Canberra's Jemma Irving tells her story on Taboo

Canberra's Jemma Irving with Taboo host Harley Breen. Picture: Supplied
Canberra's Jemma Irving with Taboo host Harley Breen. Picture: Supplied

Canberra public servant Jemma Irving appears on Thursday night's episode of Taboo, speaking about how racism has affected her life and her wish to protect her own children from the same treatment she has received.

On the WIN Network show, host Harley Breen asks the so-called taboo questions, breaking stereotypes and misconceptions around touchy subjects. This week, he sits down with Jemma, 33, and three others subjected to almost everyday, incidental, ingrained acts of discrimination.

They discuss the lasting impact this almost off-hand racism has had on their life.

"I've walked into a shop and been ignored and then a woman of Anglo appearance will come in and the shop assistant will say straight away, 'Oh, hello, can I help you?'," Jemma said.

Canberra's Jemma Irving appears on Thursday's episode of Taboo.

Canberra's Jemma Irving appears on Thursday's episode of Taboo.

"My friend and I were having breakfast in the [Sutherland] Shire and the waitress took her order and then asked her, 'What does she want?'. My friend said, 'She can order for herself' and the waitress was like, 'Oh, I didn't think she could speak English'.

"I've been in a shopping centre with my daughter and someone will think I've pushed the pram into them and they'll tell me to 'Go back to where I came from'."

Jemma, as a young uni student, was also pushed over, spat on and again told to "go back to where you come from" by a drunk in Newcastle. Even then, she was almost apologising for his behaviour, because he was intoxicated.

She says the racism was purely and simply based on appearances. Not on cultural misunderstandings, because she did not know "anything about my culture".

"I grew up white. This wasn't about cultural differences. It was only about how I Iooked," she said.

Canberra's Jemma Irving (right) with fellow guests on Taboo (from left): Sarah Gadalla, Aaron Nagas, and Yong Deng. Picture: Supplied

Canberra's Jemma Irving (right) with fellow guests on Taboo (from left): Sarah Gadalla, Aaron Nagas, and Yong Deng. Picture: Supplied

Jemma, now a mum of two, was born in South Korea. She was adopted at four months from an orphanage by a white couple from Barraba in country NSW. She said she never felt any racism until she moved to bigger cities.

Her adopted father was a farmer and her mother was a school teacher. She knew she was different but felt protected, known and appreciated in her small-town community.

When she went to university and travelled more, she felt things shift. It wasn't headline-grabbing incidents of racism, just a sustained treatment that affected her to her core, but which she more often just brushed off.

Jemma didn't want to ever see that behaviour visited upon her own children, especially when it was making her question her own self-worth.

Taboo host Harley Breen (centre) with Canberra's Jessica Irving (second from right) and Aaron Nagas, Yong Deng and Sarah Gadalla. Picture: Supplied

Taboo host Harley Breen (centre) with Canberra's Jessica Irving (second from right) and Aaron Nagas, Yong Deng and Sarah Gadalla. Picture: Supplied

"When I became a mum, I didn't want my kids to feel like that," she said.

Being on Taboo was almost cathartic, she said, as she felt a kindred spirit with her fellow guests.

"I just felt myself and for the first time I didn't have to explain racism, they knew," she said.

Jemma was contacted by the production company behind Taboo when they read an article about her and her experience of racism. The executive producer also met with her in Canberra to allay any fears she had about the show.

Jemma said appearing on the show had been a "100 per cent" positive experience and made her realise other people's racism was not her problem to solve but she did want to speak up and help people understand her reality.

  • Taboo is on WIN on Thursday at 8.40pm