I am often bemused at accusations about Australia having some kind of deep-seated race hate problem. I wonder whether those who make such accusations have travelled to others part of the world, large sections of which are ethnically homogenous or entrench racism institutionally.
I have just returned from a trip to my birthplace, Bangladesh, a trip that included a stopover in Singapore. While making my way through the airport in the capital Dhaka, I was approached by security staff who thought I was the porter carrying the luggage for my Caucasian wife. I was asked to shift because touting such luggage carrying services was illegal in the main terminal.
In other parts of the trip, I was told flatly by a hotel receptionist in a more remote part of the country that my wife and I did not look like a real couple. He requested documentary proof of our marital union before we rented a room, which may have partly been related to religious reasons.
In the past, while travelling through Europe, I’ve had other groups of immigrants selling tat in town squares ask whether I was in an arrangement with my wife to ensure my citizenship and whether I might advise them how to do the same.
Such interactions are reminders of how mixed, ethnic marriages remain relatively rare throughout the world. Studies in the United States show half a century ago two-thirds of survey respondents, both white and black, did not support mixed marriages between blacks and whites. The same survey conducted in 2015 found those who looked askance on such unions were less than ten per cent, a marker of how much we’ve progressed in race relations.
Local immigration researcher Bob Birrell estimates cities like Sydney and Melbourne have amongst the highest mixed marriage rates in the world, an indicator of how both cities have especially large rates of foreign-born populations.
Mixed marriages are less common in countries which haven’t prioritised skilled migration, such as Britain where marrying outside ethnic groups is less common. This is important because marrying within one’s ethnic group, while perfectly understandable, potentially entrenches an ethnic identity over a wider, national, civic one, especially in cases like Pakistanis in the United Kingdom where the proportion who return to Pakistan to find a spouse remains high.
At another point in my trip, when I attempted a transit stop in Singapore, the customs officials were suspicious and sent me for further checks at immigration. While in usual circumstances this might imply that I was considered an appropriate demographic to consider for further terrorism scrutiny, the real reason was something altogether different.
Singapore imports a large number of foreign workers from Bangladesh. On seeing my birthplace as Bangladesh, customs grew suspicious at the fact I had an Australian passport. There was a kind of cognitive dissonance having been used to seeing poor, uneducated bonded workers as the primary migrant type from Bangladesh. The customs officials weren’t entirely impressed that I was strutting around proud of my Australian citizenship. Something similar happened to me decades ago when I was held at the Malaysian- Singapore border in the town of Johor Bahru, an industrial city with large numbers of foreign workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh.
These kinds of interactions are a reminder that large parts of the world struggle to see someone who looks like me as an Australian, yet I rarely have the same experience locally. Beyond that places like Singapore as well as large parts of the Middle East show a barely veiled contempt for my heritage, associating Bangladesh only with poverty and unsophistication, gleaned from their experience of foreign workers. This kind of treatment would never happen locally.
In my time as a doctor, it is only been a handful of elderly patients who have asked, “Where are you really from” type questions and even so, entirely innocently.
Countries like Singapore and Malaysia entrench racism with quotas for certain populations like the Malays and have strict criteria about who can live where depending on their ethnicity. The vast bulk of the world are proud of their ethnic heritage and see no reason to dilute it through immigration, as leaders such as Victor Orban of Hungary have strongly argued. Likewise, countries such as Japan or South Korea have shown no interest in opening themselves up for migration yet are never called racist.
Multicultural nations such as Australia, Canada and Britain are experiments challenging the notion that national identity is rooted primarily in an ethnocultural foundation. They are the least racist countries in the world but worry the most about potentially being discriminatory. Australian and Canada, in particular, lead the world on measures of social mobility, non-white immigration and refugee resettlement.
Unfortunately, they are also the only countries where intellectuals feel it necessary to oppose their own culture and celebrate its decline. This may also be a pointer that it is the Western world that has the greatest capacity for self-examination and internal criticism.
The British academic Eric Kauffman argues in his book “Whiteshift” that the anti-racism taboo is most potent among the white middle classes in the Anglo Saxon world. Over recent decades trends have drifted in such a way that the worst thing in the world you can be called as a white Westerner, apart perhaps from being a paedophile, is a racist. This has also led to dilutions in the terminology with ever-greater emphasis on the subjective experience of accusers.
Furthermore, being racist is closely linked to being white, highlighted by recent writings in the New York Times from US academic Nell Irvin Painter who explained a group of Indian-American youth making racist remarks towards blacks as them having embraced “whiteness”. By this reckoning, the intelligentsia believes only whites can be considered racist.
There is no question that racial prejudice exists. For those who look openly different, such as women wearing hijabs or Sikhs wearing turbans, I am sympathetic that they are more likely to cop inappropriate remarks. The vast majority of Australians will come down hard on such behaviour. But in attempting to stamp out all forms of discrimination, let’s also acknowledge that we almost certainly lead the world in welcoming and integrating people from all races and creeds.
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