International student speaks out on racism

SOUTH African student Nkandu Mwenge speaks out on racism and his personal brush with a less savoury side of Melbourne. But it’s the lack of dialogue on race, he says, that’s most concerning.


Having lived and studied in South Africa, a country where race and ethnicity determine how and with whom one socialises with, I needed to know if I would be subjected to racial discrimination when I moved to Melbourne to complete my university education.

So I asked friends of mine that reside here to tell me what to expect.

All of them gave me a slightly modified version of the same answer, “You may never experience any racial discrimination during your stay. And if you do it will only happen once, twice at most. So if it does happen, don’t pay too much attention to it.”

These assurances coupled with the media spin to attract international students to Australia convinced me that I wouldn’t have to worry about racism.

On a night out, two incidents made me confront my naivety in believing my friends and in buying into the marketing gimmicks.

The first was overhearing a group of people in a pub whisper racist remarks about me. Hard as it was, I did as advised and ignored them.

The second was on my way home – someone used the n-word and made snide remarks about me being a Sudanese refugee. I ignored that too, but the “pretend it doesn’t hurt” response has never really worked well for me.

I believe that not reacting increases the dehumanising effect of being racially abused. And one civil way of reacting is opening up a dialogue.

I believe that not reacting increases the dehumanising effect of being racially abused. And one civil way of reacting is opening up a dialogue. The lack of a dialogue on race, at this moment, concerns me more than getting racially abused.

I suspect that one of the reasons there is not enough discussion on race is because some international students may feel it is not elegant to speak about such matters. This is completely understandable.

I have spoken to several international students and they said they have formed amazing relationships with local students. They love living in Melbourne and some of their best memories happened here. So speaking out is difficult because they don’t want to misrepresent Melbourne and the amazing Melbournians and Australian friends they have made.

But there is a problem and it won’t just go away because we refuse to acknowledge it.

If Julia Gillard, Australia’s Prime Minister, made what appear to be xenophobic remarks, as was noted in this Herald Sun article to pander to some voters’ dislike of foreigners, then there is a significant section of the population that such rhetoric appeals to, and this group of Australians may be inclined to abuse international students.

In an article published in this magazine last year about the efforts by the Australian Human Rights Commission to deal with the racism foreign students face, a poll was run to find out if the readers of Meld have experienced racism.

At the time I read the article, about 84 per cent of the 56 respondents said they had experienced racism. While the sample size is not a large enough number to make statistical inference, it is indicative of how widespread racism is in Melbourne.

Discrimination of any kind is dehumanising and something that no one should be subjected to. That is why I feel more international students should speak about it so that increased efforts are made to reduce racial attacks.

Or maybe I’ve gotten it all wrong and Melburnians do not have a racism-ignoring problem and I’m just a cheap moralist – but only a discussion would correct my perceptions.

Is racism an issue here in Australia? Have you experienced any form of racism as an international student? Share with us your stories and perspectives in the comments section below. 

There are 10 comments

  1. Joshua D'souza

    I must state that Australia is one of the most racist society. International students are treated as cash cows and are told that their English is no good, that they are smelly, that they go back home upon graduation, etc. Different sets of rules apply to domestic and international students studying in Australia. I would advise Indian students, try for greener pastures in the US, even though it may be a bit difficult getting set up. There is no point in degrading one’s self esteem and soaking up racist rants meted out to you. The racist attacks against Indians in Australia may have abated. But, subtle forms of racism such as denying international students internships within university settings stating fexplicit stgatements in e-mail such as ” we would hire our own students” is nothing lesas than step-motherly treatment of international students studying in Australia. The pursuit of a PhD for a domestic student in Australia is free of cost, but for international students (saddled with $ 36,000 fees and limited scholarship opportunities and employment post-study) I feel that racism is not so much based on skin colour in Australia as much as it was in apartheid-era South Africa but institutionally based. If Australia wants to compete internationally, give equality of opportunity to all and abolish social welfare.

    1. Eric

      This may come as a surprise Joshua, but pretty much every nation on the planet I am aware of favours its own citizens over non citizens when it comes to employment and education costs. So you have to pay for a PHD and locals don’t? So what. You can’t claim unemployment benefits or get an Australian passport either, do you think that’s racist too?

  2. Joshua D'Souza

    I must also add that my stay in Sydney as an international student for the past 4 years has been most unsatisfactory. My neighbours yell out abuses outside my bedroom window when they are drunk or in a bad mood. Once, one of my neighbours (Mr. Bruce) yelled out racist abuses outside my house telling me that I was a black Buddhist, that he would cut me to pieces. Another neighbour, deliberately sprays perfumes outside my house claiming that I am a smelly black man. Bruce is on welfare and he is jealous that I am highly educated. In 2010 during Joshua D’Souza’s stay at the Youth Hostel Association of Australia in Canberra, the hotel manager, who happens to be Australian served him ant-infested milk. I am not trying to sensationalise to racist atrocities against Indian students but it is high time that Australians give up their complacent entitlement mentality and think about human rights abuses within their own country seriously and stop advising their neighbours like Indonesia regarding the right approach to human rights.

    Within universities, international students are treated as non-existent entities. No one cares to hire them for tutoring. Academics prefer undergraduates who are pursuing Honors degrees to teach compared to those who have international educational experience and oin the verge of finishing their PhD. I feel international students in Australia should write to the UNHCR and the UN Commission on Human Rights to highlight racist abuse and lack of equal opportunities within Australia. Is anyone hearing me?

  3. Rebecca

    I am Australian born and raised, but my parents are not. My Dad is from an Italian background and my mum was born in England. Both experienced racism, even though the colour of their skin is white. My mum was teased for her ‘funny accent’ and when my Dad was young, European immigrants bore the brunt of racist remarks. I think it is inherent in human nature to alienate an ‘other’ that is different from yourself. At the same time I believe it should be a hall mark of evolution and a defining factor of civil society that we overcome such shallow prejudices and accept all people as equal. I look around on the street and it makes me happy to see people of different ethnicities. Likewise, I have friends from many different cultural backgrounds. It makes life interesting. I don’t believe there should be any room in Australian society, or any society for that matter, for racism. But it does exist. A year or so ago I visited an Indian grocery store with some Indian friends in Melbourne’s South East, and we were almost run over as we crossed the parking lot by some young white guys who yelled racist remarks from their car windows. They literally only pulled into the parking lot so that they could verbally abuse my friends, one of whom was clearly pregnant. I was appalled. I shouted back, but my friends stopped me. They were scared about what might happen if the men decided to come back. And so we were silent out of fear for our safety. It made me think about the Australia we live in. Is it really multicultural? Is it even safe? Now I worry if my friends have to walk home from the station alone at night after work. I worry that they may be more at risk of attack than other women. While racism doesn’t happen to me or my parents, (as it appears people of Sudanese, Indian and Asian backgrounds are now the primary targets). It makes me angry and ashamed to see/ hear examples of racism are alive and well. I myself can walk down the street without fear of being persecuted for the colour of my white skin or my cultural background. But it troubles me that other people don’t have this same freedom. Something needs to be done. Non-racist Australians and refugees need to work together to promote a more accepting society and stamp out prejudice. Action needs to start now.

  4. Hans

    I am from South America and I have to say that I have seen some cases of racism in my university specially against Asians. Personally, I find some Australians really friendly but my girlfriend is Korean and I can talk how different people here treat her and me. It is ridiculous that there are some nightclubs where Asians can not take part. Security guards tend to say things like we have a private function or being on the list is not warranty of entry. At the Uni Asians are commonly ignored and I had a teacher who makes jokes and comments about my Chinese classmate.

    On the other hand I have experience the lack of interest that some chinesse have to learn English. Some of my classmates still making a line between them an other by using their mandarin all the time. I Know how hard is to speak English because English is not my second language; however, you have to put yourself.

    In relation to Indians. I have good experiences and bad experiences. In my gym there some that never use deodorants however in my work there is a Indian mum who treat me really good and help me with my studies I have seen how hard working they are and special can be.

    I summary racism in Australia is a problem. International students are some of the victims; however, there some basic rules to get along with Australians such as speak their language and have good hygiene practices.

  5. Umesh

    I am from india. I am a dentist from india studying here. I have experienced the most ugly form of racism today. My neighbour turned up the music while i was asleep. I wanted to request him to lower the volume but by the time i went to my door, he was already standing there half naked and drunk. He started talking racist and told me “this is my country. You have come here and you should play by the rules. You have no right to stay here. I know you are a dentist and have come here to earn money. I wouldn’t get myself treated from you. And i would kill you if you clench your teeth showing your anger.” I asked him to leave and told him this was not acceptable to me. He went back to his home and started hurling abuses for my country which i recorded on my fone. I called police. Police came and took my statement, not even bothered to interrogate with him. He threatened to kill me and police is suggesting me to talk to management. I feel that it was worst mistake of my life coming to this country. Even the police is protecting them. I pay to this government and the university but the government is not protecting us. Police even suggested me to change the unit where i live. Its ridiculous. Why should i change my unit and move. The tormentor should go away, not the civilised people.

  6. zenab

    We have a situation which may be linked to racism and breach of human rights. As forgein student doing a PhD here. My prof realised the commercial value of my invention and is demanding i had over everything to him. the university is letting him get away with it and have told me they can’t protect me. He seems to have some powerful backing. My question is if it was an Australian student, would he have done what his doing. Or is it because we come from 3rd world country, we have no voice or right?

  7. John

    The saddest thing about racism in Australia is that the WHITE population condones it and MAKES EXCUSES for it. Like this piece of TRASH called Eric commenting makes it look like, “hey, there’s no racial prejudice or bias in this country, racism is a normal thing everywhere”. Clowns like this should be prosecuted or hanged.

    Australians come from British convicts, so don’t expect any class among this pathetically racist race that love to go other countries and do damage to them, but don’t want others in their own country. Australia is a DISGRACE when it comes to racism with a rubbish government making false promises and lies that there are jobs and opportunities aplenty, when there isn’t room for practically anything for anyone from outside.

  8. Alisa

    This makes me so sad, angry, disappointed and ashamed of Australia. I am so sorry to all of you who have come here, invested your time and money, only to be abused, used and disrespected. My father is japanese living here in Australia, and I agree there is a racism problem here. And what pisses me off even more, is that when white Australians visit Asian countries, they are treated like royalty and don’t experience the disrespect and discrimination that foreigners do here. I seriously don’t understand how people can think it’s okay to bully and make someone else’s life hell simply based on appearance and race.

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