Saturday, January 09, 2010

Perspectives on racism

The issue of racism has come to the fore again in Australia after another senseless murder of an India student in Melbourne, scene of an increasing number of such incidents. The issue has been exacerbated by State and Federal governments going into denial about the race aspects; rather they claim that it really is just senseless violence.

Indians are 2½ times more at risk of attack than other Melburnians, but the reasons are complicated, writes Dylan Welch SMH. Barkly Street stretches long and dark in both directions. On a quiet Wednesday evening, several pairs of Indian men confer in Hindi under the neon lights of half-empty Indian restaurants. In a nearby side street in the western Melbourne suburb of Footscray West, unsmiling African teenagers mill about a darkened bus shelter.

Not denying racism and other bigotry, I would argue that in itself these unworthy notions are not often translated to violence; at least not violence against those hated. But yes, it does happen. My own father, like many of his contemporaries bought up under the strict ‘white Australia’ policy was a rabid racist. As with many bullies, for his targets he reserved verbal abuse, the frustrated violence was more likely visited on his family.

I could never understand his attitude. My school mates and indeed some memorable ‘crushes’ were generally from strange countries, strange to me at that time, with a kaleidoscope of languages and accents thrown in. The irony with my father, who had very few friends in his life, was a late devotion to a Korean family to whom he became a loving, surrogate grandfather figure.

What I did observe, growing up and later, is that these immigrant folk would often be the most vocal in their racial hatred. Having gained their safe place in a new society it seemed right to attack the next wave. It is difficult to ignore a violent push in Sydney by young Lebanese, intent on taking over the low level criminal activities. That is not racist, but simple fact. It is a fact which tends to drive bigotry.

IN BC Canada, home to a swelling population of Indian and Chinese immigrants, the story is much the same. Ethnic criminal activity drives some of the problem; a culture of very low paid farm workers finishes it off. It is not uncommon for Europeans locals to cheer each time an overloaded ‘Paki bus’ turns over in a ditch killing workers on board. And this from some of the kindest folk I’ve ever met.

India itself is rife with racial and sectarian violence according to news headlines, though often vehemently denied. There was recent talk of Britain pulling out of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later this year over security threats. The reality clearly shows numerous sectarian and racial tensions through that vast population, but equally a majority who crave peaceful coexistence; as is the case in Australia and Canada.

Great for grandstanding; but understanding?

Indian students are ''soft targets''. They are ''walking ATMs'' carrying mobile phones, iPods and jewellery as they travel on public transport between university and late-night work shifts. SMH

Yet in all of this verbal shorthand becomes a real issues, whole societies become labeled because the real issues a rarely defined accurately. Put another, worst social responses are generally encouraged, unwittingly perhaps, by the perceived needs of politicians and media to make a quick impact. Immediacy driven comment is clearly an inadequate way of dealing with complex social issues.

In Australia the vast over-reaction by politicians and media to ‘boat people’ and a nebulous ‘war on terror’ drives a distrust of any different looking or speaking people. But that over-reaction is typified by three second sound bites and shock jock media responses; great for grandstanding, not so great for understanding.

Prejudice is alive and well, and generally encouraged. It might simply be city Vs city, or country and city, even suburb to suburb, town to town. Partly that reflects a competitive spirit, but can easily fall over into an ignorant, unthinking reaction. The violence is real enough in our societies an always has been; but is it really about bigotry or is it about a relative few insecure, angry, hateful people who want to lash out?

Footnote: I have often wondered if the epithet ‘Whitey’ used against Australians by Asians is not a product of the old White Australia policy. That is long gone now, but prejudice tends to have a long memory. Regardless of historical relevance the mindless name calling is sure to fuel continuing antagonism.

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