Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and where you were before deciding to become/run as a politician?
My family is culturally Indian. My dad was born in Chittagong, which is now part of Bangladesh, and my mother was born in Lucknow, which is in the north of India. So that’s where I identify – as South Asian or Indian or Indian Australia, any of those things. I personally was born in Papua New Guinea. My parents were on a working holiday in the 1970’s and I was born over there and moved to Australia when I was six months old. I grew up in Eastwood which is [now] one of the culturally diverse places in Australia, but back then was quite homogenous.
I have spent all of my professional life as a teacher. I trained in education and now teach the next generation of teachers at the Western Sydney University. I’ve taught at schools in Sydney and Canberra, and then went to join a university in Brisbane for a long time. Now I teach at Western Sydney University which is a wonderful experience teaching some of the most diverse groups of teachers in the world, which is really fantastic. So being involved in education, which was part of what brought me into politics, is watching students who are contending with so many issues in their lives. [These students] don’t need detention, they don’t need suspension or expulsion – what they actually need is secure housing, adequate healthcare for themselves and their families, if they’re on Centrelink payments they need that to be above the poverty line, they need food in their stomachs, healthy food as well. That’s what brought me to politics. I realised that education was so effective but it’s really like putting a bandaid on a haemorrhage and there’s actually so much structurally that we need to change. When I was growing up, even now, politics was very white and homogenous. There wasn’t much representation of migrants of colour or Asian people, and I wanted to see that change and decided to step up and be a voice in the community as well.
How does your cultural background shaped the way you engaged/looked with Australian politics
It shapes everything about what I do. Everything that I do is coloured (pardon the pun) by my cultural background. I grew up in a conservative Indian [household]. My parents were Liberal voters and have traditional values, but there’s a lot about my family’s background that I do value. Their love and the way they’ve treated education in my family is important. They [saw] education for their children and themselves [as a pathway] to a better life and a better world. I most certainly agree that education is a key to transforming a society. My parents also taught me the importance of family, and the importance of strong support structures around you. My mother (she won’t allow me to say her age) was in the later years of her life when she had me. She lives alone but has so many family and friends who come to visit her and are her support network. And I see that value [of] having strong family structures and strong community structures, and families look different to everybody, they don’t have to look like mine. But that was modelled for me, that if you can be an active member of your family and your community, and if you can reach the hand of friendship and help those around you, that’s going to be repaid to you tenfold. So community and family was also important growing up.
As for my life in politics now, I definitely feel the brunt of racism when I run for parliament. I definitely feel the weight of the community and carrying that when running for parliament as well. And perhaps what other candidates don’t have to consider is the weight of the opinions of their community, or the amount of help and assistance you would need to give to your community. I guess that’s an added responsibility that candidates of colour have, and also First Nations. You don’t run for yourself, you run for the entire community, it’s a huge responsibility, one that I take very seriously. You’re also representing your community, so it’s easy for people to look at me and say ‘Look at Rachael Jacobs, these are how Indian people/migrants are’. It’s easy. And I don’t want to fall into the trap of being a model minority. In fact, I want to redefine what being a model migrant is like.
When I was growing up, we were taught that to be a good migrant was to speak excellent English, to work hard, to be law abiding, to be a good citizen, to be successful – especially financially successful. These were the things that my family defined as a successful family life, but it was pushing us more towards assimilation and whiteness. I don’t blame my parents at all, they moved here in the 1960s and they were told ‘You are Australian now and you need to give up your language, culture, and you don’t need to speak your language anymore. What you need is to become Australian’. Now that we know assimilation is damaging and really dangerous, [so] what we need is a more integrated model. I believe being a good citizen is to actively question your government, to push your government to do better, to support parties that want to do better, to have rich and full support of our natural environment, [and] to care for our land and not exploit it. It’s an active process of questioning ‘What can we do better?’. And for me it has been a learning journey that all of this has to be centred around First Nations justice, [especially because] I am from a country that was colonised by the British and was irrevocably damaged by colonisation. First Nations solidarity was never part of my life growing up, and being a ‘model migrant’ is to have that solidarity, and is where we should be placing our energies instead of decolouring ourselves. It’s a hard conversation and it’s almost a generational change. I have privilege as well, such as accent privilege, western name privilege, I wear western clothes, so it is also part of my responsibility to do the work in my community as well.
How were you supported as an Asian Australian in/contending to be part of the political scene?
The answer is multidimensional. I am hugely supported by my family, by my partner. My mum is extremely supportive, and my family are really excited by the prospect of somebody running for office and running for Grayndler – so I’m running against the potential Prime Minister. So my family and my community are very proud that I’m running in such a high profile seat. I’m also hugely supported by my party, the Greens. They’ve taken active steps to racially diversify over the last few years. Traditionally, the environmental movement was a very white movement and the Greens, like all parties, have a long way to go but they are so supportive of a woman of colour, and one running in such a high profile seat. They actively ask me what kind of support would be needed, they wanted to know about instances of causal or systemic racism so they can be supportive. At the same time, it’s a very white party and there is always more they can do to support candidates of colour or First Nations candidates. When you become a candidate you really are thrown to the wolves and that is exacerbated by race, gender, class, sexuality, disabilities, all of the things that we have to deal with. I’m a queer woman of colour as well. So for example, [all] the online harassment I face is racialised, it’s highly sexualised usually, and it’s occasionally queerphobic. I want to [also] recognise my own privilege in that space. I am in a heterosexual relationship, but I am straight passing as well, so very privileged in that space. I think there’s a lot more we can do to support candidates from minority backgrounds, or marginalised and vulnerable identities. There’s so much work we need to do to even up that playing field. But I do feel really supported by everybody who comes aboard and realises that this is a campaign that centres people of colour’s perspective – so you have to be on board with that. It’s non-negotiable.
I honestly feel like I’m part of a movement when I’m standing with the Greens. There’s a history and a lot of researchers and I value the intellectual conversations I’ve had. I feel like I’m standing shoulder to shoulder and I feel like I’m not alone and feel the weight of Green’s history. I don’t want to applaud white structures for doing things they should be doing, [like] supporting minority candidates, but I do feel like [the Greens] walk the talk.
How would you explain the lack of Asian Australian representation in Parliament/why is there such a lack of Asian Australian representation, given how large the community is?
Lack of representation [exists] in parliament, in board rooms, on advisory bodies, in leadership and management, in all sectors, in arts and the media. I don’t think it’s particular to politics but it is definitely a problem. [And] me and you both know it’s not the lack of ambition, or lack of trying. There are ceilings in place that are there for a reason, it’s by design. You are not just empowering Asian Australians, you are empowering a whole community, and a lot of people are wary of that. There is way too much history about Asians, this is as old as federation, as old as colonisation, these are racist myths that were perpetuated during the Gold Rush. The foundation of Australia was made for the White Australia Policy to actively keep us out of the country. The denial of First Nations justice has been linked to our diverse community, like ‘We’re all racially diverse, why can’t we all just get along?’. There’s been an active effort to divide us.
I just want to acknowledge here that the anti-Chinese sentiment through this election has been abhorrent and is absolutely shameful and disgusting. As a migrant, I don’t experience the anti-Chinese sentiment that is being expressed in parliament that some of my Chinese friends or colleagues and candidates are experiencing. There is a wariness about Asians having too much power, and what they might do with that power. It is racist and it needs to be called out. There are some people who think there should be limitations to our power. So for example, there was an online discussion between friends of mine, one of them said, ‘Should dual citizens run for parliament?’, and somebody said, ‘Oh yeah, but it depends on where they’re dual citizens of. It’d be okay if it was this country, but would it be okay if it was China?’. This was horrifically racist and it upsets me. It’s easy to look at Pauline Hanson and say that’s what a racist looks, making those statements, dressing up in a burqa. But just being a little bit racist or a little bit of exclusionary is still okay because you haven’t reached that level of racism. And what people like Hanson do, is when they get elected in 1996 and make statements about Asians, is that they plant seeds in people’s minds that say, ‘Do we really want to go in this direction? Have we gone a bit far?’.
So unfortunately our exclusion is by design, to prove that we are exactly the right mix: that we don’t have too much power but we want to be vocal and to be seen and heard and want to contribute to our country, but not too much because that would be wrong. I want to see this change.
That is why I show up to run for parliament, and why I show up to be in protests, and participate in the grassroots democracy movement. [It is] to be on the frontline as an activist because there needs to be change, and we need Asian representation everywhere. Because that’s the only way we can change it, and bit by bit we push the boundaries, and as we push the boundaries of what is acceptable for us to do, we change what is possible for this generation and the next generation to do. Our existence is conditional, it’s always at the whim of what white Australia will have or expect.
Were/Are there any barriers you’ve had to face? And what were they?
Definitely. There were barriers, from my family. I was brought up to not be political, to be quiet and compliant. And my parents also said to me at some stage, ‘In this country, they just won’t have leaders who look like you’. I was told that we had entered a white society and we needed to play by their rules and that this society wouldn’t be able to cope with someone like me in a position of power. That was very early on in the 80s. Thank goddess things have changed, but there are definitely barriers. Within the community, I still get told I speak very good English – I do actually have a PhD in Education and was an English teacher so I would really hope so. I still get asked questions that tokenise my culture, get asked if I changed my name and profound misunderstandings about what it takes to be an Australian. There’s also barriers within my party as well. I want to give you a full and clear picture, while it is a supportive community, it is still a really white movement. We have to do a lot to unpick the structural racism that is embedded in all institutions and that includes embedded in political parties.
” How can we use our experiences and marginalisation to extend a hand to pull up everyone else? Because there’s no liberation until we’re all pulled over the wall. I judge people by one criteria, and one criteria only: how many people have you pulled over the wall with you?”Rachael Jacobs
You have to stand up for your community, and be a model for your culture, a model for the Green movement, and a model for different stakeholders that exists. That’s something people of colour find too hard and so they vacate the space of politics, which is really unfortunate. I also get really frustrated when I see the ‘ladder pulling’, and I think there is a better phrase to it. But ‘ladder pulling’ is when one group becomes empowered and they’ve pulled the ladder up after they’ve become empowered. Instead of using the ladder as solidarity to lift other people from marginalised groups out of their situation, they pull the ladder up. An example of that is white feminists. I have felt very margnialised in feminist spaces, particularly in my early years in politics. I found that there were people who I didn’t identify with their life experience and were certainly not interested in identifying with mine. I felt sectioned off, silenced, ignored and talked over as part of the white feminist movement. I was really puzzled [as to] why they couldn’t use my marginalisation to empower others, and then I realised that was by design as well. White feminists were empowering themselves. Now we have better language around calling out people who are white, and feminists have better language structures to call that out as well. So that’s something I would want to work on as well – intersectionality. How can we use our experiences and marginalisation to extend a hand to pull up everyone else? Because there’s no liberation until we’re all pulled over the wall. I judge people by one criteria, and one criteria only: how many people have you pulled over the wall with you?
If you had to introduce one aspect of Indian culture to the broader non-Asian what would it be?
Good question! My comedy answer is going to be Bollywood dancing and Pani Puri. Bollywood dancing because it’s joy that comes from inside the heart and connects with people in such an incredible way. Pani Puri because it’s absolutely delicious, it’s the greatest flavour combinations.
But my real answer is South Asian resistance. We always knew what we could be because our ancestors told us what we could be. We knew what we could be when we kicked the British out, we knew what we could be facing down abject poverty and told by the rest of the world that the region was overpopulated and it was all our fault. The way South Asia has resisted in so many of those spaces, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to all the things such as the rise of right wing facism and the rise of militarism (I am appalled at the leadership of Modi in India at the moment). But underneath those things is a deep sense of resistance and that is the part of being Indian I’m proud of – it’s the resistor. And when we get that ‘we don’t rock the boat’, historically we do, historically we fuck shit up. I’m here for it. I’m here for land rights, here for the solidarity of the First Nations people, I’m here for reparations and here for repatriation of the lands and waterways because that’s what I was told by my ancestors. So that’s what I would tell them.
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