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Psychosocial Water Torture

By Kiri Crocker

Friend of the Y and Volunteer


Birthdays are an amazing litmus test for our wellbeing.

I do not know my birthday because I do not know my birth date. I am adopted. I was brought to Australia from Ethiopia at six months of age after spending a unknown number of days abandoned in the street. I was raised by two white parents, and I have two white older brothers.

I went to an expensive school in Noosa, the only non-white student from grades 1–12. Tuition fees for senior education at this school are currently set at 15 thousand dollars per year.

Not the only black student. The only non-white student.

This collection of facts underpins an interesting notion: I am a black person who has experienced more interracial interaction than 99% of people my age.

I spent the first ten years of my life in a place of innocence. My mother cultivated my belief in a kindhearted humanity. This has become integral to every meaningful part of who I am.

By my eleventh birthday I realised there was something different about my skin colour. An older white boy called me a “nigger” at school drop off. My older brother, 16 years old and already 6ft, threw a basketball at his head.

By my 14th birthday I realised I would be better off not including a photo on my resume as I sent out job applications. I’d been listening on the train when a stranger asserted over the phone that he would not hire foreign people. Not because he was being racist, but because most of them “don’t speak English”. “It’s hospitality not an English class” he tittered.

The logic of this move is equal parts depressing and calculated. Maybe meeting me would change people like this’ minds? Yep. Definitely increasing my chances. Sometimes you gotta make lemonade in this life.

At age 16 I felt a sense of gratitude when a white boy showed romantic interest in me.

By my 20th birthday I had the gut wrenching realisation that my white education and mannerisms had empowered a coworker in Darwin to feel comfortable racially abusing Aboriginal people in front of me because I was “one of the good ones”.

By my 23rd birthday I realised something: there is a disparity between white people’s understandings of the impact of racist behaviour, and everyone else’s.

Of course there is. How could anyone understand the psychological destruction that racism wreaks on people of colour without experiencing it themselves?

I have been living in Melbourne for four years now, it’s a multicultural place. I spend most of my time in Fitzroy and the surrounding suburbs. I remember going to an anti-racism rally, and as I stepped on the tram to take me from my house to the city I noticed that almost every white person in the carriage had anti-racist placards. I felt so proud of my community that day. But I’m going to call a spade a spade here. I have literally never been denigrated by any Australian of non-white ethnicity.

To my white family, to my white friends, to my white colleagues and acquaintances. To the white people reading this who have never met me. If you take one thing away from this my experience, can I implore you to take away this: over the course of a lifetime, racism is psychosocial water torture.

I am turning 24 this year, and all of this uncaring hate is wearing away my happiness. I am depressed. I am anxious. Like Andrew Bolt watching Waleed Aly win a Logie, I am also angry. The innocence my mother so carefully cultivated within me as a child is leaving.

Sometimes listening to T. Swift’s “Shake It Off” just isn’t enough for me. I want to see change, I want to feel safe and welcomed when I walk around ‘my city’, the land of the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Taungurong, Wathaurung and Dja Dja Wurrung people.

So how can you make change for myself and others trapped at this intersection between society’s failures and our mental health? I’m asking for help.

White people: I need you to start participating in anti-racist behaviour. I need you to engage in a call out culture, be that online, at the pub, in class, when reviewing a policy document or watching television. Start reacting negatively to racism in all its subtleties. Talk about it.

I’ve met some of you who are already doing this. To be completely honest, that is why I hope that I may see this social change in my lifetime. Every time racism happens it needs to be confronted honestly and with empathy.

White people feel defensive when challenged about their racism; some of you may feel this way right now. Acknowledging your own failures requires openness and humility. It can feel uncomfortable. Admitting to and owning racism doesn’t make you weak.

It makes you a powerful friend of mine in a seemingly unassailable battle.

*Originally published over at Medium.com.

Follow Kiri on Twitter @KiriCrocker