Is having ‘brown’ skin, in Australia, a crime?

Published: August 16, 2014
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The colour brown is not tantamount to being intellectually inferior, vicious, manipulative, dishonest, uneducated, ill-mannered and dirty.

Ali, 26, was lying unconscious on the concrete footpath outside a busy train station on King’s Street, Sydney. His mouth was bleeding profusely and his eyes were bruised and swollen, while his friends made frantic phone calls to the police and emergency services.

Within 10 minutes, the police and paramedics were at the scene, applying first aid. As he regained consciousness and looked around, he realised that his attacker had fled the scene and he was surrounded by the emergency staff.

Before this incident happened that day, Ali was partying with friends on a Friday night on King’s Street – the party hub of Sydney. A young Caucasian male approached him and asked for a cigarette, to which he refused. Five minutes later, one of Ali’s friends asked for a cigarette and Ali handed him the pack he had in his pocket. This infuriated the Caucasian youngster and he and his friends approached Ali again, in the hopes of teaching him a lesson.

In order to avoid any nasty confrontations, Ali and his friends decided to leave the area and they began walking towards the train station to head back home. Just as they were about to reach it, the Caucasian men gathered around them. The youngster came closer to Ali, ridiculed his Asian skin colour, punched him hard on his face thrice, pushed him against the footpath and ran away when Ali became unconscious.

Ali is one of the 504,544 international students enrolled in an Australian institution for higher education. Three months ago, he came to Australia in search of greener pastures and a promising career as an accountant. For him, Australia was a land of pure opportunity where equality of opportunity prevailed and anyone with an Australian degree was guaranteed a thriving career. Like millions of fellow Pakistanis, he also believed he was absolutely safe on the streets in Sydney on a busy weekend night. But his image of a crime free, safe and multicultural Australia was shattered the very second he was attacked because of his skin colour. Even after four months since the incident, Ali’s case is still buried under hundreds of other files awaiting action at the Racism Tribunal.

Millions of Pakistanis are under the impression that developed countries hold big opportunities for everyone who migrates there and once you enter the country, you are guaranteed a secure future. This, unfortunately, is a myth. Immigration also comes with a price tag. It is usually followed by years of struggle couple with tolerance of abusive, and sometimes overtly racist, behaviour.

Over the years, racism has taken many forms in developed countries that promise to be open to all cultures and claim to be supporters of multiculturalism. In some scenarios, racist comments are overtly directed at you, while in other cases such as workplace and more formal settings, it is covertly expressed. At some stage in their life, every immigrant experiences an open or more subtle form of racism.

I have very vivid memories of my first few days at my new job after I had newly migrated to Australia with my husband. I was surprised when my colleagues told me there was corridor gossip going around about my not-so-Australian accent and people wondered where I got it from. I was further informed that my boss thought he found it hard to understand me because of my thick accent and they were reluctant to hire more people from the same background because of the language issue. Yet they claim to be an equal opportunity employer and support cultural diversity.

Over the next few years, I encountered a plethora of questions and statements about Pakistan.

“Do you have internet in Pakistan? We don’t think you do.”

“Do you have to wear a burqa all the time?”

“Can you wear jeans in Pakistan?”

“How did you manage to get education?”

“You guys are forced to marry your husbands, aren’t you?”

“You can’t get any more brown. If you go out in the sun, you can only turn into an aboriginal now.”

The harder you try to demystify their mistaken beliefs about your culture, burqa and other issues, the more they judge your customs. While wearing a burqa or hijab is more of a personal choice than an obligation, as I would explain, they found it hard to believe. Also, they found shocked at knowing that in urban areas of Pakistan, middle class families would invest as much in the education of their daughters as their sons. In addition, they never believed me when I told them the decision to marry my husband was taken by me after I got to know him. Such stereotypes, I believe, are a cause of this racist behaviour towards immigrants.

While the governments are trying to open up to new cultures and assimilate them, they still need to educate their citizens about other cultures so that they shed their myopic perspective on people from other cultures and accept them as valuable members of their society. On a micro level, people in the developed world also need to educate themselves about various elements of alien cultures in order to leave stereotypes created by television and internet images behind.

For example, wearing a burqa does not symbolise female oppression. Furthermore, the colour brown is not tantamount to being intellectually inferior, vicious, manipulative, dishonest, uneducated, ill-mannered and dirty. In order to be truly multicultural, the developed world has to shed its ‘us versus them’ mindset and see immigrants as equal to its citizens, regardless of skin colour, accent and physical features.

Anusha Omair Chaudry

Anusha Omair Chaudry

She holds a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences from Lahore University of Management Sciences and is a freelance journalist and amateur documentary maker based in Australia.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.