This is a guest post for swpd by Eurasian Sensation, who writes of himself, "I'm from Melbourne, Australia, and I'm a little bit white and a little bit Indonesian. I'm both an insider and an outsider in two cultures, and I guess that gives me an interest and insight into how cultures connect and clash. This is the basis for my blogging -- it's a look at various expressions of culture and ethnicity, sometimes serious, sometimes not."
I've been noticing a prevalent tactic to deflect accusations of racism among white folks here in Australia recently. And it's a clever move, too; it allows them to not only avoid facing up to the uncomfortable reality, but to come out of the exchange feeling morally superior to whoever made the accusation.
But first, a little context. In case you haven't been following, Australia in recent months has been the subject of considerable criticism about incidents of a racial nature. Most notable has been the worrying rate of assaults towards Indian students and people of South Asian descent, which has generated much heat in the Indian media and posed the question about whether Australia is a racist nation.
Our credentials as a multicultural utopia were also questioned recently following the "Jackson Jive" skit on a variety show in which a group performed in blackface, which caused offence back in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
In both cases, a very similar white strategy has arisen in media and public discourse, to defend Australia's reputation. It basically involves a diversion -- a shift of attention away from Australia and onto whoever is making the criticism.
In relation to the condemnation that emanated from the U.S. regarding the blackface performance, the most common response on talkback radio and in newspaper comments was to condemn the U.S. as being worse. The following are from readers of Brisbane's Courier Mail:
i recall Robert Downey JR dressing as a african american man, with make-up and all, in a new movie called "tropic thunder". I cant remember any big stink getting kicked up about that. Maybe America should stop pointing fingers our way and deal with their own country
Posted by: Ben of Have a look at yourself USA 11:01am October 10, 2009
Americans are so ignorant and arrogant. The whole world is supposed to be in tune with thier cultural and historical guilt. Australians ... did not kidnap and enslave african negroes, Americans did.
Posted by: Didums of Brisbane 5:18pm October 09, 2009
Boo hoo! I've just seen footage of Harry Connick with blackened face portraying a Baptist preacher. Pot - kettle, pardon the pun!
Posted by: Danny Brown of Brisbane 3:22pm October 09, 2009
See how it's done?
By focusing on the faults of the accuser (America and Harry Connick, Jr.), these Courier-Mail readers avoid having to actually question whether anything was wrong with the blackface performance.
Interestingly, it doesn't just apply to something the accuser is currently doing, but also to anything they have ever done in the past. They invoke an institution that died out 150 years ago (slavery), and something Harry Connick, Jr. did in 1996 (which incidentally was entirely different in context to a bunch of guys wearing shoepolish). So a past act of racism forever cancels out any right to accuse anyone else; there is no possibility of someone doing something racist but then learning from that mistake.
When applied to a nation or other grouping of people (i.e. "Americans"), this tactic also makes everyone in that group responsible for whatever some parts of that group may have done. So Harry Connick, Jr. had no right to make comments on Australian racism towards black people, because people from his country once owned slaves and conducted lynchings. Of course, Harry Connick, Jr. never owned slaves or conducted lynchings, but that's an inconvenient truth. What is most important is to discredit him and his country and thus invalidate their right to criticise us.
In regard to the criticism from India, the common white response has been very similar. Rather than question whether they may have a point, just draw attention to India's faults instead. Alan Howe, a columnist in the country's most read newspaper, summed it up in his column, written in response to the angry Indian reaction to the stabbing death of a Punjabi student in Melbourne:
Indians are a riot. Indeed, there are about 60,000 riots reported in India each year. It boasts it is the world's largest democracy, but that "democracy" is very much a work in progress, and the progress is slow.
Much of the country still has well-populated pockets of feudal brutality, deadly caste war, and murderous religious conflict. Indians still carry out so-called honour killings, an unpleasant business in which concerned male family members, worried about the class, religion, background, or maybe just the look of a girl's fiance or husband, brutally kill one or both for bringing shame upon them...
Nitin Garg's death is a tragedy. For him, his family in Punjab, his friends, and for our community. We don't know yet who killed him. It probably was an opportunistic robbery gone wrong, but he may have been killed by someone out to harm an Indian. He may have even been killed by an Indian. They have form, home and away.
So let's solve the crime and get the facts. Let's not jump to any conclusions. Well, maybe one: Australia is a safer and more tolerant country than India will ever be.
Got that? So if Indians are a violent and degenerate people, and many bad things happen in India, therefore Indians have no right to comment on violence or racism in Australia. Likewise, Americans cannot criticise Australia for racism because America is racist.
A number of old sayings spring to mind here. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Or, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." (Clearly, stone-throwing was one of the most pressing issues affecting our ancestors.)
And there is certainly something to those old chestnuts. As an Australian, I admit it is a bit strange hearing criticism from the US about our attitudes to black people, as if slavery never existed. I would hope that the Americans who condemned the offending blackface skit would at least take a moment to reflect on their own nation's sticky record on race, for context.
Nevertheless, the "clean up your own backyard" mentality is extremely limiting, and in a sense hypocritical. If Australians respond to American criticism by citing American racism, they are in essence criticising the US and ignoring the mess in Australia's own "backyard". It also means that no one ever has the moral authority to criticise anyone else. Because no person, and no society, is perfect in every way, and every society has a problem with racism and violence to some degree.
Hence, the spotlight is taken away from the initial problem, and instead focuses on the alleged hypocrisy of the critic. So white people never have to ask themselves the hard questions about their own racism. They never have to bother with being introspective about their prejudices. And thus racism continues and thrives, because no one addresses it. In the case of the Indian students, this tactic may even increase the level of racism and violence against them; it effectively labels them hypocrites and troublemakers, and fuels the flames of hatred and xenophobia even further.
But of course, in the white Australian psyche, whether some Indians get attacked is not really that important. What is more important is making sure no one dares to call us racist.
So how should Australia, or any other country for that matter, measure its performance as a society?
Do we look around for the worst aspect of someone else, and use that as a yardstick to rate ourselves? Should we compare our record on race to the U.S., whose history of treatment towards non-white people is arguably one of the most shameful of any nation? And in doing so, should we conveniently ignore the positive things the U.S. has accomplished in this area?
Should we compare ourselves to India -- an enormous nation wracked by poverty and longstanding ethnic, class and religious divisions -- and pat ourselves on the back that our small and wealthy country does not have as many problems?
Do we really want to turn this into a pissing contest over who is less racist?
The thing is, in that kind of contest, no matter who wins, everybody loses.