No one has a monopoly on racism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am

For months, India and Australia have been sparring over attacks on Indians Down Under, which India alleges are racially motivated. 'Curry bashings' have dominated daily news in both countries, provoking New Delhi to issue travel advisories, straining diplomatic relations and prompting many Asian students in Australia to return home in fear.

Last month, Canberra condemned a cartoon in an Indian newspaper showing an Australian police officer dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member. The advice this month from a top Australian police officer to Indian students to 'try to look as poor as you can' to avoid attacks was met with equal disgust from Indians.

Things have got so bad that, at one point, the Indian Premier League, cricket's new money spinner, seemed in jeopardy as Hindu fascist party Shiv Sena threatened that it would not allow Australians to play. And therein lies an irony.

Being an Indian working abroad for years, I know a thing or two about racism. No, I have never been roughed up by bigger white men in dark alleys. Neither have I ever been shouted at by complete strangers for no reason. Racism often comes in far subtler forms, showing you your place without violating the norms of human interaction.

But being an Indian, I also know that Asians should not be talking about other people's racism. We are among the worst offenders. The irony of the Sena's rage against 'racist' Aussies is that its own political fortunes are built on racist and parochial attacks directed at fellow Indians. Apart from routinely telling Indian Muslims to 'go home' to Pakistan, the Sena, based in west India, and an even more rabid splinter group these days are saying the same thing to north Indians, whom they portray as culturally inferior subhumans usurping local economic opportunities. Thanks to them, a low-skilled north Indian worker in the western city of Mumbai today feels much more insulted and insecure than any Indian in Australia.

And, racism extends far beyond the so-called lunatic fringe. Skin tone is a national obsession in India. Ask a dark-skinned Indian woman looking to get married, or look at the ads for 'Fair and Lovely', where the whitening cream rescues the dark and ugly. Though there is debate over likening the caste system to racism, if racism is defined as an instrument of social exclusion, the caste system must be the most elaborate architecture designed by mankind to perpetuate discrimination.

Indian gods are mostly fair. The few dark ones are often shown as blue-skinned in religious iconography since black is reserved for demons. Ask a black person about his or her experience in India and you will see how this cultural conditioning translates into naked racism.

A few years ago, India and Australia were embroiled in another racism row, only then it was Australia charging India with racism after Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds, a black man, complained of monkey chants from Indian crowds.

India is of course not the only Asian country where skin colour is a marker of social co-ordinates, black is demonised and white worshipped. Black people are abhorred and skin whiteners lapped up across Asia, where paleness has for centuries been equated with beauty and status since dark skin is associated with outdoor labour and whiteness with a life of privilege. Colonisation only sharpened these inherent attitudes. So has cultural globalisation, with a dominant Western pop culture creating aspirations for a certain way of life, appearance and values.

Skin colour is only one component of racism. Like European attitudes towards Jews and gypsies, racial othering in Asia is constructed along the lines of perceived differences in physical and character traits, genetic 'purity', cultural and economic primacy, sexual propensities, hygiene habits and so on, which may not be rooted in colour. This is why Chinese and Indians, despite different skin colours, are despised in Thailand and discriminated against in Malaysia.

Many of the mass murders and persecutions in Asia's modern history have racism at their heart. The treatment of the Chinese in Indonesia or the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Thailand are cases in point.

'Ugly as ogres' is how Myanmar's consul-general in Hong Kong described Rohingyas to explain why the brown-skinned boat people could not qualify as Myanmese.

In South Asia, Bangladesh was born as the then West Pakistan's Punjabis, fairer and better built, refused to share power with 'darker skinned and racially inferior' Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan. In the resultant genocide, up to 3 million Bengalis were killed and up to 400,000 raped.

We live with racism in milder forms every day in Asia, from being denied entry into bars for skin colour to cracking unsavoury jokes about other Asians. Casual racism is rampant in Hong Kong, especially towards mainlanders and nationalities that make up much of the city's menial labour force.

Just a shade fairer than blacks and associated with poverty, South Asians have their share of problems in the city, from difficulty in finding jobs to opening bank accounts. In a survey last year, 42 per cent of Hong Kong Chinese were unwilling to have South Asians as their friends, colleagues or neighbours. More than seven per cent of respondents cited 'appearance/skin colour' as reason for unpleasant experiences with other ethnic groups.

Still, to Hong Kong's credit, it at least recognises racism as a problem and has sought to tackle it by way of legislation, however imperfect it may be. The same cannot be said of most of Asia or Asians. Our problem vis-a-vis racism is that we don't even see it - racism is what white folks do to us, not what we do to others.

Which is why, if I were an Asian student in Australia, I wouldn't go home just yet. If Australia is not a utopia of racial harmony, home isn't much better. I would take my chances. If looking poor is all I have to do to stay out of trouble, it shouldn't be too difficult.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the Post's Sunday Money editor