Shades of truth

RACE AGAIN

Shades of truth

Indian students protesting in Australia
I was recently at a supermarket checkout in Melbourne, when an old man at the opposite counter, dressed in rags and clearly deranged, announced, “Australia’s a migrant country now. It doesn’t feel like Australia anymore... all I see are migrants.” He looked behind him for support, locking eyes with a burly, tattooed, white guy, who snorted and told the man in front he was holding up the queue.

The first man’s remarks were addressed to me, being the only non-white in the checkout at the time. It was only when I’d left the supermarket in annoyance that I thought of a reply: Australia’s been a migrant country for centuries. What this man was protesting, I thought, were the large numbers of Asian migrants arriving in recent times. His opinion is by no means a representative or common one — he was, as I said, deranged. But his remarks shed light on the recent attacks on Indian students.

There’s been a massive increase in the number of Indian students in Australia in the last five years. This is quite visible in Australia’s capital cities. Such rapid demographic change is bound to attract attention from all sorts of people, including criminals. To put it bluntly, criminals may have stumbled onto the Indian student population as an untapped cash source.

This is not to say that crimes against Indian students in Australia are race-specific. We should discern between two kinds of crime: Cash/property theft, and violent assault.
Thefts which occur at night on Australian streets are opportunistic. Thieves take what they can get. These crimes are perpetrated against late-night commuters and walkers, regardless of who they might be. I’m inclined to think that late-night thefts in Australian cities aren’t motivated by racism. After all, it’s difficult for a robber to tell face from face (race from race) in the dark of night. Indian students, unfortunately, are one among many who are affected by theft here. Having said that, I stress that crime is considerably lower in Australia than in many parts of the world.

Why us?
If the recent thefts aren’t race-specific, why are so many Indian students being hit? A friend of mine, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Adelaide, suggested a reason. She pointed to the casualisation of the workforce in Australia, and to decreases in housing affordability/availability. These changes mean that jobs are less stable, and that people spend more time commuting between work and home. Overseas students may be among the worst affected. As a result of limited (and low-paying) casual work, overseas students, including Indian students, often can’t afford to live in the safest areas. Indian students are living further away from the city centre, meaning they’re travelling longer distances. They often go alone or with a small number of friends, from work, study, or social activities, to accommodation in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. The distances they travel, and the emptiness of the streets at night, increase their vulnerability to attack.

An illustrative anecdote. Two months ago, before the media had started reporting attacks on Indian students, I was mugged. It occurred after 9 pm on a weekday, on a safe inner-suburban street in Melbourne. I was walking with my friend, who is Turkish. As we turned off the main road we were tailed by three men. They had weapons. They demanded our money; we didn’t protest, and weren’t harmed.

I was shocked. This was the first time in 18 years that I’d experienced crime in Australia. I’ve never felt unsafe as an Indian in Australia, and I’m not convinced that this particular crime was racially motivated. The criminals barely had time to look at our faces before following us (besides, my friend’s face is ‘white’!). The man doing the talking had me by the arm, and at close proximity he could see I was Indian. But he was interested in my money, not in my race. We were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I called the police after this occurred, and they arrived at my house within minutes. After taking down a report, they talked about an increase in robberies against Indians. The police explained that criminals saw Indians as ‘soft’ targets, meaning they wouldn’t try to resist, and would readily hand over money, iPods, laptops. Their view contradicts what I have been saying so far. The Australian public don’t seem to agree either — the police have suffered a lot of criticism for propagating this opinion. It isn’t that Indian students are ‘soft’ targets. I believe there are economic factors forcing Indian students into vulnerable positions — for example, the distances they travel to get to affordable housing.

On the other hand, certain incidents appear to be outright hate crimes. There have recently been life-threatening assaults against Indian students, perpetrated by disaffected white teenagers. These include the petrol bombing of Rajesh Kumar’s home in Sydney, and the notorious group assault of a 21-year-old Indian on a Melbourne train. Such attacks are racially motivated. To cite my sociologist friend again, she says there’s a strain of xenophobia entrenched in the ‘working’ class, and in socio-economically marginalised Australians. These (white) minorities systematically resist each perceived ‘wave’ of migration. They have faced off against Irish, Mediterranean, South-East Asian, Chinese, African, ‘Middle Eastern’ and now Indian migrants over the last one-and-a-half centuries. These minorities react violently when they feel their ‘whiteness’ is being usurped by migrant communities. Violence stemming from these minorities is difficult to stamp out, but it never lasts.

If I were to generalise — and I may as well, since the media are trading in generalisations — I’d say that Australians are welcoming towards foreigners. None of my Australian friends are racist. We should remember that these assaults are being perpetrated by criminals, not by the ‘average’ Australian citizen. Coverage of these attacks has been misleading. Reactions to race-specific attacks in the media have often been characterised by racism. To brand (white) Australians racist as a group is hasty, inaccurate, and not particularly helpful. Such statements draw battle lines between Australians and Indians, where there should be dialogue, critical inquiry and corrective action.
The media’s skewed coverage can also create (or accelerate) problems. Accusations of racism, stemming from individuals and circulated by the media, force the affected parties into postures of attack and defence. Also, media circulation of the police’s unfortunate characterisation of Indian students as ‘easy targets’ can sow that thought in the minds of criminals. Reportage of this nature may encourage criminals to single out Indians in future.

The question shouldn’t be ‘are Australians racist?’ The question should instead be, ‘What’s causing this? What’s happening in Australia in 2009 that’s encouraging these attacks?’ To tackle the issue at its roots, the Australian government may need to provide more support to overseas students, in regard to employment and housing.
 As for racism: It exists everywhere. It’s a worldwide problem. But what’s currently happening in Australia has little to do with racism. Instead, Indian students have fallen prey to a criminal underclass that’s stalking new opportunities for income.


(The writer is an honours student in the University of Melbourne, Australia)

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