I grew up in Footscray, a West Melbourne neighborhood then brimming with factories and optimism. Refugees had always moved to Footscray to start anew: Eastern Europeans in the 1950s and ’60s, Southeast Asians in the ’70s and ’80s, Africans in the ’90s and the new century. A foreman gave my dad a trial at a car-trailer factory, thinking this 100-pound man would not be able to lift heavy metal parts. He didn’t know that my father’s previous job as a slave laborer was to bury dead bodies. He got the job.
But when businesses began to move production overseas in the early 1990s for cheaper labor costs, many proud working-class Anglo-Australians — including the kind of foreman who hired my father — were laid off. These were hard-working folks who had left school at 15 and had been loyal to single companies for decades. The mood shifted.
Some people in Footscray started to see multiculturalism as a punishment inflicted on them by the government. After all, it was the working-class whites who had to share their neighborhoods, jobs and schools with the new arrivals.
One evening, when my mother, brother and I were walking home, a car pulled alongside. The teenage passengers rolled down their windows and yelled out: “Go home! Stop stealing our jobs!” I was too young to know that Australia was going through its worst recession since the Great Depression.
Another time, someone threw a rock through our front window. Instead of having the glass replaced, my mother just drew the curtains and lowered the canvas awning outside, permanently darkening that area of our living room. My father would not repair the window, hoping to avoid provoking more hostility.
“Most Australians are good,” he told us. “Those are the bad ones. Just ignore them.”
My best friend’s father mowed the lawns at our school. Her mother worked for the juvenile justice department. They were white Australians who lived in a concrete house like ours. The mother would tell us about poor children she encountered who felt hopeless; one kid was so desperate he injected Vegemite in his veins in search of a high.
Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, these working-class white kids could no longer leave school at 15 and easily find jobs that would set them up for life. Now they were lost, on the streets causing trouble, tormenting the newcomers. The immigrants were also scrabbling at the bottom of the barrel, yet we were seen as the main threat to the Australian working-class way of life.
It had long been this way for migrants in Australia. In drafting the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, Alfred Deakin, who later became prime minister, specifically went after Asian immigrants. “It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us,” he said. “It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.”
In the mid-1990s, Pauline Hanson was elected to Parliament and formed her new political party One Nation, claiming that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians.” It was an easy claim to make: In 1971, the Asian population of Footscray made up a mere 1 percent of the population, but by 1996, it had risen to 17 percent.
At the same time that Dad was telling us to ignore the Bad White Australians, Bad Asians were beginning to appear everywhere. Vietnamese heroin dealers on the 7 o’clock news, Filipino welfare cheats on the radio, Chinese slumlords in the papers. Ms. Hanson declared that Asians had “their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” People started wearing printed yellow T-shirts, the word “full” emblazoned across a map of Australia.
Keep your head down, my parents advised, because there was no point in fighting such bigotry.
The next time I went to my best friend’s house, her father had tacked up a poster of Ms. Hanson draped in the Australian flag. He sought to reassure me that it had nothing to do with our family. Echoing my father’s line about white Australians, he said, “Yous are the good ones.
I wasn’t quite sure I believed him, but we tried hard to be good. By the late 1990s, I made it to university, and eventually moved out of my old neighborhood. I became a lawyer and then a writer, and my new middle-class existence seemed to buffer me against the more blatant acts of discrimination.
But last year, when I was seven months pregnant, my Anglo-Australian husband and I found a leaflet stuck to our car outside a Melbourne hardware store. It was a badly photocopied image of a little black boy and a white girl seen through the scope of a gun. Written on it in big black letters was “Stop race mixing.”
“Too late now,” I told my husband.
My college-educated friends were horrified, wondering how I could joke about such terrible racism. I could because it wasn’t a rock through the window. It wasn’t a fist to the face, or a polite but suspect withdrawal of a job offer — all things I have seen happen to friends from my old neighborhood. Yet I’m aware that what I now dismiss as the pathetic mad ramblings of a white supremacist would be a genuine menace to my safety if I were still living in that house with the broken window.
After almost two decades out of Parliament and a brief stint in jail, Pauline Hanson has been re-elected to the Senate, her One Nation party winning four seats there. Now their main target is Muslims, but the game is the same.
As Mr. Ruteere, the U.N. official, pointed out, our problems in Australia are not unique. In Europe and America similar xenophobic ideologies are brewing. Refugees are no longer comforted by a welcoming Australian government. Our new arrivals are no longer benefiting from a national policy of multiculturalism that tells them they belong. They are told to fit in or get lost, yet no one demonstrates how to achieve this assimilation.
I now understand how terrified those without power in Australia feel: They can’t even confront a pregnant woman face-to-face; instead they deposit racist posters and slink off. I am reminded of a line in Ecclesiastes: “I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them. On the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them.”
Racists feel that no one, neither society nor the government, appreciates how the modern world has left them behind. But one group shares their unrelenting feelings of deep-seated fear and anxiety: their victims.
What I have learned from experience is this: In your moments of vulnerability, the bigots will still come for you. Your tongue could still be cut out, your windows smashed. You can go about quietly achieving and trying to keep a low profile, but you can never choose invisibility. When the bigots decide to see you, they will see you.
But I am no longer keeping my head down. I can see them, too.
Alice Pung is the author, most recently, of the novel Lucy and Linh.