This past weekend was meant to be a relaxing time celebrating my partner's birthday in one of our favourite parts of the world - the NSW south coast. We are lucky to be able to visit the area quite often, and despite the rain over the weekend, we were determined to enjoy the beautiful nature and each other's company.
On Saturday, we ventured into Moruya. I wanted to buy my partner a new wetsuit as a birthday gift. As he struggled in and out of wetsuits at the surf shop, supervised by his knowledgeable father, my mother-in-law and I headed down the street and to a local cafe, keen to escape the rain.
I left her at our table and went to order coffees. When I came back to my seat, an older gentleman approached me.
'Excuse me?' he said. I looked up, expecting a question about directions or maybe about where to order from.
'Yes?' I said politely, my expression reverting to the polite welcoming face I've perfected over the years.
'Do you have permission to be here?' he asked, with a straight face.
I was completely thrown. I glanced around, noticing that the crowded cafe had only white people in it that I could see (though I'll admit I didn't do a thorough headcount/assessment).
'Excuse me?' I responded.
'I said, do you have permission to be here?'
At this point, my heart racing, I remembered my agency and replied firmly, 'What exactly are you trying to say?'
At this, he sort of backed up a little, and then suddenly smiled, laughed and said, 'Oh, I've got the wrong person. I thought you were a friend. Haha! Oh dear!'
I was still in shock as he walked away, and the woman he was with called out, 'Oh dear, he's got the wrong person. he thought you were someone else, sorry!'
Now, by this point I was thoroughly rattled. The immediate thought I had when he first asked the question, was that i was about to be thrown out of the cafe as the only non-white person there. I literally, with no logic, was panicking thinking I was somehow back to the early 1900's and onwards era of segregation, and had erroneously assumed I would be welcome in the cafe, the way I expected to be everywhere else.
My mother-in-law was a bit flustered, and we tried to continue our coffee, but I could barely concentrate.
I've thought about this a lot now, and I wish I had felt capable of going over to the guy at the time, because this is what I would have liked to say to him.
Sir, I don't doubt that you thought you were joking. I don't think you made the joke with any intentional racism. But here's the thing - your joke was insensitive, and your confusing me with some other presumably brown person was probably also a bit racist.
Let's assume you did confuse me for a friend. I don't know how many young Indian women are in Moruya, perhaps there is a large multicultural community there I'm not aware of (there isn't, according to census data, but I accept I don't live there and can't know for sure). But I can guarantee that we don't all look the same, and surely the combination of my unique facial features and the fact I was with another person who you presumably could tell was a stranger should have at least made you double check my identity before confronting me with what was a poor attempt at a joke.
And that's the thing - asking a brown person in a social setting if they have 'permission' to be there is a direct reference to the conditions of racism that existed in this country not that long ago, which denied people of colour, and specifically First Nations people, access to all areas of society. So how you could possibly think that makes for a funny joke is completely beyond me.
Maybe it would help for you to have some context. When I am approached my a stranger, especially a white stranger, in public and out of nowhere, the majority of times it has been an experience of racism. I remember walking through the shops with my Mum (who wears a hijab) when I was 11, and a woman walking right up to us, stopping us from being able to walk, and hissing, 'You lot aren't welcome here!'.
I have watched my Dad be harrassed by a woman in a car park who objected to his parking, and told him that people like us should 'go back to where we came from'. I've had servers in cafes, after telling me that what I ordered isn't available, offer to make me a curry with a snigger, making the people in line behind me laugh.
My mother, while waiting for a shop attendant to return to serving her has had a woman march up to her and tell her that 'In this country we line up like this,' angry because Mum was standing to the side of the line, having already been served.
Every time I go to a new place, especially places where there aren't as many culturally diverse people visibly around, I am a little bit on edge. I feel conspicuous, and a part of me is waiting for something bad to happen. This might sound like an overreaction, but unless you've experienced significant prejudice in your life, it's impossible to understand how much it effects you.
Some of my earliest memories of Australia are watching bigots like Pauline Hanson on TV trashing people like me and demanding we return to where we came from. I had friends in year 2 offer to hide me at their house, if the time came when this angry woman with the bright red hair got her way.
So, to the man in the cafe, you probably didn't mean any harm. It's unlikely you thought anything further about that incident, except maybe to wonder why I was so shocked, and unable to respond to you. But I sincerely hope you read this, and reflect on the way your actions can impact others.
Maybe reassess what 'jokes' you make to strangers in public, and consider how the way you move in the world may be different to the access others have.
And next time you see a random brown person, take more than 10 seconds to look at them and make sure you've got the right one before you leap forward and assume you know them. There aren't that many of us in your neck of the woods (only 13.9% of the population according to the 2016 census). We should be easy enough to tell apart.