Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Australia and the complexities of racism

India press has been awash recently with news of racism in Australia, specifically in the context of claims of attacks on Indian students in Sydney and Melbourne.

From Sydney's west comes stories of violence against Indians in Harris Park. A column in the Sydney Morning Herald puts a bit of context on this. Tanveer Ahmed paints a picture of Harris Park as home to successive waves of fresh migrants to Australia, formerly Mediterranean or Lebanese, and most recently Indians. In fact, when I worked close by there a few years ago, I noticed a heavy preponderance of Indian shops, with no particular signs [left] of previous communities maintaining a distinct identity. As always happens, the waves of migrants tend to blend in over time.

The writer positions recent violence in Harris Park specifically in the context of second-generation descendants of original migrants: "the worst racism encountered by the average migrant is usually from other migrants".

I would add a few anecdotal observations to that, having first arrived in this country something over twenty years ago. Coming from a similar culture, I could blend in barely noticed, yet I observed with fresh eyes the attitudes of Australians to those who were different. First, outward manifestations of violence [and racism] tend to come from young males (of course), say about 15 to 25. There was little overt racism towards earlier migrants, but noticeably more so towards recent arrivals. Those that are obviously different in speech and culture were the most likely targets - and, for example, if someone of darker skin spoke perfect english, they were more easily accepted.

But, I noticed at the time, Australians as a whole seemed to reserve their most vituperous ill-feeling to the original inhabitants - aboriginals. Having seen both sides - through both aboriginal friends and being on the receiving end of violence - I know better than to lump everyone into one basket. Not so your average Australian, who had simply not had any day-to-day involvement with any aboriginals, and so absorbed simply what they were exposed to by tabloids and talkback.

So yes, there is racism here, but I very much doubt that its worse than any multicultural country. And yes, where there is racism, it's most likely to be directed at aboriginals or recent migrants - yet the latter receive the press, while aboriginals just suffer day to day.

I would also add that those of the dominant culture are quite blind to the subtleties of racism, and would be quite ill-qualified to put a believable case against the existence of racism.

My personal feeling is such barriers best break down in situations where people are working together and get to know representatives of a variety of cultures. There's nothing like a multicultural workplace.

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