Is Australia really a racist country?

13 August 2009

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A commercial television network ‘exclusive’ earlier this week showed the bashing of yet another Indian student in Melbourne.  According to the news reporter, it was a typical racially motivated attack.

The student leaves his home in the early hours of the morning and walks to his local payphone to call his parents back in India.  He is listening to his iPod, rummaging through his wallet in search of spare change and looking up the telephone number in his recently-purchased-top-of-the-range mobile phone.

All of a sudden, a group of men approach him and ask for his money.  When he refuses, they start hitting him.  He starts bleeding profusely and falls to the ground.  They take his iPod and wallet, and say something along the lines of “you f***** Indian, go back to your f***** country!”

The news report ends with the line: “And for the Indian students facing racism every day, it’s another blow to their security.”

I was left with mixed feelings about this issue after watching the news.

Let me just state this right from the outset – I am in no way denying that the recent wave of attacks against Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney illustrate a trend which is disturbing in the extreme.

And that racism in any way, shape or form is something that I – and I hope all of us – condemn unequivocally.

The problem I have is the narrative which has emerged following the recent attacks on Indian students.  The narrative that suggests Australia is an inherently racist country.

Let’s face it; it hasn’t been the easiest of years for us on the racism front.  First, former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo takes a parting shot at Australia, saying we’re “racist and backward”.  OK, so perhaps our Prime Minister’s final words to Sol weren’t the most appropriate (“adios, Sol!”).  But surely that doesn’t render us as racist and backward, does it?

Next, international students who were predominantly from India staged a massive protest outside Flinders Street station in Melbourne, claiming they were the victims of racially motivated attacks.   Prior to that, police had advised them to keep a low profile by not speaking loudly in their “own language” in the hope of curbing robberies.   OK, so perhaps that wasn’t the cleverest advice.   But racist?

On ABC1’s Lateline program last week, Monash University academic Waleed Aly stated that Australia’s international image and its treatment in international media has always been constructed through the prism of race.  Aly pointed to the apology to the Stolen Generations, the earlier controversies around Hansonism, and the Cronulla riots as examples.

He has a point.  This ‘image’ that has been developed through the few unfortunate episodes which illustrate a distinct minority’s inability to accept multiculturalism –  something enshrined in our modern make-up – has damaged Australia’s reputation abroad and the great things this country has to offer (geez, I sound like a politician!).

The problem is that now that we’ve acquired such a stigma, it’ll be hard to counter it.

All efforts at trying to shift the discourse are welcome.  But I want to believe that racism is not an institutional or inherent part of Australia. The contrary is unrealistic (and even too horrible) to contemplate.

If anything, racism is inherent in some individuals who are as dangerous to this society as they would be in any other.

Achieving an ideal society where discrimination based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation – even only in our social world-  is probably impossible.   Any country, like Australia, which has accepted the number of immigrants it has over the years from so many countries, will experience a degree of uneasiness among groups who think they are superior to another.

But to claim that as a whole, racism is inherent in Australia, in my opinion, is simply unfair.

I do not dismiss the claims that Indian students have been the recent victims of being perceived as ‘the other’ in society, which has developed in to an unfortunate situation where they have been subject to verbal and physical abuse.

I understand and agree with the fact that there are issues faced by Indian students who choose to study in Australia – but I do not think this is simply a matter of  racial stereotyping.  This is a group of students who have been left vulnerable because they’ve been exploited by both the education and employment industries.

Yet, unsavoury as this might be, this doesn’t mean that Australia is inherently racist.

The Government has been careful in the way it has addressed this issue.   It’s not difficult to see why though – after all, it is foreign students who make up Australia’s third biggest export earner; the $15.5 billion international student sector.

And on the topic of exploitation, it’s worth pointing out that international students pay full fees for everything – from university degrees to travel on public transport.   The government has long defended its policy that full fee paying international students are not eligible for a whole heap of taxpayer-subsidiaried social services, and this includes public transport – something international students are heavily reliant on.

So the question arises of whether the vulnerability of international students – including Indian students – is whether it’s simply one of being subject to attacks based on prejudice or racism, or one of general exploitations in Australia, including that which is directed towards them from the government?

The violent attacks on Indian students is deplorable, but this is also consistent with the general rise of violence on our streets.

Of course racism exists in Australia.  But not all violence is racially motivated.

We need to be clear about this before taking on board the allegations that misfortunes that affect international students can be simply explained by the notion that our society has a serious problem with racism.

While prejudice is deeply entrenched in all humans, we’re lucky to live in a country where it isn’t institutionalised.

Erdem Koc is the editor of upstart.

What do you think?

Do the recent wave of attacks against Indian students indicate that Australia really is a racist country?   Or even, as the former Telstra boss put it, ‘backward’?

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