…Surely That's Not Racist?

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It was probably a year or two ago that one of us — the one who looks Indian but isn’t — heard her first call-centre joke from a fellow academic. Registering that she was somewhat taken aback, the joker protested, "Oh, come on, you know that’s not racist. People just get annoyed about all the jobs going to India. Nothing personal." Right. Nothing personal.

This colleague’s bad joke has come to mind as we have watched the burgeoning catalogue of acts of violence against Indian students on the news: stabbings, bashings, beatings, muggings, burnings.

It’s not racist. It’s just that they work late at night. It’s just that they travel by train. It’s just that they have iPods. It’s just that they look vulnerable. It’s just that they act different — not like the good Indians who are such marvellous contributors to our multicultural society. It’s just that they stand out. Right.

The violent attacks on international students in Australia have apparently been happening for a number of years. Commonwealth and state politicians, as well as the media, have sprung to attention recently thanks to a series of increasingly public interventions by the Indian Government. Students from India, however, are by no means the sole targets of the violence nor have the attacks been limited to men. International students from China have been raped. Young Chinese women students in Sydney and Perth were murdered, including the awful case of Jiao Dan who was raped and murdered in Perth in 2007.

A couple of years ago one of us visited the library of another university. In the men’s toilet he was astounded to find a large scrawled graffito that read: "I raped an Asian and she loved it." Even more shocking, it was still there when he returned a few days later. He complained to the librarian that, while toilet walls are frequently the site for graffiti of questionable taste, this was completely beyond the bounds of acceptability. The next time he went there, the graffito had been painted over.

How long had it been there? Why had no other man complained about it?

Part of the answer is that racist jokes and comments have become normalised as unremarkable aspects of daily life in Australia. It’s "everyday racism", the kind of unthinking racism that is so accepted that we don’t consider it racism. It prevents us from seeing the racialised discriminations that happen all the time in Australia. The question is, can it inure us even to the extreme forms of violence that are enacted before our eyes?

This outbreak of violence against international — read Asian — students needs to be placed in a wider landscape that takes in a whole raft of changes to immigration policy that have accompanied the increasing neoliberalisation of Australia. These changes have everything to do with race.

These moves began in the Hawke/Keating era of the early 1990s and gathered momentum during the Howard era, most acutely in the wake of the war on terror. After 9/11, even as border protection became the public preoccupation of Howard’s government, other radical changes to the migration program were taking place almost unnoticed. The needs of an economy that demanded "flexible" forms of labour were combined with the frantic pace of "internationalisation" in Australian higher education, as universities whose budgets were slashed in the early years of the Howard regime sought aggressively to recruit fee-paying foreign students to keep themselves in business. Another strand of these same policies was increasingly deregulated tertiary education, bringing private providers like English language colleges and small technology institutes into the mix.

It was openly acknowledged that these educational opportunities provided an alternative means of entry into the migration program. This was their main attraction, as many "colleges" offered no more than a feeble pretext of education. Many universities, it must be said, were hardly more scrupulous. Thus, even as naval patrols and heavy surveillance were trained on the sea borders, other pathways to Australian immigration were opened up. These often depended on operators as amoral as any people smuggler.

Xenophobic and racist emotions like those inflamed against asylum seekers — emotions which were deliberately fostered during the Howard years, and exacerbated by the wider context of the war on terror — are not so easily contained, as is demonstrated by the riots on Cronulla Beach and the renewed racist displays on each subsequent Australia Day. The underreported but increasing violence against international students in the same period is another manifestation of the problem.

Careful differentiation between economically productive and unproductive "others" — between the official welcome extended towards international students who are seen as beneficial to the neoliberal economy and the punitive policies directed at refugees who are seen as liabilities — or between "flexible" forms of mobility as against permanent migration — cannot be sustained within national and geopolitical contexts that continue to be premised on racist imaginaries and on a system of globalised inequality. The "foreign student" and "the refugee" in this sense are two aspects of the same figure.

In the demonstrations of force by foreign students on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, as in the flexing of muscle by the Indian Government, we see the emergence of challenges to old hierarchies. The raised fists, leather jackets and shaved heads of the students belie the docile, subservient and feminised Orientals of Raj fantasies. Yet old prejudices are not easily despatched. Entrenched perceptions and habits determine how and what we see.

It is this kind of everyday racism that one of the students challenged when he looked into the camera one evening last week and spoke directly to the viewer. "Don’t remain seated the next time you see one of us beaten or abused. Don’t turn your back. Don’t walk away." What this young student asked was that we refuse to tolerate what we have enabled through our everyday racism, the everyday racism that tolerates call-centre jokes and racist, sexually abusive graffiti. And that we begin to see and name the brutal violence before us for what it is.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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