I was always the girl that wanted to stay home and live under the protective wings of Mummy and Daddy as long as possible. Despite my best intentions to leech off them for the rest of my life, my time in high school gradually fostered a need to try something new and by the time it came to leave I was suddenly filled with a desire to get as far away as possible.
A world of hope and opportunity folded out in front of me and my sights were set on Sydney. So with a stomach-churning mixture of excitement and nerves I took the leap, got accepted into the University of Sydney and moved into one of the residential colleges.
Here I was greeted with 'choice, bro', nicknamed fresher sheep shagger, and thus began my initiation into the Australian culture. I always thought the jump across the Tasman was going to be fairly painless, my impression of Sydney being that it was basically Auckland on steroids.
There was, of course, the language barrier but it didn't take long for me to interpret the grating twangs and adopt Aussie favourites like 'doona' and 'bottle-o' into my vocabulary (although I drew the line at 'thong').
I was accepted in the same way one might accept a stray cat, welcomed with the gentle ribbing of the alpha male keeping the less attractive, less intelligent youngster in place. They demanded I speak in a Scottish accent, I refused to sing the Australian national anthem, and so the racial sparring continued.
I soon discovered that I am a lot more entertaining in New Zealand than Australia. It's a strange phenomenon whereby in New Zealand I seem funny, but in Australia I usually get the response: 'shut up, Cathy.' Yes, I know, Cathy isn't actually my name. Cathy is my alter-ego, the affectionate nick-name assigned to the version of me that tells terrible jokes and boring stories. And when that wasn't enough to deter my ramblings, the next step was to play the racial trump card:
"Hey Casey, you're s*** and so's your country!"
Now, I am in no way the wounded hero standing up for racism victims everywhere. I never actually considered it racism, it was more like friendly sibling rivalry. Apart from a history major asking me whether New Zealand was part of World War II (what does ANZAC stand for again?), there was never anything to suggest any real condescension towards New Zealand. Although I suspect that was largely because everyone just accepted that their native land was far superior to the cute little 7th state so it wasn't necessary to argue it any further.
Black, white or somewhere in between
To be honest, racism isn't something I give a lot of thought to. Which is easy to say living on the predominantly white North Shore, going to a predominately white church and working in a predominantly white office. I don't think of myself as a racist person, I don't think any less of any particular race of people. Racism is what happens in the distant world known as the 'news.'
It wasn't until recently that I was challenged on what exactly racism is. Watching an interview with the sole black young adult at our church, I got a bit of a wake-up call when he talked about the culture shock of moving to New Zealand and finding that racism was no longer a black and white issue (see what I did there?).
He entered into a strange world where making racist comments didn't actually mean you were racist. Then he delivered the definitive kick in the bum when he said it wasn't the beatings that hurt the most, it was the jokes made by his friends. Yes, even his church friends. Dum dum duuuum.
New Zealanders have always had a somewhat unique sense of humour. We are the land of reverse-patriotism, self-deprecation and tall-poppy-cutting. Humour is not just a form of entertainment, it is a social tool used to acknowledge differences and show acceptance. It isn't intended as a sign of disrespect, we treat it as a way to be open with the safety net of 'not really meaning it.'
He went along with the jokes because that's what we do. We are supposed to take it, and dish it back. If they actually meant it they wouldn't have said it because that would be racist, right? It may just be a generational thing, but it seems that it is now more acceptable to make an inappropriate joke than it is to be offended by it. No-one wants to be the touchy, over-sensitive baby that actually gets upset when they get insulted 'as a joke.'
Which begs the question, what is actually considered racism these days? If you make a racist joke but you're not actually a racist person, is it still racism? What about when the person you are making the joke about doesn't get offended? Or if it's just between friends and they know you don't actually think less of them? Is it still racism if you don't really mean it?
It's around this point that I start feeling uncomfortable. The thing is, humour is my stock on the social exchange. Sarcasm is my currency and dividends are paid out in a combination of self-deprecation and cheeky banter. Race-based jokes aren't my humour of choice but I can't very well stand on my high-horse without re-evaluating the insults that penetrate my entire humour repertoire.
I hide behind the excuses of 'everyone knows I don't mean it, I'm not really offending anyone' but the truth is my sarcastic jokes have become so habitual that I'm not sure I can let them go. What if I'm not funny without them? I can easily justify it because there is a part of me that feels like there's nothing wrong with playful teasing between friends, where there is mutual respect and no-one is actually bothered by it. The problem is we can't always know for sure.
But I think about the times I wasn't in the mood to be told that I'm a crap person because of where I was born. On the whole I didn't care, but by letting things go I set a precedent which said I was OK with being insulted based on my country. Which made things a little awkward on the occasions when I turned around and told my friends to shove it.
Then I take my PG-rated experiences of the over-privileged white girl and imagine how it must feel to be the South African kid constantly confronted with a barrage of 'jokes' because of the colour of his skin. It starts me wondering where this whole racism grey-area began.
Maybe we do need to be a little more black and white?
First published August 8, 2013
Casey Murray works in marketing for a company that sells nail guns, where she eats large amounts of chocolate and wears pretty dresses in an attempt to avoid becoming 'one of the boys.' In her spare time she likes having inappropriate conversations with friends and writes to try and make sense of it all.
Casey Murray's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/casey-murray.html