What's your water?

There’s an old Chinese proverb which says: a fish is the last one to know what water is. The idea is that all of us have unconscious understandings of the world based on our cultural and racial heritage which influence what we do, the decisions we make and the attitudes we hold.

I’m a child of the 60s and a teenager of the 70s. I grew up in conservative, white, middle-class, Protestant Bible-belt Australia.

Fast-forward to 2012.

I’m a single-again mid-life woman working with The Salvation Army when it is awarded a contract by the Australian Government to provide welfare services for asylum seekers in the newly-reopened off-shore detention and processing centres on the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea.) I volunteered for a four-week rotation on Nauru, not because I had a burning desire to work with asylum seekers, not because I wanted to work in a developing nation, and definitely not because I wanted to work in the tropics.

I volunteered because I couldn’t think of any reason why not to.

After catching the red-eye from Brisbane, Australia, with 80 or so others, I stepped out into the tropical heat wondered what I’d got myself into. After a full day of orientation, and having been up for over 24 hours, the last item on the day’s agenda was to check out ‘the camp’ where the 400 or so men were being housed in green army tents. As my group walked between the rows of tents and I watched the men sitting on their stretchers or talking to each other. Some looked at us with vague interest, but mostly we were ignored. However, I became aware of feeling afraid.

As I reflected on that feeling of fear and realised that it had no physical basis I saw that this fear was solely based on ‘otherness’.

These men were ‘other’ to me: other nationalities, other faiths, other languages. What was shocking for me was to realise that in me was a latent racism based purely on the homogenous ‘water’ of my childhood and upbringing. I had always said I didn’t have a racist bone in my body – I now knew that this was untrue.

Some months later, I discovered some more about my personal ‘water’. I was a white university-educated Aussie, working in a facility run by Australians with a team of Nauruans providing support services, as teacher’s aides, running the canteen, being part of the welfare team. There was little collaboration by the Aussie leadership with the Nauruans and the longer I was there, the more I became aware of sense of superiority that characterised the interactions between Aussies and Nauruans – including my own.

I spoke of my burgeoning understanding of this superiority I felt to the woman leading the Nauruan team. Her comment was that the Nauruans felt it too but just knew this was the way we were. I was appalled.

On returning to Australia when the contract ended I took a good look at myself and my life. I started asking questions and talking to people about what I’d learnt about myself. I discovered that there was name for that combination of fear and superiority that people like me felt when confronted with difference – white privilege.

That was my ‘water’ and it impacted all my interactions with others and especially those who were different to me.

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