Amit Khaira is a teacher and Christian chaplain of Hindu background who normally gets around largely unnoticed in a t-shirt and jeans.
But in January 2018 he decided to begin a year-long social experiment in which he grew a beard, shaved his head and wore a kurta.
“I learned a lot.”
The father of four told Nadia Mitsopoulos and Russell Woolf on ABC Radio Perth that the experience was like “walking around with a red flag on you”. “I got a lot of facial expressions … a lot of questions; you just get noticed a lot more.
“Some people would talk a little bit slower and a bit clearer because I might not understand — others will cross the street. “There were different experiences through the year when I definitely felt uncomfortable and was made to feel uncomfortable.” Mr Khaira said people he encountered were surprised when he began speaking in a broad Australian accent.
‘Go back to where you came from’
He said the most confronting experience occurred during an after-school visit to the supermarket to buy a barbecue chicken. “I had someone tell me to go back to where I came from, while I had my younger daughter with me. “She was quite confused, asking why is this person speaking to dad this way, we don’t even know him.
“All I could say to her was, ‘he’s just scared, it’s OK’.”
Mr Khaira decided to stay calm and respond with humour. “I just said: ‘As soon as I get my chicken I am planning on going home, I’ve just come to get my chook’. “I just tried to keep it as calm as possible, but maybe that person experienced hurt in his past — I don’t know him, so I don’t want to jump to a conclusion.
‘You look like a Muslim extremist’
Mr Khaira said he undertook the experiment as a way of starting conversations. “The first time I did the social experiment was actually back in 2013 and I was a high school chaplain,” he said. “During that year some of my colleagues at my school would come to me and say: ‘When are you going to get rid of that thing? Every time I look at you I feel like there is a Muslim extremist here at school’.
“These were my colleagues saying things like this.
“Essentially, they would say ‘we have a right to be afraid’ — it’s the ‘rightly so’ stuff that I want to question.”
An interesting train ride
On another occasion, he said he noticed an instant fear reaction from commuters when he boarded a train to the city on his way to a conference. “There was spare space next to a lady reading a newspaper. I went and I sat down next to her and greeted her in a traditional way,” Mr Khaira said. “The newspaper just went up higher — a lot of people started turning on their phones, maybe recording what was going on.”
When a colleague, whose nickname is Boom, boarded the train at the next stop, Mr Khaira called out to greet his friend. “He walked on with his coffee, we were going to the same conference. I yelled out ‘Boom’ and everyone just hit the deck. “It was an interesting train ride [into the city].
“I don’t want to make people scared, but the fact that we allow fear to dictate how we engage, I think we need to do whatever we can to make people move through that.”
Overcoming fear of the unknown
Ultimately, the experiment demonstrated how fear and first impressions get in the way of relationships and understanding, he said. “This biggest lesson [from the year] is how too often we allow fear to dictate relationships.
“Fear exists because something or someone is unknown. “If someone or something is unknown, are we willing to make the time and make the effort to make that which is unknown known? “I think when we do that, there is some real beauty that we can find.”
Much to the relief of Mr Khaira’s wife and children, he has shaved the beard off.