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Chapter 9: Sir, White People are Weird
By Doug Posted in Term 2 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 28 min read
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“Oh, these girls how they talk,” says Aadan. “Even worse than old women.” He mimes gossiping with his hands. I’ve arrived mid-roast, and Aadan is keen to land a strike. “This one is silent and dangerous,” he says, pointing at Michelle. “She won’t talk, she’ll just hit.” This one is half-talk, half-fight, he says, pointing at Zahra. And this one is all talk – pointing at Fatima. “Oh, I can’t wait till I can get away from them,” he says, a twinkle in his eye, the henpecked boy who quite likes the attention.

You and Fatima bicker like you’re brother and sister, I say, laughing. He looks mortified. “Sister? No. NO! I’m Somali, she’s Eritrean. We fought a war, back when Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. You know, Omar’s granddad was a colonel in the Somali military. He fought them and he won.” He laughs. Banter, an edge. Omar swivels at his name. He’s uncomfortable with the topic. “Tell him,” Aadan says. But his best friend is reluctant to brag about matters such as this. Yes, his grandfather led Somali troops, fought Ethiopia’s powerful military, killed for his country. But he never once brought it up. Killing was not a thing to boast about. And now his grandson has close Ethiopian and Eritrean friends. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Omar mutters. It reminds me of my own family. Both sets of grandparents escaped Singapore just before the Japanese took it. My grandmother’s second husband had a limp, a memento from the years he spent on the notorious Thai Burma railway, the years about which he did not speak. Now my excellent sister in law is Japanese.

Fatima pays no heed. She’s rifling through Aadan’s bag, as she does every day, looking for banter fodder. She fishes out a box of disposable gloves and wrinkles her nose. “Ew. What are these for? Hey Aadan you lightskin, what are these?” Marjani titters. “Did she just say lightskin? What does that even mean?”

The Horn crew has taken up residence outside, basking under late autumn sun. But gossip never rests. It’s a constant stream of playfights turned semi-serious turned play. Even the inseparable duo of Aadan and Omar are arguing, this time over a girl’s affections. How does this work, I ask – everyone still seems to be friends, despite the daily drama. Zahra nods. “Oh yes – that’s us. We don’t hold grudges. But white people – sir, white people are weird. No offence.”

None taken, I say, grinning. But what do you mean? Zahra’s grin turns sardonic. “Take Maria’s group. Bree did something once, and now she’s out of the group for good. They hold grudges.” And what she doesn’t say is that Michelle, too, has been ejected by Maria. I’ve heard hints of this storyline – of a strong friendship breaking up, about hard boundaries being drawn. But no-one tells me what really happened.

I’m still baffled though. How can a fight not matter? How can it blow up and blow down, I ask, trying to get the concept through my repressed Anglo head. Michelle fields this one. “It’s easy. We literally don’t hold onto issues. I used to argue so hard with Omar, and two hours later, we’re larking around. We don’t catch feelings.”

To me, raising my eyebrows slightly at a stranger, or putting the bite on the tail end of ‘mate’ – that’s an Anglo altercation. A week earlier, I’d been riding along the Capital City Trail, the bike route that was once a train line encircling the CBD. As I was overtaking a middle-aged bloke, he suddenly zipped forwards. Hmm, I thought. Maybe he didn’t see me. So I waited a minute, and tried again. Again, he zipped forward. “You don’t like being overtaken?” I say as I try to pass, and he gives me side eye. “Go for it, mate,” he says, nastily. I fall back. Then I realise his bike’s actually electric, and he’s a prize dickhead trolling me. But that’s it – that’s all the confrontation I can muster. Instead, I follow him along like a passive-aggressive limpet stuck to his arse, willing him a painful fall. Once I peel off on my road home, I think it over. Few of the African kids would put up with that pettiness, or have repressed their anger. They’d play it out. But is it better out than in?

I spot Bree and Jalene, the Yes Women, swotting for a maths test. They’re usually in the library, but with the noisy kids elsewhere, they’ve dared the common room. I’m thinking of what Zahra told me, how she finds white grudges odd. So I ask Bree why she and Maria fell out. She shrugs, cagey. “I don’t know. I’m an anxious being. She’s strong, different. But I still have no idea what I did.”

At lunchtime, Aadan and Omar sit on the benches next the basketball court, talking as friends, siblings and hangers-on circle, hoping to soak up their coolness. I’ve seen this dynamic before – the older Horn kids are motherships around which others orbit. One satellite boy points at Aadan. “10 Halimas. 10 Halimaaaaas,” he sings out, to obvious embarrassment. “Yes, thank you Abdi,” Aadan says, scowling. Halimas? Omar grins. “Halima is a Somali girl name,” he says.

Seeking a distraction, Aadan spots one of his six brothers in the yard doing a push-up competition. “Muhammed – come here,” he calls. His younger brother – striking brown eyes, impish grin – saunters over. Aadan ceremonially pulls out a letter about his behaviour, and reads out choice portions. Late to class. Time to do better. Tonight, it will go to their parents, but in absentia, Aadan, the oldest, is Dad 2IC.

The girls told me that white people are weird, I say. Is that right? They chortle at the question. White man wants to know about his kind! Then they consider the question more seriously. “Some distance themselves from us – they think they’re better than us,” Omar says. “And I can see them doing it. They think they’re better.” You feel they’re judging you? “Def-ini-tely,” Aadan says.

Omar sniffs. “Say I start a conversation with white kids – it’s like oh hey, whatcha up to, what are you doing on this bit of work?” He switches voice to whitey version. “Why are you asking? Why don’t you pay attention in class?”

Aadan whoops. “Yeah but they study, we don’t study and we get higher scores than them. So who the hell are they? That’s what teachers don’t like – we don’t seem to do work and still get good scores. They always think we’re gonna fail. But I study hard just ahead of a SAC and kill it.”

Aadan likes the Vietnamese VCE crew because they just look after their own business. “They do them – they don’t look down on anyone. They don’t care what other people say.” His brow furrows. “But us – we’re not allowed to do us.”

A thought strikes him and he brightens. “But not everyone is like that. Take Kevin – I love that guy. He doesn’t act superior. He comes to us and takes African culture. He’s a rebel and some African kids are rebels. He talks to anyone – Vietnamese, African, white.”

And what about money – does that matter? Aadan shrugs. “Sometimes. Take Paul. He’s basically black, being Malay and Muslim. But he can go a bit too far putting people down – he’s doing it for fun, but doesn’t know the effect it can have. He talks about his shoes, what he’s wearing, his appearance. Why? Because he comes from a wealthy family, he’s really rich.” He pauses. “Me, I don’t care. If I wanted to rob Paul I would have done it ages ago. But I don’t. He’s rich, but we can all be rich in our own ways. He’s rich in money, we’re rich in other stuff. Our group, we give each other shit, we roast each other, hit each other, and at the end, all love each other. That’s wealth.”

At first glance, Aadan and Omar look like brothers – long-legged boys who boast of being able to outrun trouble, both soccer players who claim their first kicks in the womb were practice for later games. But Omar is owlish and slow to rouse, Aadan quick tempered and quick witted. Their families live close to each other. “We knew each other but didn’t really kick it, you know,” Aadan says of his mate. “But when I came to school, he was the first person I saw.” Omar nods. “The girls were here before us.” Aadan scoffs. “They were the annoying ones, into my head straight away.” Here he buzzes in imitation. “No one else talking but them, so we had to connect. Now we’re gonna finish together, we’re a team.”

Tell me about the constant dramas, I say – that’s what stood out to me when I first came. Aadan sniggers. “Boys, there’s a fight and next day they’re good. Girls, they’ll be crying forever.”

The Horn crew have all told me their dramas are play. And mostly that’s true. But it’s play only until it isn’t, until someone makes real contact. I remember coming in one recess earlier in the year to see a sullen Eritrean boy pushing Omar around. Another boy jumped between them, but the Eritrean took a swing at Omar and clipped him. Shock in Omar’s eyes, glee in Zahra’s, as she ran round the common room, drawing the blinds so teachers couldn’t stop the entertainment. Soon, the year level coordinator stormed in, but Zahra was too quick – she’s warned the combatants, comes up with a story about how Year 7s are coming in and disrupting everyone, and the coordinator takes the bait.  And the instigator – a swaggering boy, that male braggadocio that speaks of insecurity – heads off, calling to Omar, low, ominous – see you after school.

I mention this to Omar. The fracas between you and the sullen Eritrean boy – surely that had potential to flare up? Both of you were on the phone calling cousins and friends to come and provide backup muscle. Omar looks a trifle uncomfortable. “I didn’t make any real calls,” he says. It was just for show. Flare up, die away. “What happened was he felt threatened, and put the blame on me, claimed he was going to bash me. But he dipped. Now it’s normal again. We don’t like him, but you gotta live with it.” Aadan laughs. “Just because there’s people watching, he’s got to be a drama queen.”

Aadan: Robbers and Cops

I notice that Aadan is still favouring one leg, so I ask, jokingly, if he’s sworn off cops and robber games. And he looks me dead in the eye and says he’ll tell me the real truth if he can be sure no-one knows his name. “That was just a story, cops and robbers,” he admits, a trifle shamefaced.

He’d spun me a story convincing in every detail, aimed it directly at what a white writer asking questions of a young African man might find most titillating. The truth was more prosaic. There he was at his aunty’s house with Omar. His cousin came running inside, saying a man was harassing his sister on the street. So down went the two best friends, waiting for the guy. There – rounding the corner, his car. “We start screaming, everyone from the hood together,” Aadan says. “We throw a bin at him, and he drives off but hits a parked car. He jumps out, goes to his boot and gets something out of it. We’re like – we gotta get out of here. Knife, gun? Guys – run. Omar was in front of me, and we ran till we hit a dead end, with him behind us. I had to jump in the dark and landed on concrete. Omar was lucky. He landed in a garden bed.” He grimaces. “The guy only had a metal pole – but you think the worst. Streets aren’t safe these days. And with the cops there, they’ll target anyone.” So that’s it, I think to myself – that’s the truth of it, the reason Aadan’s dream of being a soccer star might be cut short.

Aadan knows boys who dropped out of school and now do street robberies. It angers him – because it means that cops ramp up their surveillance in response. “You might get blamed for a crime you didn’t do,” Omar says. Aadan nods. “Cops are a real issue. That Apex and Menace to Society stuff – they take that out on other black people. If you steal a car, first offence, you’ll get in real trouble. That’s how the game is right now.”

But were Apex and the other so-called gangs real? Weren’t they mostly a media beat up, I ask. “Most of those who said they were a gang are now locked up,” Aadan says. “They never learn – for them, the jail system is fun cos they have all their mates there. But I wouldn’t want to go to jail and ruin my life. [Juvenile detention centre] Parkville might be fun, but when you’re 18 you go to big boy jail.” Omar sits quietly, sucking in one cheek. “It’s all fun and games when you’re young, but later when you want to get a job, you aint got nothing,” he says. Aadan leans back. “One thing we’ve always got – we can run. I thank god we can run. Me and Omar, we wait for them to come closer – and then we run.”

Their parents are strict – they want Aadan and Omar to keep their Somali side alive, though they were born here. “I can be traditional. I can turn it off or on, like a button. For younger – it’s screw you, screw you too cuz,” Aadan says, laughing. For them, Somalia is a place on a map, and the tribal groupings that led to war are just names. But for their wary parents, the old country isn’t entirely over. They restrict their sons dating, scrutinise their movements. They are worried about police, too. At home, police might ask for bribes. Here, there are different concerns – like being black and male in public after carjackings and home invasions and the panicked media coverage, outrage and Facebook pile-ons.

“My parents think the smallest things are the biggest things,” Aadan says. “They think we can’t handle ourselves when it comes to police. Their instinct is we need to look out.”

Omar nods slowly. “My mum’s overprotective. I get like 20 phone calls a day. But I’ve always been a mommas boy.” You, I ask, disbelieving.  He grins sheepishly. “They’re just looking out for us. They’re not used to this culture. Everything is different, and they think we’re gonna get Westernised, lose our culture. What happens is you just keep some of your traditions – I speak Somali, but only at home.” Aadan cuts in. “We’re not as religious as they’d like us to be. I show my parents a different face. To them, we’re always gonna be their little boys.”

A stray soccer ball spirals in towards us, and Omar sees his moment. He leaps and tonks it back, only to see it spin out of control towards an older teacher, who puts up a foot to no avail. “Watch out,” Omar calls, but it’s too late. The ball slams into his stomach. Omar doubles over in laughter. “Don’t laugh, it got him,” says Aadan. “Say sorry bro.” But he can’t resist a sly poke. He calls out to the half-winded teacher: “Beautiful control sir, love the control.”

So what about dating, I ask, when the boys are back with me. It seems that secrecy is vital, right? Can you date? Aadan squirms. “Look, with Kadeer, that wasn’t really a relationship. Well, we had something, but then she messed it up and we had nothing. And – I did like her a lot – but shit happens. So yeah, you can date. I’m at the stage where I could tell my mum.” He stops, looking shocked at what just came out of his mouth. “Actually, no, I wouldn’t tell her. Cos if she found out, she’d be okay, but then she’d ask – what’s the point of dating her if you’re not going to marry her?”

Can you mess around, I ask. Aadan rocks back on his haunches. “Depends on the girl. If she’s classy and just looking for marriage, she should save it. But if she ain’t, we getting it on bro,” he says, laughing. Omar looks sceptical. “You have no money, you’re living with your parents – you’re a catch,” he says, ribbing his mate.

Aadan stiffens his spine. “I’m very well known in the area, thank you. My dad’s a famous Somali singer, touring right now in Kenya. I’ll be on the train and someone will say – you’re his son. I can’t go anywhere.”

Omar spots a Turkish ladies man playing cat and mouse with the emotions of three girls at once on a grassy slope nearby. “You want dating? Look there.” Aadan looks. “Oi! You catfish! Stick to one girl,” he calls out, and the boy very deliberately turns his back, as if to say don’t mess with my hard work.

“Man, that guy is really complicated,” Aadan says. “One day you see him with one girl from this school, another day a girl from another school. Somehow he stays friends with all of them.” Omar looks at his watch. “Hey, can we skip class? Write us a note Doug, make something up.” Uh. I don’t actually have any power here, I confess. And off they lope, reluctantly.

As lunchtime ends, I walk past a ragtag game of rugby, complete with a fair bit of pushing and chest-thumbing. I watch with interest. It seems to be confronting for the white kids, to have this open challenge – you can see it in their uncertainty, not knowing whether it means attack or just hot air. Good for them, perhaps. It’s certainly been good for me, to adjust my radar, to become comfortable with a mode of being that I’d previously shied away from.  

Michelle: The Shaming

“You want to hear that story?” Michelle asks. She looks around at her girlfriends. Zahra shakes her head slowly. “Nuh-uh. Not this story. Classified.” Michelle casts me a look. “You’ll see me so differently sir.” She sighs. “But then the teachers already know, and she told everyone else too.” I’ve heard snippets about what happened to Michelle and Maria’s friendship, heard rumours about drunkenness at a party. But I sense there’s more to it.

So Michelle tells it clear, tells it full. Maria was the first real white friend Michelle ever had. None of the white friendships from her first primary school stuck, and her second had almost no Anglo kids. But Maria was different. “You know why? She was relatable,” Michelle says. “When she got in trouble, her mum was really cultural.” I raise an eyebrow. Is that a euphemism? The girls cackle. “It means she got slapped when she was bad,” Michelle says, laughing. Not only that – Maria’s dad was European Muslim. The two of them were tight. Birthdays, laughter, shared stories. And then at the start of 2017, shit went down.  

It was Maria’s 18th birthday. But she didn’t want to make it huge. She invited a small group of close friends to a party at her house. Her Greek mates, Aussie mates, and her African crew – Michelle, and her buddies, Zahra and Fatima, Aadan and Omar. But Kadeer wanted to come too. Back then, she was tightly in the group.

Michelle met Kadeer at the train station. While they waited, Kadeer lifted the flap of her bag, just an inch. There it was – a bottle of cheap vodka, a strict no-no for practicing Muslims, and a dangerous game for second gen Muslims who have to appear strict when their parents are watching. “Let’s have a drink before we go to the party,” Kadeer said, conspiratorial. Michelle had never so much as sniffed alcohol, and neither, Kadeer claimed, had she. The first sip tasted like Dettol. Michelle gagged. It was disgusting. “I’m getting a buzz,” Kadeer said. Michelle still felt nothing, so she forced down half the bottle. The train arrived, and she hopped on. And then all of a sudden, the train was lurching and Michelle’s world was spinning and everything felt wrong. She spewed as soon as they got off the train, again outside the party. Kadeer, too, was munted. Zahra met them outside and tried to help. But she soon figured out they needed time out. “Don’t go in. Serious. Stop. Do not go in,” she told them. But Michelle was determined-drunk. “I have to,” she slurred. “She’s my best friend.” So there’s Michelle, stumbling, unsteady, about to plunge into a small group of friends at 9pm.

Maria opened the door and saw the scene. “What’s wrong with them,” she asked Zahra. “They’re sick,” she said, straight faced. Maria could scent the vomit. “I don’t think I can let you guys in – why’d you come here like this?” she asked. Michelle and Kadeer tried to sober up outside, and soon, Michelle regained her senses courtesy of two pukes. But Kadeer hadn’t puked. She was pretending to be sober. So they risked it, went inside. And then, Kadeer let fly – a prodigious vom over the dinner table, the party food, in front of everyone. Michelle tried to haul her away mid-vomit but nothing could staunch the damage. Maria’s mum – a tough woman – was icily angry. “Those girls,” she told her daughter, “are bad, bad news.”

“I was traumatised. I’ll never pick up alcohol again,” Michelle says mournfully. Worse was to come. When school started back, Maria told the story widely. Soon everyone knew that Michelle Was Not A Good Muslim. “She told everyone. I’m so scared my grandma will find out,” she says, grimacing. Zahra nods. “She wants to tell the whole world.”

Michelle’s face is caught in a twisted grin. There’s catharsis in retelling the story. But she’s still dangling from the hook of her actual social dilemma. “What do you call drink shaming? It needs a name,” she says. “I want to forget it so bad, but I cant. Anything that mentions alcohol, her and her little table of friends give me this look. It’s so embarrassing.”

Michelle’s tried everything – direct apology, pleading, back channels. Nothing has worked. Maria is a wall, unyielding. “I did something wrong – is it so hard to keep it between you and me? Why you got to share my problems with everyone,” she says. “And you know what gets me? Her friends do bongs. One of them Snapchats himself doing pills. They do everything. And Maria knows they do, and she wants to judge me for being Muslim and drinking.” She shakes her head. A cold European punishment, leaving the condemned to twist in the breeze.

Zahra scoffs. “That’s what I hate – they can’t say your name or confront you, because they’re scared they’ll get their ass beat.” They? You mean white people? Zahra nods emphatically. Michelle jumps in: “It’s not fair. I mean, I know her father drinks – do you see me judging him for being a bad Muslim? She doesn’t get that, doesn’t understand the boundaries. And if you confront her, she gets angry or cries. That’s why I don’t understand white people sometimes.” Zahra nods. “Plus they always snitch.”

The trio debate the peculiarities of white people. Fatima bounces with nervous energy, waves her painted nails in the air for emphasis. She gives her O’s and W’s sharp edges. Zahra claps her palms together to add punch to her points. Michelle flares her eyes, mock-stares. It’s all performance, all the time. I am thoroughly entertained. 

Michelle cuts through the noise. “OK sir. There are two types of white people here – over-achievers who work really hard and below-achievers doing bongs in the bathrooms. There are no kids in the middle.” Fatima jumps in. “Well – we’re in the middle! We work hard, but we balance things.”

I think about this. It’s a blind spot for me: the school has encouraged me to talk to the high achievers from different backgrounds, and the druggie group don’t want to talk to me. Are you friends with the under-achievers, I ask. Michelle makes a face. “It’s not that they’re white, it’s the personality that comes with that skin colour,” she jokes. Her friends roar with laughter. “OK – more seriously. What is there for us to talk about? With us, we’re practically the same – what we eat, childhood things, memories. With them – it’s a cultural barrier.”

There is, the girls say, a gulf between their worlds. For two years, Michelle went to a high school in Sydney. She remembers listening silently to a white girl complain that her mum was such a bitch for refusing to let her go out last Saturday night, that she’ll get revenge by going out that Saturday and coming back at six am. And then – another white girl jumped in, saying that when she gets in trouble, she cuts herself. Why do you cut yourself, Michelle asked in disbelief. And the girl – who was 15 – told her that she went out the night before and got home at 7am and her mum slapped her and told her to go to her room. There she carved lines in her arm with disposable razor blades. “She couldn’t deal with the emotion,” Michelle says. “I was like bro, if it was me I’d be hit with the poles. I wouldn’t need to cut myself. This is why I don’t understand white girls.”

The poles – long bits of dowel, the method of choice for strict Somali parents to enforce discipline. Physical punishment for infractions, just as it was in Australia fifty years ago. “This is why I feel closest to Islanders,” Michelle says. “They get hidings too.” Fatima is listening closely. “I wouldn’t dare do that, rock up home at 7am and put my key to the keyhole. Nah, man. Wouldn’t disrespect my parents like that. They raised me, taught me, and I gotta respect that, I’m under their roof.”

Zahra nods. “It’s like they don’t have boundaries, or don’t know their boundaries. When you mention an issue you face, they compare their own stories. But how can you compare? We’re different. I don’t know if we could ever be friends. Workmate, fine, but not friends. And we’re too crazy for them. When you talk to a white girl and she tells you about her life, you don’t say anything, don’t judge her. But when you talk about yours – especially about religion – they’re like what? They say omigod, your religion is so controlling. They see things in the media about Islam and think it’s the truth.”

Michelle snorts. “Man, we sound so racist.” Zahra doesn’t care. “Look, end of the day, I don’t think they’ll accept me for who I am. And I don’t want to be treated like a charity case to fix up out of pity.” I leave them, wondering. Is this talk racist? Or is race just another wrinkle? At my school, the high achievers gave the bongheads a wide berth, and the middling group that accepted nerds like me didn’t like either. Race matters because people think it matters. That’s how a crack can widen into a gulf.  

If you stand outside Brunswick Body Repairs, all you’d see is a shuttered old mechanic’s shop, the roller door carpeted in artless graffiti. But inside, there’s a freelance office space, clean birch lines, indoor plants and Friday arvo drinks. It sums up Melbourne, to me – that sense of the city as a series of private beauties, austere exteriors concealing beautiful insides, reserved for friends and the chosen. As I drive to the school another day through dark clouds and full sun, I think of the parallels with the city’s people – our surface friendliness coupled with the sheer difficulty of cracking open private spaces, of gaining full access.

I’m thinking of this because a former teacher at the school has come to talk about her novel charting a migrant Chinese man’s experience here, mirroring, perhaps, her own. There’s racism directed towards him. But her character is not a Shining Migrant. He’s human – stubborn, resistant to change, unwilling to modify himself. The author is small statured, a powerful voice. After her talk, she tells me she wrote the book, in part, to try to get Australians to talk about difference openly. “Look – I’m married to an Anglo. I am acutely aware of the undercurrents that go on,” she says. “If we don’t talk openly, we get Hansonism.” But her efforts to get her audience of students to talk openly about culture and difference fail. Too hard, too hard. The risk of offending means no one says anything. And so the same undercurrents ripple through the school.

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