Blokes and their casual racism

Editorial note: One of the major insights that anthropology has to offer has been its focus on social structures as determining factors in human societies. We are not just individuals, in charge of our own destinies but are heavily influenced by a host of factors. One of those is racism. 

Too often instances of racism are dismissed as just a few ‘bad apples’, ignoring the multitude of factors that underlie the whole system. Recent protests in the United States come not only because of the death of one man, George Floyd, but because he represents the tip of an iceberg of a vast, poisonous system. 

Australia is no exception. Our First Nations peoples know better than most what it is like to be on the receiving end of a system that is designed against them – a shorter lifespan, higher incarceration rates, loss of culture and language, to name a few outcomes. 

On top of this, White Australia has an established tradition of hostility towards migrant communities. We should not elide the hundreds of smaller experiences that represent for many this systemic, racialised reality. In this auto-ethnographic styled piece, Matthew Phung, our sound editor, writes about his experiences of everyday racism in Australia. 

– The Familiar Strange editors.

I love ice cream. 

Any ice cream. It doesn’t really matter to me. Strawberry, chocolate or even durian. I love ice cream and the joy it brings to me. It brings me a sense of nostalgia as soon as it hits my tongue. I get transported back to my local shops where I would pay $3.50 for an ice cream and greedily unwrap the packet while sitting on the benches outside with my friends on long summer afternoons.

With this enjoyment of ice cream etched into me from a young age, I was elated to hear of a group on Facebook called “Blokes and Their Ice Creams”. 

The premise is relatively simple. Upload a photo of a bloke (colloquialism for Australian male)  and an ice cream. It must be a bloke and must be an ice cream. You can upload more information in the caption, such as long winded descriptions of the flavours, the consistency of the ice cream or even the motivation to go get “a cream”. The group was established in 2014 and has currently 98,689 members. 

As part of the group, you are able to comment on others posts, usually following the same format. Every comment normally starts off with either “cream on” or “cream off”, with the former representing approval, the latter disapproval. These comments are usually followed by comments on the “blokes” appearance or selection of ice cream. For example, if there was a picture of someone eating a Maxibon (a popular ice cream in the group), I could comment “cream on Maxibons are the best”.

“Cream on Open Your Eyes Bloke” 

The uploading of these images is intensely personal and the topic of comments invariably turns to the appearance of the “bloke”. I uploaded a picture midway through 2019 of myself eating a Maxibon. Within the day my post had been commented on 34 times. Some comments were supportive, mostly from my friends. But the overwhelming majority turned to race. Being of South-East Asian background growing up in Australia, these types of comments are not something unfamiliar to me. I have grappled with race and culture many times and I expect that battle to continue long into the future. 

Some of the comments ranged from some very interesting comparisons like “Cream on Cream off Mr Miyagi Bloke” or “Cream on Kim Jong Un bloke” and my personal favourite “Cream on Jackie Chan after a few Maxibons” to downright racist, such as “Cream on open your eyes bloke” (If you ask any of your South-East Asian/ East Asian friends living as a 2nd generation in a Western country, I can guarantee that this has been said to them at least once in their lives). 

Don’t Say Microaggression 

At first glance, some of these comments seem relatively inane. The comparisons to Mr Miyagi and Jackie Chan should be pretty flattering. It’s not the comparisons that bother me. It’s not about the person I’m being compared to. It’s the fact that I’m even being compared. That I’m not me, but rather I am reduced to how I look or who I resemble. I don’t get to define myself anymore. That’s the part that bothers me. Some days, it’s not too bad and I can laugh it off. But some days, it is utterly humiliating and makes me question who I am as an Australian. 

After all, it happens to everyone, right? It is the casual nature of these comments which makes it so problematic. It has become so normalised and so easy to dismiss that I don’t feel like I have a choice to even bring it up. This fear of bringing up race isn’t entirely unfounded. I once detailed an interaction that made me uncomfortable to my friends and used the word “Microaggression”. I was met with blank stares and told “don’t… don’t say that”, as if it was a taboo word. The insinuation being that I was being too sensitive about something seemingly inoffensive. It was the casualness and the dismissal of how I felt when talking about race which probably hurt the most in the situation. 

My friends did clarify later that their comments were meant to dismiss the person who I had the experience with, the insinuation being that the person I had the experience with wasn’t worth my frustration and anguish. It did come out of a place of love, despite how it came across. 

Nothing Changed When Covid-19 Attacked 

My university, the Australian National University, adopted the slogan “Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither do we” in the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak. It was comforting to me to hear and see that. But unfortunately the university is somewhat insulated from some of the trends in the wider world. Abroad in the US, actor and one of the stars in the upcoming Mulan film Tzi Ma, was harassed and told that he should be quarantined. An Asian-American couple was walking through Pasadena one night and was almost run over and told “you brought this disease here”. Closer to home, a Melbourne family had a rock thrown at their home and woke up to find “Covid-19, China Die” spray painted onto their garage door. In the suburb of Epping in Sydney, graffiti was sprayed onto the road saying “Death 2 Dog Eaters”. 

It’s happened to me too. 

I was getting a takeaway coffee one day at a relatively well known cafe in my area. A man approached me and began to speak to me. I had my headphones in but as soon as I removed them I wanted to put them back on. He said almost as nonchalantly as ordering a coffee “it’s your fault hey? All of this craziness, your fault right?”. I shouldn’t have to, but it’s at this point I wish to remind you that I was born in Australia and haven’t travelled to China for at least 10 years, nor am I ethnically Mainland Chinese. This vilification has moved beyond the physical and given the casual racism in Blokes and Their Ice Creams more ammunition. 

Wuhan, Bats and Misinformation 

In the past few weeks anytime something has been posted with someone of Asian appearance, the comments invariably turn to “cream on covid wet market cream blokes”, “Cream on Kung-Flu bandit blokes” and, my personal favourite, “cream on bat-muncher bloke”. These comments are all from a single post of three elderly East Asian men eating ice creams. Simply searching the name “Wuhan” in the group has a multitude of comments show up, each as unoriginal as the next.  The truly frustrating part is that these SE and East Asian looking men have seemingly nothing to do with the virus. Yet people like the comments and laugh at the comments being made towards blokes who just love ice cream. 

It should be noted that South East and East Asians are not the only ones that are subjected to this type of casual racism. Anyone who looks remotely different has their race pointed out. For example, multiple posts featuring Pakistani blokes have comments such as “cream on Telstra call centre bloke” or “cream on gets free ice cream cause he owns the 7/11”. 

Not All Sour 

Despite the knotty issues of prejudice, and casual racism, Blokes and Their Ice Creams is not all bad. During the devastating bushfires that ripped through most of Australia earlier this year, Blokes and Their Ice Creams began selling merchandise like beer sleeves (stubby holders), stickers and socks. All proceeds from the sales were being donated to the Rural Fire Service, who were on the frontlines and valiantly defending homes across Australia. Blokes and Their Ice Creams was also responsible for launching special edition Maxibon socks in partnership with the ice cream company Peters and Beyond Blue, an Australian non-profit organisation which focuses on mental health. All proceeds from the sale of socks went towards Beyond Blue to continue to contribute to their invaluable work around Australia. Consider this a bittersweet scoop of ice cream, because I continue to enjoy the posts and mutual excitement over ice cream and the good work of Blokes and Their Ice Creams. But I find myself reluctant to post or be an active part of the community for fear of being commented on as “Cream on my family brought over the Corona virus bloke” (yes that is actually a comment on someone’s post). 

Despite all the vilification, humiliation and frustration I find myself still being hopeful. Hopeful that this ignorance will pass with time. Hopeful that someday I’ll be able to post a delicious ice cream without the fear of the kind of comments that will come from my appearance. Until that day, I say, Cream On as I scarf down another delicious Maxibon and wish you all the best in these strange times. 

Cream On,

Matthew Phung 

[Image of the two icecream cones is taken by Nas Mato sourced from Unsplash]

[Image of the Maxibon icecream is by I, ARTE (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

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