your 20s. And you're axed. So I think I was a lot more candid. I not to say I'm guarded. Now, I'm still pretty honest. But I think, as a writer, before the period of social media, before Facebook, and before the time when you proclaim things, it was just like writing in a journal, you're completely by yourself, you don't think about an audience, you don't think about your future reader. And so that's what I think gave my first book its sense of heartbeat. I wasn't trying to write a migrant narrative of success, and throughout the years, have just stuck to to not doing that. And to be very open and honest. The only thing I want to Susie's, if there's something that might hurt my family, or I don't think I would write that it's not worth the risk of, you know, hurting people, you love to get something published. So guess that's my only criteria, but with myself, it's perfectly fine. Just because I know that people are not their thoughts, their thoughts change 1000 times a day. So if I write something about myself 10 years ago, it's probably not the same book I would write about myself now.
Dr Steve 22:49
I wonder though Alice, does it get you know, artistically creatively, to be a cul de sac or, or a burden or you know, that you're that you're expected and in some ways required to stick to your lane and this is this is your patch? So this is what you do? How do you avoid ending up being limited by that?
Alice Pung 23:08
Ah, that's a great question, Steve, how do I avoid being the author who always writes about ping Asian Australian, um, I don't mind that I, all my characters in every single book have been Asian Australian, because I know, I do those characters best and I can offer a sense of insight don't represent all Asian Australians. But with each character, I can give them nuance and depth that someone without my cultural background or heritage, could not. And because there are so few Australian characters with different ethnicities in young adult children's books, and even in adult books, I don't feel the need to you know, go into another character, for example, write a white character or an indigenous main character. Just because I wouldn't do it as well as I can do the characters I normally do.
Dr Steve 24:06
I remember listening recently to an interview with an indigenous man who young man who was saying he found it exhausting being the only indigenous friend for for you know, his, his marriage and friendship networks and how that then apparently required him to have an opinion on every issue. So they would listen to of course with you know, very respectfully and hanging on his every word, but he just didn't want to be he didn't want to be that guy. He didn't want to be just talking about this stuff. All the time.
Alice Pung 24:36
Do you get that Suzy Are you the Asian friend amongst some people? Some people's soul network?
I think I probably am and I mean, I'm hardly white passing me. But I so I've just opted out of that game. there's a there's a book by a British author. Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race? Oh, yeah. About exactly that, Steve about just how exhausting it can be. And how we find that, that balance between managing our personal managing who we are and and making it in a debate on racism and and when we play that game, and I just I just opted out. I don't do that. So if White people want to talk about race, go for it. And but i'm not i'm not going to be a part of that discussion with them. With with, with my other friends with my friends of color. Absolutely.
Alice Pung 25:35
All I say are you ever asked to educate your friends or anything like that? I'm pretty selective about who my friends are is probably
why. Why are we go with that?
Dr Steve 25:49
Oh, what about you? What about us? How do you how do you interact with your, with your friends and your networks on questions of color, and race?
Alice Pung 26:05
Oh, Susie, I, um, because I grew up in a very different place to where I am now now on, you know, what you'd call middle class, in liberal environment. So live at the university. The friends I have, they are very different from my childhood friends who I still have one of my best friends. You know, her father, still in one nation supporter, he still loves us. She still sends me things about, you know, quite racist things actually. So I just ignore them. But the interesting thing is Susie, she who we don't talk much about politics, because she has been a true friend to me, then people who have the right viewpoints. For example, when I first became a young writer, she would drive me everywhere to all my events and all my gigs. And she she was not interested in a single thing I said, because she doesn't read books, but she Wait for me and then take me home. And you know that that level of friendship, I just wouldn't sever just because their political views are different. And that level of genuine love and affection for someone you have known since you were five or six. You can't let politics get in the way of that. I don't think the only time we had a break, and we didn't even have an argument was she was with them with a very racist, Southern Cross tattooed man who was not very good to her and who has now ended up in jail. So. So I've had some interesting friendships. And sometimes you decide, you know, whether the love is worth your, your sense of righteousness or your sense of indignation. And often it's not, it's not worth sacrificing that love for the human being over politics.
Dr Steve 28:04
That just sounds to me to be almost at the other end of canceled culture, where if you fail to pass the test, then you're you're banished to the outer darkness and never allowed to return. You know, for some, some
Alice Pung 28:17
is some small transgression, or crime. Yes. And that's, that's worrying to me, Steve, and during this pandemic, and you know, how the wonderful Black Lives Matters movement has brought into a lot of, it's brought to our attention, a lot of issues related to race, and related to things like that. I've been sent a lot of petitions to sign to get people, you know, basically removed from their jobs at this time, quite liberal people who might have written an article that that was not as enlightened or might have had written a fictional short story that might have been offensive. And I don't like I don't do things like that. I, you know, if I feel that, if people genuinely don't know, they don't know. And if they genuinely apologetic, then why ruin their lives? Yeah. And I've seen families get torn apart just because your uncle who's loved you all his life, you've suddenly as a 20 year old realize he has unenlightened views. How can you negate all that love, just for you? Your sense of virtue? I just don't understand.
Dr Steve 29:38
It does have the hallmarks of a moral panic, doesn't it?
Alice Pung 29:41
It does. And I think it's important to be kind to the people who you love and the people who around you and just to just to other human beings, and not to not to overcharge so So Steve, as our token white male How are you feeling about all this discussion?
Dr Steve 30:02
Well, if I'm if I'm being honest, I'm, I'm having to second guess anything that I might say in case it comes out wrong or it seems insensitive. And even in saying that, I'm second guessing that I'm second guessing. Because I know I'm among people who, you know, having heard the discussion, would I hope certainly in your case, Suzy, I know, you would know that I was coming from a good place. And if I did happen to say something that was insensitive, or whatever, in the current circumstance, I know you'd you forgive me or overlook it or maybe not even notice it? And certainly from what you're saying is that you know, that you that you don't draw a bright white line that you know, there are good people this side of the line and, and the other side of the line, if they don't, if they don't think the same way, then you will have nothing to do with them. I think that comes across in your fiction, as well. And in some of your journalism for the monthly this sense that rather than judging, we can just observe and just let what is be take people on their own terms and just observe them rather than feeling that we've got to, we've got to broadcast our opinion about them.
Alice Pung 31:08
Well, Whitman said that, because he was human, he can contain multitudes. And that reminded me of something that Chris dosti orcas wrote about the very same issue, he said that one of his favorite, I think it was, was a mentor was an uncle, who was terribly misogynistic in his views, actually taught him all he knew about the union movement, and got Christos into, into social justice. So people contain multitudes. And growing up in the way I did, racism wasn't just a black, white and yellow issue were a racist among ourselves. We'd go to school and you know, there was this bill, who will pass my friend Lynn and said, Go back on the boat where you came from. And my friend, Liam, who was tiny jumped up and grabbed the skill by her top, you know, by the scruff of her neck and said, Shut up, you idiot. You're from Bosnia, you came two years ago, I came here eight years ago, there was this, this whole sense of, of who was here first and, and even among immigrants, you get that so he kind of get used to it, you don't see racism, all these white people are so bad. In fact, you know, living in very liberal environments. People are very sensitive about what they say to you. They would never say anything so overtly racist, as I had heard in my childhood, home high.
Up till I went to university, it was normal. Well, and Steve, if the white men are treating more carefully, then I'm fine with it.
Dr Steve 32:41
Now it's our turn to be uncomfortable.
Alice, that was really lovely talking to you. If people want to know more about you or your writing, where would we send them?
Alice Pung 32:53
Probably just to my website, Susie, which is just www.alicepung.net
Dr Steve 32:59
Thank you so much. ls it's been terrific.
Alice Pung 33:02
Thanks so much, Susie. Thanks, Steve.
Dr Steve 33:11
Coming up on the next episode of the bloom podcast does
Steve make a bit of agony off and D prudence I could hardly make a worse one.
Dr Steve 33:18
And we've got a great guest to talk to us about
getting on with people and why it's so difficult coming up on
Dr Steve 33:23
the next episode of the bloom podcast. If
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Dr Steve 33:26
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