Saturday, 30 May 2009

Searching for safety

Many reports of terrible attacks on Indian students in Australia are making their way into the news, both here and in India. I am a bit disturbed by the repeated discussion of whether or not racism is involved. As I have said before, racism is a real and dangerous issue, but by its nature it often obscures other things.

I doubt that anyone, whether making accusations or denials regarding racism, actually thinks the victim of a random robbery is any less in need of support than the victim of a racially targetted or even motivated attack. Nor is a mixed local community suffering regular attacks any better off than an ethnic community suffering racial attacks. That shouldn't be the issue. What differences does the motivation make? I see two - which group is the indirect victim, now in fear of attack, and the question of what can be done to prevent it.

In itself, coming to public conlusions about such things does little more than speed up the spread of fear about whatever pattern is identified. Even when correct, this may or may not help - it is the response to this that matters. So how does the motivation inform our response. In one sense, it is tempting to identify things as purely opportunistic, since it is hard to know how to combat racism. Perhaps making a big fuss about it is part of creating a culture that will shame the perpetrators and have even greater long-term effects. Perhaps the argument I am disturbed by is necessary after all.

However, even public condemnation does little to stop this sort of thing. Opportunism is easier to deal with - tactics for making the vulnerable less vulnerable have shown success for a long time. There are valuable skills to be learnt in unfamilar situations. History by no means distances racism from preying on the vulnerable. In cases like this, focussing on the opportunistic factors is helpful, as well as the more subtle work against racism and the general policing that is necessary regardless of motivation. These horrors need to be stopped, not just condemned.


Kartikeya said...

I agree that the word racism is overused, especially in cases where it is not the policy of the state. However, some fairly unvarnished form of xenophobia seems to be at play in these cases.

I hope things calm down fast.

Ottayan said...

One of the saner news channels interviewed a couple of parents of the victims.

They both said that albeit in different words that these attacks were due to these students not integrating with the local community.

Leaving aside the attacks (which is of course condemnable)I believe this is the true cause. Both the sides are insular and hence the feeling of our/theirs arises resulting in misguided attacks to protect 'interests'.

Stani Army said...

I think that there is also a sub-conscious type of racism which exists. I believe that this type is much more prevalent than the obvious type. It is also more dangerous because even the people that do it don't know it. It's something ingrained deep within them.

Whether its America's response in Hurricane Katrina or something as simple as a television commercial with just caucasians. There is a underlying reason to why these things happen.

I read of this Psychology experiment once. Nursery children (3-5 year olds) were given crayons and asked to draw a picture of people and colour it in. What was shocking was that even the black and asian children coloured the people in their drawings in a shade of colour that one would a caucasian.

Jonathan said...

Stani, I remember that when I was that sort of age, we all called that crayon "skin colour". Some things are easy to change...

On the whole, my point is not about how much racism is involved (after all, we are talking about hundreds of different cases), but that focussing on that question might distract from the helpful things that can be done for those in vulnerable situations. International students are opportunistically exploited in many places and in many ways, and frankly I don't care whether this is or isn't racism if we can do something to help.

There is plenty of readiness here to teach potential local victims to look out for themselves. Racism shouldn't be a reason to avoid these tactics for visitors!

Stani Army said...

I agree Jonathan that international students are exploited.

But if it is racism, shouldn't we be tackling that also as it would be the root of the problem. But I also agree, doing the short term stuff at the same time is important but if we do not tackle the root then the problem will resurface.

Jonathan said...

Sure, there's no reason not to continue fighting against racism. My whole point is that it is not an either/or situation. Neither enabling the students, increasing safety in relevant areas, nor the ongoing cultural attack on racism depend on identifying these attacks on racists. But so few people appear to be ready to talk about all of htem at once.

Stani Army said...

I agree.

Jonathan said...

Kartikeya, you make an interesting point about language, but that isn't really my point, which is that one real issue can obscure others. It is actually quite similar to another of my bugbears which I was thinking about last night.

I expect that climate change will affect the ability of several river systems to support the agriculture they currently do. However, it is stupid for people to spend all their time or news-space arguing about whether climate change is or isn't having an effect in such a context when it is pretty obvious (as it sometimes is) that the current practices are unsustainable even under historical climate regimes.