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Posted at: Jun 10, 2018, 12:04 AM; last updated: Jun 10, 2018, 11:29 AM (IST)

The race against colour

Both older and recent Indian immigrants to Australia, acutely aware of various forms of discrimination back home, shrug off racism in Australia. Aussie-born Indians, however, are much more sensitive about race issues, determined to be treated as equals

Rohit Mahajan

JITHENDER K, a student from Andhra Pradesh studying in Brisbane, works part-time in a bar. “Last year a guy who’d had a few drinks came up to the bar and said he did not want to be served by me — he said he wanted to be served by an Australian,” says Jithender. In other words, this patron wanted to be served his drink only by a white person. This sort of a display of racism by people under the influence of alcohol isn’t uncommon in Australia; the response of Jithender’s supervisor is equally common. “My supervisor didn’t like it at all,” Jithender says with a chuckle. “She immediately called all the staff and told them that no one was going to serve that man, and that he could get lost and be served by an ‘Australian’ somewhere else.”

Distinction among the colours is one of the first things children learn. So, on Gaurav Joshi’s second day at school in the 1980s, a little girl put up her hand and asked the teacher: “Why do we have a dark guy in our class? Where did he come from?” The girl wasn’t being nasty — she was just curious. “She had never seen a black or dark-skinned person before in her life,” says Gaurav. Gaurav’s family had moved from India to Wollongong near Sydney, and his father was the only non-white among the 180-odd employee of that company.

Race and colour are the easiest and most obvious markers of identity — even children can easily determine who the ‘other’ is on the basis of skin colour. Other markers such as language, religion, caste and creed are secondary for they need greater knowledge of the individual.

Original sin

The tribal “us” vs “them” mentality may have served the early human beings well, for it probably helped them work together in large groups for specific purposes beneficial to the whole group. The feeling of distrust of the outsider probably gave birth to racism.

The original Australians were all dark-skinned, and the British immigrants were  white; Captain Cook declared the land as “Terra nullius”, a Latin term meaning “vacant land, land belonging to no-one”. The aboriginal people were, thus, pushed into oblivion.

Over the last 170-odd years, waves of non-Anglo immigrants reached Australia, and all of them faced racism, some of it very nasty and violent. The Chinese, Greek, Italian and the Russian immigrants were discriminated against — sometimes, racism was institutionalised. For instance, the Chinese immigrants had to pay a special tax levied only on them. The Greeks and Italians faced discrimination, as did the Russians and the Filipinos and other non-English-speaking groups. The English-speaking Anglo-Indians too bore the brunt of racism.

“We were told that it wasn’t our country,” says Galia Forester, whose parents migrated from Russia in the 1960s. “If we were overheard speaking Russian, we were told to speak Australian.”

It’s worth noting that the country’s White Australia policy was dismantled only by the 1970s — the focus of the British-aligned governments had been to restrict immigration from non-English-speaking countries.

The Anglo-Indians — whose skin colour could be anything from absolutely white to deep brown — were acceptable under the White Australia policy.  But, despite their white ancestry, their skin colour and accent made them victims of racism.

After the end of the White Australia policy, the early Indian immigrants were doctors, accountants and IT professionals. In 2000, there was an education boom, and Indian students began to arrive in large numbers. Australia’s mining industry was booming, and the country needed a larger workforce.

When victims turn culprits

Racism’s biggest conundrum is that victims themselves can be horrible culprits. So, recent immigrant groups can face discrimination from the settled groups. “My classmates talk about me in quite nasty terms in Greek,” says a desperately unhappy Jaspreet, a Melbourne schoolgirl who studies in a Greek school. “They think I can’t understand Greek, but I have a translation app on my phone and I know all the horrible things they say about me.”

An IT consultant told this writer about being spat at on his face without provocation in a small town near Brisbane; a Mumbai engineer who now lives in Sydney said while travelling by bus or train, many white Australians seem to avoid sitting next to him. “They sometimes prefer to stand,” he said. “And that makes me wonder: What’s wrong? Am I smelling bad or something?”

A 27-year-old woman accountant, who didn’t wish to be named, said: “About 20 years ago a family friend was punched without provocation and yelled at with racial slurs.”

“I can’t say I’ve experienced racism personally, unlike my parents who came in the 1990s,” she added. “There, still, are the occasional verbal rants I’ve heard, like someone saying to a passenger on the train in a harsh tone that they smell like curry! But the harder thing to change is in the workforce (discrimination) and in particular in senior roles.”

In 2009-10, there was uproar in India when there were incidents of violence against Indian students in Australia. Many Indian-Australians believe that the Indian media exaggerated the issue, and that much of the crime was random and opportunistic. But since most Indian immigrants have faced racism in the country, they accept that at least some of the violence must have been motivated by racism.

Fuss-free blend

Indian immigrants also face the prospect of being aligned with radical-minded immigrants from other countries. “We’re importing trouble,” says Andrew Little, a retired Scottish engineer in his sixties. He is referring to the immigrants from some Muslim countries, and talks about the 2014 Sydney cafe siege, in which three persons were killed, including the Iranian-born perpetrator, who had come to Australia as a refugee. “They don’t integrate with us. They have contempt for our way of life. Some of them have become radicalised and preach hate against the Western way of life. My question is: Why come here if you dislike Australians and their lifestyle?” Little adds that the Indian immigrants are “all right”. “They’re hardworking and mix with Australians and cause no trouble,” he says. However, some racist Australians do get confused — in 2014, for instance, anti-Muslim graffiti appeared on a gurdwara in a Perth suburb!

Bigotry back home

When discussing racism, first-generation and recent immigrants accept that a large number of Australians can be racist; but they also compare Australian racism with various forms of discrimination in India. They frame racism in Australia in the context of bigotry in India, which can be much more violent, even deadly, and yet can remain unpunished.

“So okay, all Indians have experienced racism here,” says Jithender. “But if you look at India, you have worse discriminations and prejudices — you could be discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity, religion, caste, language.”

“From what I’ve seen on Indian TV, there always seem to be issues based on religion in India, in particular between Hindus and Muslims. Discrimination based on caste is still there,” said the 27-year-old woman accountant. “I feel people in Australia are more open-minded and accepting of other religions than people in India.”

Gen next

While the first generation and recent immigrants weigh and compare discriminations in India and Australia, second-generation immigrants focus only on the Aussie framework. Born and brought up in Australia, they have no personal experience of injustices in India, and aspire for the equality the Australian law promises. 

“Racism definitely exists here,” says Sydney resident Anshul Jagota (27), who was born in Australia. “However, there are laws in place, which help reduce the level of discrimination. Nonetheless, sometimes people don’t appreciate cultural and/or religious differences, or misunderstand them.”

“I did face racism in school,” says Gold Coast resident Simran, in her early twenties. “It could be kids calling me names, and it could go to the extent of people throwing things at me across the street.” Simran feels strongly about racism — she got interested in minority issues as a child and that’s the reason she studied international relations and journalism. “I want to make a positive contribution to society,” she says.

Gaurav Joshi, who moved to Australia in the 1980s as a child, says that the second-generation Indian-Australians have no experience of the bigotry in India. “They are only aware of things they may have heard or read about,” he says. “Their Australian experience is the only real life for them — so they want the equality the law guarantees them in this country.” And they’re determined that, with the benefit of the legal guarantees, they must be counted as second to none.

A POSITIVE MIX-UP

There are positive stories of integration, as well. Keith Brown of Gold Coast happily talks about his “brother-in-law from India”. “I’ve got an Indian brother-in-law!” he says. “My cousin married him. Her family is from Gympie (a small town near Brisbane), and they had never before seen a man from India. But the family took it very well.” 

“It’s no more a surprise to hear that a certain family member or friend got married to a white Australian person,” confirms Gaurav Joshi. Mixing up isn’t a bad thing, for it allows people to appreciate diversity. Despite challenges, Indians in Australians are mixing up well, backed by the law which abets the anti-racism movement and sentiment.

"When travelling by bus or train, many white Australians seem to avoid sitting next to me. They sometimes prefer to stand. And that makes me wonder — what’s wrong? Am I smelling bad or something?" An electronics engineer from Mumbai

"Racism definitely exists in Australia. However, there are laws in place, which help reduce the level of discrimination" Anshul Jagota, Sydney resident

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