When the migrants came to Australia from Southern and Eastern Europe and then the Middle East, we were called wogs or filthy whites. This term was used to separate us from the superior and privileged white population. We had our ‘smelly sandwiches’ as [writer Susie] O’Brien puts it. The term ‘wog’ was used to punch us to the ground both physically and emotionally, to remind us of our place in the pecking order of Australia.

We were at the bottom of the queue when it came to opportunities, and the arts were no different. The creators of shows like Acropolis Now and all the ‘wog’ shows that came along with it were very smart because they took the pain that was born from this racism and turned it into art. If white Australia was not going to open the door to our stories, then they would give them the comedy they wanted: comedy where they could laugh at us.

This word, coming out of a white person’s mouth, is a reminder of all that happened, of the racism endured and the art that was born from it. As an artist it’s a reminder that stereotypes are preferred because this is how white Australia like to enjoy us, like to understand us. Not individual people with unique stories to tell, but as collective, ethnic, wogs. We love your cooking but do we think you are on par with our intellect? No.

Koraly Dimitriadis on the pecking order.

So “Franklin” is my husband’s name. The name I had before that name? Y’all couldn’t pronounce.1

Eastern and Southern Europeans in Australia have an… interesting experience with racism. It’s also one that doesn’t translate well to Anglo Australia, who nowadays tend to read us as simply “white”. Anglos get really pissy when you bring up little facts like that reading is new within my parents’ lifetimes, and largely only exists because other, non-European ethnic groups started immigrating from about the 1970s, essentially slotting in underneath Eastern and Southern Europeans on the racism pecking order.

“No one can tell you’re ethnic!” I’ve been told by more than one “well-meaning” Anglo. “You just look white.”

Really? When I grew up having to listen to all and sundry tell my Anglo mother I “looked just like my father”? At the time, I thought they meant I looked like a forty-something-year-old man. In retrospect, they meant I looked like a wog.

I do look like my father, for the record: I have dark moles rather than my mother’s Irish freckles, “Russian cheekbones”, and jet-black eyebrows to match my straw-blonde hair. Continental Europeans, and Eastern Europeans in particular, recognize me as Eastern European. It’s lead to some gross situations in bars (think “Russian-mail-order bride”).

And, yet: I pass white to white Australia. So long as I keep my accent in check and eat the right foods and celebrate Christmas on the right day and don’t mention my last name. My experience of ethnicity, such as it is, is more a denial of my difference than a reminder of it. It’s subtle and passive, not the white-hot violence and overt racism experienced by Asian and Middle Eastern and African and Indigenous Australians.

So I’m white, I guess, for simplicity’s sake. I’ll take the label. But I’ll always remember I’m not the one who assigned it, and I’ll always remember how easily it can be stripped away.

  1. Actually, no one can pronounce it, because it’s not a name; it’s legit just some made-up word. We have no clue really who my paternal grandfather was, only that it was WWII and everyone in Eastern Europe at the time was trying to hide from someone… []