The images of injured Indian students have once again raised the charged issue of race and its presence in Australia. A recent dissertation on overseas Indian students in Melbourne found that the influx of Indian students recruited by Australian universities as well as private institutions (offering courses such as hospitality and accounting) combined with the economic slow-down seems to have resulted in the increased attacks. As the researcher, Michiel Bass, states: "It is a small step from blaming a group...to more right-wing narratives on: kicking them out, eradicating them, teaching them a lesson." This group visibility is based on physical markers of racial difference.
Australia's racial history emerges from its colonial legacy of invading Indigenous lands. The Immigration Restriction Bill was one of the first laws signed off in the Australian Parliament in 1901. The colonial legacy of the division of the earth's population into racial, cultural and religious groups continues to inflect relationships in contemporary multi-ethnic communities around the world. This legacy is very much part of communalised politics in India. Yet why do Australian commentators have a difficulty with the word 'race' or 'racism'? For example, Gerard Henderson's opinion piece in The Australian begins with the sentence 'Race is an overused word'. Henderson seems to imply that people scream racism at the drop of a hat—or the stab of a screwdriver (as the Indian student in Melbourne was). I disagree entirely. In fact, it seems to be an underused word in the Australian context—unless, of course, an Indian cricketer is charged with a racial slur.
The Victorian police chief's statement—that carrying iPods and mobile phones may be a motivation for the attacks—illustrates this trend. If that were the case, every public transport commuter in Sydney and Melbourne would be attacked. Could it be that overseas students may be visible because of a shared set of physical attributes? Is this not what we would call a racialised vision? There are reasons for this underusage other than the obvious one—that describing the attacks as racially motivated would hurt Australia's education industry which profits from overseas students.
In the 1970s and '80s, when Indigenous self-determination and the rights of non-Anglo migrants were on the governmental agenda, social justice was a key word used in relation to racial discrimination. Since the 1990s, the Howard government systematically attacked a social justice agenda with regard to race relations, targeting Indigenous communities, multiculturalism, and since 9/11, Muslims (whose identity markers include race as well as religion). That government's approach is evidenced by the 2008 Northern Territory Emergency Response which discriminates against Indigenous populations. While the response was meant to address recommendations in a report on domestic violence and child abuse, its non-consultative approach is embodied in laws that take over the management of Indigenous lands—a right won by the land rights struggle in the 1970s.
In matters of race, the Rudd government appears to continue the Howard government's legacy. While the overt attacks against non-Anglo communities by politicians no longer grace pages of The Australian, any mention of racial discrimination is ignored. Policies discriminating against Indigenous communities continue. Social justice has become social inclusion—with the emphasis on helping disadvantaged communities. The rights-based agenda of social justice has been discontinued. Perhaps the Rudd government is attempting to envision a post-racial Australia where race shouldn't be an issue. Yet, despite the recent election of President Barack Obama, we don't live in a post-racial planet.
In Australia, the refusal to acknowledge racism doesn't remove the spectre of the invisible 'R'-shaped elephant in the room. Directed specifically at Asian immigration, the White Australia policy was phased out in the 1970s. Yet, white cultural ownership of nation and spatial ownership of suburbs in cities and towns keeps resurfacing as a charged issue, as illustrated by the Cronulla riots in 2005. The colonial management of Indigenous issues, the attacks against Indian and overseas students are continuing events in Australia's long racial history. And if some of the attackers prove to be from non-white communities, this is still an effect of the legacy of racism and stereotypical assumptions about overseas students. Unless there is an open debate about these issues, racial incidents will continue to occur.
(Dr Osuri teaches at Macquarie University, Sydney, and wrote An Open letter to Australia's Educational Institutions and Governmental leaders, condemning the recent racist attacks on Indians. It won the endorsement of many.)
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