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There’s a more general post coming later about racism and other negative -isms (“negativisms”?), but I just came back from wandering around the CBD of Melbourne. Every time I do this, I’m struck by how truly diverse the inhabitants of this city are. We had people whose ancestors (if not themselves) have come from pretty much everywhere in the world on the streets. All over Asia, including the Indian sub-continent; shading through the Persian parts of the world, to the Arabic, then to the horn of Africa; central and South African; Europeans of all sorts; some people who could have been from native South American stock, though with less exposure I find it hard to tell; and last but most certainly not least, our own First Australian peoples, both majority-descent and in little touches on the faces of some of the other locals. And, of course, delightful mixtures of all of the above.

Every time I see this I’m reminded of a friend of mine, of Chinese and Scottish-Australian ancestry, who talks about travelling in Europe (even relatively “cosmopolitan” cities) and seeing visible double-takes as people tried to work out “what she was”, and the sense of relief on coming home to a place where that kind of categorisation isn’t instinctively necessary before you can be comfortable just dealing with the person in front of you.

I’m not saying racism isn’t present in Australia – I’m white, my partner’s Asian, and we still get looks in some parts of Melbourne, and definitely in the nearby but smaller city of Geelong. We’ve even had it suggested by those that would know that her surname, also obviously Asian, was a handicap in getting teaching jobs – in a state that supposedly has a shortage of teachers. The recent treatment of Indians, and the ongoing shame of our treatment of the First Australians, also show racism is still tainting the atmosphere here, even if it’s often shameful and covert, and contested, and arguably less prevalent than in some other places which (however rightly) criticise Australia as racist.

But in the Melbourne CBD today I saw humanity in – not all – a substantial part of its glorious variety, sharing the streets, giving way to one another in all the little courteous gestures that we do. And I was struck by how many of the people I saw were beautiful. All ages, all backgrounds, all sexes – there was a lot of beauty around.

I know, eye of the beholder, blah blah. But I wasn’t in that good a mood. If there’s a lot of beauty in my eye, something else must be at work.

I remember reading somewhere that our brains determine our definitions of beauty by kind of “averaging out” all the faces we see, and then determining any individual face’s variation from that norm. My idea is, maybe seeing such a wide variety of people widens our capacity to see beauty. In a mathematical sense that maybe-sort-of works – a larger sample means that an average will be more of an approximation of any one face, leaving more wiggle-room for others to fit into. But I don’t think that’s it, either. I think the habit of seeing such a wide array of possible faces in itself reduces the power that “average” face has over the imagination, so you can see a bit more clearly each face as itself rather than as a variant on an imaginary ideal. You can more quickly see the human flow of expression, and something of the underlying person(qu)ality, not a skin tone or a particular cast of feature, not a common trait that causes “them all” to “look alike” because you can’t see past it.

So one perk (of many) of living in a diverse community is that your eyes have more beauty in them. Works for me.


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