Eating Our Way To Racial Tolerance

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On Wednesday 24 February, "ordinary Melburnians" are being urged to dine at their local Indian restaurants in order to protest against racially motivated violence and express solidarity with Melbourne’s Indian community.

Vindaloo Against Violence’s website says the project is a peaceful and easy way to show that the majority of Melburnians welcome the presence of Indian citizens in their city.

"Everyday Australians don’t accept racially motivated violence," Vindaloo Against Violence founder, Mia Northrop, told ABC News. "I think we want to shift the focus from what Indians need to be doing to protect themselves in terms of their safety, to finding out why is this happening in our society."

This is a timely aim indeed. At a forum held over the weekend, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland advised international students in Australia that to minimise their risk of being violently attacked, they should: "look poor" by not wearing or carrying obvious valuables; avoid suburbs where they might encounter poor people; and not work late at night in the hospitality and service industries.

Gautam Gupta, secretary of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, was not impressed by the last piece of advice. "It’s a workplace. Every workplace should be safe," Gupta fulminated to the Age. "I think it’s a ridiculous idea. It is blaming the worker. It is blaming the victim."

Listening to Overland’s advice, what struck me is that it’s the same sort of tip travel guidebooks give Western backpackers in developing countries and stems from several assumptions. First: as a traveller, you are essentially intruding on local culture and must alter your behaviour to avoid causing trouble. Second: you won’t be here for long, so you mustn’t drop your guard and feel "at home" during your brief stay.

By contrast, Vindaloo Against Violence aims to remind the international media — especially in India, where the recent attacks were portrayed as symptoms of a generally racist culture in Australia — that we do recognise the reciprocal nature of what it means to play the host, to welcome. The project aims to reassure observers that we are generous hosts who take seriously our responsibility to make Indian citizens feel at home here.

But will Vindaloo Against Violence actually achieve anything more than making Northrop and other participants feel less helpless? Does it actually convey a genuine feeling of welcome?

At first I was very encouraged by Vindaloo Against Violence. I discovered it through Twitter and retweeted the website. Other people retweeted my retweet. I felt proud, like a good citizen.

What I initially liked was that Vindaloo Against Violence wasn’t aggressive, antagonistic, critical or hand-wringing. It was celebratory and inclusive, designed to appeal to the kinds of politically disengaged people who generally feel that public protests are for unionists, students and confused hippies. "[My husband and I] wanted something that the maximum number of people could get behind, so it just kind of popped into my head," Northrop told the ABC.

It also seemed to recognise that food is often the grassroots level on which cross-cultural encounters happen and that the dinner table can be a space of productive discussion. It was like that TV ad in which people of all ages and cultural backgrounds park themselves in the street for a massive, communally catered feast.

But then I started to worry about its being tokenistic. After all, "raising awareness" is something white people like. Vindaloo Against Violence doesn’t really ask people to change their ways of thinking, or even necessarily their habits — many people would already enjoy a Wednesday night curry. As Christian Lander of the Stuff White People Like website says, awareness raising is the perfect way for white people to feel as if they’ve protested without actually changing anything. "In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference."

Vindaloo Against Violence also upends the key tenet of many traditions of hospitality: that the onus is on the host to welcome the guest. It asks instead that we show hospitality to Indian people by enjoying their hospitality. So, ultimately, Vindaloo Against Violence’s idea of "we welcome you" is "you welcome us".

Another reservation I have about the project is that it has a tendency to reduce the cultural presence of Indian people in Australia to those jolly service industry folk dishing out butter chicken and saying, "Thank you, come again!" in lilting tones. To the extent that it does this, it’s an insult to the totality of that presence. What about Indian academics? Indian health professionals? Indian retailers? Indian hairdressers? And so on.

Furthermore, the majority of Indian citizens at risk of violent crime do not work in the pleasant, mildly exotic, hazily cross-cultural milieu of Indian restaurants. They work more broadly in the service industries that lubricate the machinery of Australian cities, industries that white Australians largely refuse to work in, such as taxi driving, convenience stores, service stations and fast food restaurants.

And participating in these industries — overwhelmingly out of economic necessity — is what puts young international students in situations where they can be intimidated, bashed, robbed and murdered.

These are the sorts of workplaces that compel their staff to treat pissed-off (or just pissed) dickheads with politeness and deference. And they are the sorts of workplaces which tell these dickheads that there’s someone lower than them in the social pecking order — someone they’re entitled to pick on.

Perhaps instead of allowing Indian people to wait on us in Indian restaurants as a way of showing welcome, we should be working to change the way we treat our humblest hospitality workers generally. We must recognise that these workers, if they come from other countries, are our guests when they’re outside the workplace, that they’re not our servants when they’re in it, and that making them feel welcome here means honouring and respecting them.

In Greek mythology, the gods would sometimes disguise themselves as poor travellers, punishing and rewarding their hosts according to how well they lived up to the Greek ethic of hospitality. It’s a shame that we have no vengeful gods to watch and punish everyday cruelties. However, the groundswell of support shown to Vindaloo Against Violence shows that in our media and online social networks we do have other powerful observational forces.

While it has its problems, part of my hesitation in criticising Vindaloo Against Violence is that I can’t think of anything better myself. But I do feel strongly that any grassroots attempt to change international perceptions of Indian-Australian relations must sacrifice some of our own thoughtlessness in order to make our guests feel more at home.

New Matilda

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