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Australia: A Hidden Hive of Racism

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 12:12 PM EDT

This news story hasn’t been covered as much as the protests in Iran or indeed the financial, parliamentary or any other crises recently, but an uglier side of one of Britain’s favourite friendly countries was on display lately in the form of a spate of attacks on Indian students studying in Sydney and Melbourne.

When the Cronulla Beach riots (often called the Bondi Riots) hit Sydney a few years ago, the world awoke to something ugly. But I think the way people handled it was to simply place it in the “outlier” category, that kind of understanding where we say “ok, this has happened, but its not part of the trends we perceive, so its obvious a totally extraordinary event”. Sadly, this has more to do with people’s mental image of Australia than it does with reality in the major cities.

The United Nations has since condemned the levels of racism in Australia, but the government has essentially refused to acknowledge even the slightest problem. There’s a distinct lack of self-reflection, indeed honesty, going on in Australia about this problem, perhaps in part because any admission of racism would require Australian society to reconsider many of its policies and economic disparities, both in relation to the Indigenous and the Migrant populations.

Perhaps in part this is the result of attempting to build a society from criminals, given many Australians can still trace themselves to convicts transported to get them out of Britain. So in one sense, this is very much Britain’s fault. In another, its the fact that many Australians are actually first or second generation immigrants from Britain who have the same kind of attitude of “everything going to the wall” that is driving the Right-wing parties, (Tories, UKIP, BNP, the lot) forwards towards a desperately difficult future. Indeed, if the BNP got its way, more people would arrive home from Australia than would leave for all of Africa and Asia combined.

But even if the historic culpability is largely that of Britain, it does not let the Australian government off the hook. Kevin Rudd has taken a few monumental steps on the Indigenous front, but has done little if anything on the Migrant front. And so we come to the denial that these attacks on Indian students living in Australia’s 2 biggest cities can have anything to do with racism.

It is worth noting, by the way, that the tone of the reports I’m using as sources for this alters somewhat from the 31st May to the 13th June. But on the earlier date, the BBC carried this statement:

Police have denied any racial motivation, saying the students were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They have said the crimes were "opportunistic", with Indian students seen as "soft targets".

Indian students tend to travel on their own, late at night – either from study or employment – and carry valuable items such as laptops and phones, Victorian Police deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe said.

What worries me here is that Police are basically saying that race is important because the Indian students are more likely to be stupid. Yes, its the “blame the women for wearing short skirts” argument, in all its fucked up logic. Why should the Indian students change their behaviour? Its the wrong logic!

I know many Australians are very concerned about the issue of racism in their country, and I don’t blame those who know this for wanting to put it out of mind. Its probably hard not to feel some sense of collective guilt for your peer’s actions. But the words of the UN report on racism must be taken to heart, or this kind of activity will continue, and the “unusual” activity we saw at Bondi beach will continue into normalcy. Indeed, my real worry is that many observing this will see it as isolated rather than link it to the reality of Australian society.

Next time you get invited to celebrate the Australian spirit in Walkabout or with a pint of Fosters, just stop and ask yourself what lies behind the branding of these “Australian products”, of how we perceive Australia as a chilled-out, fun-loving white society, and what the reality behind that image might be.