“Curry-bashing” — such a nice, Aussie-sounding term for what the Brits call “Paki-bashing”. And such a nice, Aussie way of dealing with it, too — the need to have an entire debate about whether the violent attacks on Indian international students have anything to do with race rather than a few muggers’ greedy desire for easy I-pod pickings before we can even start a real conversation.

Media reports have cited everyone from the Victorian Police Commissioner to the Prime Minister to a “Middle Eastern man deeply familiar with the youth gang-culture” as saying that the attacks were not targeting Indian students because of their race, but because the students were soft targets who carried attractive consumer items.

Listening to the police, Greg Sheridan, and some of the students themselves, describing the victimised community as quiet and well-behaved brought to mind the experiences of the first wave of migrants from the subcontinent to the United Kingdom.

“Asians”, in Brit-speak — the different British and Australian usage of the word “Asian” reflects our differing migration patterns. “Asians”, too, were typecast as quiet and well-behaved — for which read “passive” — which is why “Paki-bashing” was regarded as such easy sport. Blacks, in contrast, were stereotyped as violent and strong. This did not prevent them from becoming victims of racial violence, but racists who set out to bash a black man expected to have a fight on their hands. “Asian”, in contrast — well, they didn’t hit back.

Not surprisingly, that was not a stereotype that young Asian men were prepared to live with indefinitely. Many second-generation youths were determined to differentiate themselves from their “quiet” parents, to show themselves as ready to fight back.

On April 23, Britain marked the thirty-year anniversary of one landmark event in the “fight back” — a fierce demonstration by Asian protestors and their supporters against attempts by the National Front to hold a meeting in the town hall in Southall, a predominantly “Asian” suburb of London.

The demonstration was violently broken up by police and Blair Peach, a New Zealand schoolteacher and member of the Anti-Nazi League, died from head injuries after being battered by police truncheons. The BBC described “Southall rising” as “probably the first occasion when the stereotype of the Asian migrant as meek, mild and diffident was revealed a myth built on prejudice.”

It was a myth built on prejudice in Britain thirty years ago, and it’s a myth built on prejudice now. It’s just as racist to stereotype people as diffident and mild as it is to stereotype them as violent and dangerous.

Nor does the fact that some of the attackers are reportedly “youths of Middle Eastern appearance” rather than whites detract from the need for “all Australians” to engage in a little self-reflection over these events.

The attacks by “Lebanese youths” in Harris Park in Sydney not only provoked a counter attack by some Indian students, but also provided Paul Sheehan with a pretext to pronounce that stories about violent white racism in Australia were a “misconception” — as though wogs bashing wogs was some kind of alibi for everyone else.

I’m also disturbed by unsympathetic remarks from some Indians and Pakistanis who have been settled here for longer, not to mention their offspring. “South Asians” in Australia have until recently been a small community, with a substantial upper-middle class contingent. The students, while obviously well-enough resourced to travel to Australia and pay their student fees, are a more diverse bunch, in class terms, and some of the “settled” Indians (and Indian-looking people such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) are anxious to differentiate themselves.

“What do they expect — so obviously fresh-off-the-boat — just look at the way they dress, their bad English — they don’t fit in, they don’t even try.”

Racism does not happen in a vacuum — it intersects with other tensions and identities. But that is not to say that it isn’t racism.

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now