As Resham Singh and his friend waited for the train at Dandenong Station, they were racially abused by two teenagers, who appeared to be drug-affected. "You Indians, we hate you, we will kill you." The two Indians ignored them, but soon they returned with four other men. They punched and kicked Singh, removed his turban and attempted to cut his hair - an unthinkable affront to a practising Sikh. Fortunately their attack was interrupted by the approach of police.
The racist nature of this recent attack is undeniable. But is it typical of the recent spate of attacks on Indians in Australia?
With the recent street violence against Indians in Melbourne and Sydney, and all the hysteria it generated, the spotlight has been placed on the question of race in Australia. Are we a racist country? And more specifically, are we racist against Indians?
Certainly, when the issue of “curry-bashing” began to get more publicity in the media, I was taken by surprise. While there have always been anti-immigrant sentiments among a section of society, I have never heard of any trend of virulent racism directed specifically at South Asians. Certainly, I have heard people mutter some unflattering stereotypes, but nothing that would imply violence as a next step.
The initial reaction of police was to claim the attacks were not racially motivated. Politicians’ response was also to remind us that Australia is not a racist country. While I’m sure that to an extent the police could not find conclusive evidence of racist motivations, part of it seemed to be damage control, not wanting anyone to panic. If so, this tactic didn’t work, and it wasn’t too long before Victoria’s Police Commissioner Simon Overland conceded that racism was clearly an element in some of the attacks.
There is a reason why Indian students didn’t buy into the whole “there’s no racism here” argument, and it is not, as some have argued, due to Indians’ alleged proneness to hysteria.
The reason is that if you are a non-white migrant to this country, you have a different perspective about racism than the police and politicians, one that comes from experience.
It is easy for Simon Overland or Kevin Rudd or Andrew Bolt to talk about how Aussies are not a racist people, and that this is only the work of a few bad apples. White men of privilege are simply not exposed to racism in the same way. But talk to someone from Asia or Africa and you will hear different stories.
Many Indian international students studying in Melbourne have heard verbal racist abuse directed towards them on the street, or at least have heard about it happening to a friend. Many Chinese students also report this. “F*** off back to your own country” and similar phrases are not unfamiliar to many Asian students.
But it is not just the new arrivals who experience this – those born and raised in Australia have their own stories to tell.
Bobby is a doctor of Sri Lankan background who grew up in Australia. He says it is not uncommon for patients to refuse to be treated by South Asian doctors. Must be difficult to be a racist medical patient, since medicine in Australia is so dominated by East and South Asians.
Shanthani is part-Indian, light-skinned and with an Australian accent – not someone who stands out as being a “foreigner”. In the course of her duties as a social worker, a 12-year old boy who came in for assistance refused to be helped by her and asked for someone else. When asked why, he told her colleague: “Because she’s a curry-muncher and a black c***.”
The question about whether or not Australia is a racist country is not one that can be answered with a yes or no answer. Think of Australia’s attitudes to ethnicity as a continuum. (For you lunkheads out there, that basically means a line that transitions from one thing to another.) At one end are Australians who happily enjoy the fruits of a cosmopolitan multiethnic society and embrace diversity. At the other end are those who are intolerant, and perhaps wish a return to "the good old days" before large-scale immigration and multiculturalism. Plenty of folks with racist attitudes come from migrant communities as well. It is a sad irony how some migrants who have faced racism themselves, will happily dish it out to other migrant groups, or to Anglo-Aussies for that matter.
When we talk about organised racist groups (skinheads, KKK, etc), there is very little of this in Australia. What we do have are many people, mostly teenagers and young adults, with generally antisocial attitudes. They have a strong dislike of anyone markedly different to them, be it due to ethnicity, sexuality or appearance. To victimise such people is a way of feeling better about oneself, and proving one's masculinity to other guys in the group.
There is an old saying about people revealing their true personality when they are angry. For a certain segment of the population, this is particularly telling; cut them off in traffic, accidentally hit them in your car, or get into some push-and-shove during a sporting match, and you will see a particularly ugly side to the Australian personality. In these situations, the racist epithets are liable to flow thick and fast.
In other words, you could argue that in many cases of bashings which included racist abuse, they were not necessarily racist in motivation. In other words, while the attackers' intent was certainly to bash and victimise, the racist words were just part of the general abuse that accompanies such incidents.
Is this the case though? Probably at least some of the time.
Right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt wrote earlier today in the Herald-Sun that "it's time to admit that there's nothing racist in the violence on our streets." Bolt contends that the attacks on Indians is merely part of the greater picture, which is the rampant thuggery in Melbourne's streets and licensed venues. And to a point, he's right.
But Bolt has an agenda. Based on all he's written previously, he is loathe to admit that white Australians might have a problem with racism. You can almost sense the triumphalism as he refers to the two shocking bashings last week in Melbourne, in which the victims were both white and the perpetrators in one case were of Pacific Islander background.
But if we are looking at the wider trend of violence on the streets and in licensed venues, we must consider one factor. Certainly many of these have been unprovoked, but many of these incidents have originated in some kind of confrontation. As an example, Luke Adams, choked and punched in a Hungry Jacks restaurant last week was going to the aid of a friend who had already become involved in a fight. This is not to blame the victim at all, but fights that happen in venues late at night tend to follow a similar pattern - someone bumps another person or looks at him the wrong way, or a drunk person is mouthing off or behaving in a way which provokes a response. These things escalate to brawls.
The attacks against Indians, on the other hand, have been almost entirely unprovoked. In some cases robbery was the motive, but often it has been nothing but sheer malice. So while these attacks and the violence around licensed venues are part of the same wider trend, they are not quite the same thing.
I think the whole “racist or not racist” debate around the attacks on Indians is a little too simplistic. I've visited lots of blogs from overseas (India and the UK) that have covered this issue, and have argued with their contention that this is somehow a reflection of Australia's savage convict origins and history of racism against our indigenous people. In some of these attacks, racism is clear. Other attacks were seemingly pure opportunism. And in many other cases, both these factors are present. I believe in many cases, the attacks would not have been specifically racist in intent, but racism contributed to their virulence and likelihood - meaning that while the thugs responsible would have possibly attacked anyone, someone they identified as "foreign" made a more appealing target.
I also wonder if the media's coverage of "curry-bashing" may have actually resulted in some of these more recent attacks. The teen thugs who attacked Resham Singh were in Dandenong, which is not the nicest neighbourhood by any means, but is in the outer Southeast of Melbourne, quite far from the West where most curry-bashing incidents have occurred. Given that their motivations seemed quite specifically to attack Singh because of his ethnicity (and producing scissors to cut his hair does seem to support this), you have to wonder if they had heard about this phenomenon of "curry-bashing", figured it was something that lots of people are doing, and thought it sounded cool.
Now, I've asked a question in the title of this post about whether Australians are really racist against Indians, and I'm not sure if I've really answered it. Because it is too complicated a question to answer. Most Australians are probably not. A sizeable section of the population are racist, but I don't think it is specifically anti-Indian racism.
But take those racist elements, add the violent culture prevalent among many of Melbourne's young males, and finally add large numbers of Indian students walking home late from train stations by themselves. Where those three factors converge, I suspect, is the genesis of the attacks on Indians.
Like this post? You may like these as well:
"Curry-bashing" on the rise in Melbourne - Indian students targeted
Your guide to the "F*** off we're full" Facebook group
"Always a good day when you can bag a sand nigger"
Random comic genius: Uncle Sameer goes to Frankston