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October 19, 2021

S Sorrensen’s Here & Now: Racism never takes holidays

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Image S Sorrensen

Noumea. Tuesday, 10.15am

It’s a funny place. There are retro tables with laminex (that squiggly-line laminex so fashionable in the sixties). And there’s a pink Cadillac convertible, cut in half, providing seating for four. It’s a sixties cafe with all sorts of memorabilia hanging from the walls. Tourist trap for sure. But hey, I’m a tourist here, so…

My friends are seated at one of those tables, on chromed chairs, drinking coffee, speaking French. My yellow Vespa is parked on the grass near them, looking good. Behind the Vespa, the sea is a swirl of sparkling blue hues. I’ve never seen a sea of so many blues. On the horizon, white sails glide from right to left.

When I was in Italy, I fell in love with the Vespa. To me it has an elegance of design unsurpassd in small two-wheelers. But I couldn’t afford to rent one. It cost a bomb. But here, in New Caledonia, I was able to rent a Vespa from a jolly and racist white fella running a dodgy hire joint near Anse Vata beach.

It seems most of the white folk I’ve met here don’t like the Kanaks, the indigenous people who make up 40 per cent of the population, who have been living here for at least 3,500 years. The white residents here are either Caldoche (born here but with French heritage), or Metros (born in France but now living in New Caledonia.)

Yesterday, at a supermarket check-out, a Metro holding three baguettes told me that New Caledonia could be paradise except the Kanaks are lazy. He whispered this to me because he didn’t want the Kanaka woman at the check-out to hear. They don’t want to work, he said. Which is strange, because in New Caledonia all the workers you see are Kanaks.

Kanaks have been exploited labour since the English and the French invented blackbirding, a form of slave labour, to help white people get rich. In fact, many Kanaks were forcibly taken from here to work on Queensland sugarcane farms.

A young Kanak woman stands at the till of this sixties cafe, a vintage Coca-Cola sign hanging over her. She is not happy. Her eyes flash menace. (In 1849 the crew of an American ship was killed and eaten by Kanaks. They are not victims by nature.)

Next to her is an older Australian bloke. He speaks in that Aussie drawl, making no concession to the fact that here, in New Caledonia, they speak French. (Which is why I like coming here.)

‘I haven’t got any francs,’ he says. ‘I don’t like your money. Seems dumb paying thousands for coffee. I’ll pay in Australian dollars.’

‘You haven’t any francs?’ she asks in quite good English.

‘No,’ he says, smiling stupidly.

‘Francs is our money,’ she says, jaw clenching.

I can feel the tension building. I look to another waitress, who is also Kanak (of course), who is waiting to use the till, and I say, in French, ‘She’s not happy, eh?’

She laughs, covering her mouth with her hand, and says to me, in French, ‘No, she isn’t happy at all.’

The unhappy waitress punches some numbers into a calculator and shoves the screen at the Aussie bloke. It reads something like $64.9584437612104.

‘How much is that?’ asks the man.

She mutters something I don’t catch and shoves the screen in his face.

‘Oh. 64 bucks,’ he says. ‘Expensive.’

She bares her teeth. She’s had enough. The Kanaks have had enough.

‘Non,’ she says. ‘Sixty-five dollars.’

‘I’ll give you sixty,’ he says.

She gives him a look so withering, his silly grin disappears, replaced by a nervous laugh.

He hands over $65 Australian dollars.

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