Looking back, the Howard years felt like an endurance test in racism, preparing me for our current moment of hyper-racism. John Howard’s relentless conservatism presided over Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, the Northern Territory intervention and post-911 Islamophobia. As a Chinese Malaysian, Aboriginal, and Muslim woman, I experienced racism across multiple fronts, but always felt especially impacted by the specific racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that ensures our ongoing dispossession. My entire life has been shaped by anti-black racism, used by white Australia to justify the ongoing theft of land. I have come to know that the other side to this racist coin is racism against non-white ‘foreigners’, such as Asians and Muslims, who are a threat to white Australia’s claims to land.
It is hard to believe that the Howard years (1996 to 2007) saw significantly less solidarity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of colour. It was a solidarity that I craved in the anti-racism space, and one that I knew was sorely needed. Thankfully today the anti-racism movement in Australia has transformed into one that recognises the need for solidarity, particularly solidarity that centres Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander struggles for land rights and freedom from oppression. In reflecting on over 10 years of coalition-building, I spoke with two of my earliest collaborators, writer and academic Dr Shakira Hussein and political comedian Aamer Rahman.
Eugenia: I wanted to start with the basics here. What do you think about Australia’s particular brand of racism, especially in relation to Asian Australians? I mean, for a long time, Australian notions of ‘Asia’ did not even include South Asians, whereas in the UK, ‘Asian’ has almost exclusively meant ‘South Asian’…
Shakira: I think the fact that there are so many desi on British tv shows has a lot to do with that. But there are more of ‘us’ South Asians here, now, on the continent known as Australia, so that is being undermined.
Aamer: I guess in terms of migration history there have been a lot more major moral panics around (East) Asian communities, going back to the early settler period and the gold rush, and then later in terms of immigration and drug hysteria. South Asians arrived later and weren’t subjected to these things in the same way or on the same scale, so South Asians have kind of slipped under the radar as a relatively ‘well behaved’ group of immigrants.
Shakira: And in the 90s and immediately after 9/11, it was all Lebanese gang wars and then gang rapists that epitomised the Muslim danger.
Eugenia: So Shakira you think that as we always copy the Brits, that we are now adopting their construction of Asia now?
Shakira: Not entirely, in that ‘Asian’ still means South Asian in the UK and East Asian here, but various token brown characters in Australian soap operas (I forget which ones) have been clean-cut South Asians like the ones that you’d see on the British soaps.
Aamer: The biggest national story about South Asians that I can remember was over the wave of cabbies and international students being attacked and stabbed. Which of course is testament to Australian racism. The official police response was that international students shouldn’t speak loudly in a foreign language and should hide their phones…
Shakira: I was reminding [my daughter] Dali the other day of how she didn’t like me wearing shalwar kameez in public when we first moved to Melbourne, which was when the attacks on Indian international students were in the headlines. I assumed that she was concerned for my safety.
Aamer: Coming back your original question about the definition of ‘Asian’, I feel like a lot of the everyday street harassment that people face is about being ‘Indians’, which is basically shorthand for South Asian in most people’s minds. I don’t think there is a concerted effort anywhere to shift the parameters of what ‘Asian’ means, whether it be in the media or otherwise. And definitely none of this is to say that South Asians don’t face racism in a variety of systemic ways – only that it’s not via the category of ‘Asian’ as it’s been defined historically in Australia. Also, I think there’s a split between the earlier generation of ‘skilled migrants’ who came here in the late 80s/90s and those who came later, on student and other visas, which forced them into much more difficult and precarious work.
Eugenia: Do you feel like there was a turning point for you both? I know for me it was coming out of the Hanson years and the unrelenting conservatism of the Howard years. The attacks on Aboriginal anything, September 11, the invasion of Iraq and that big rise in Islamophobia…
Shakira: During Hanson’s first term back in the ‘90s, I made a concerted attempt to look more ‘Asian’ (meaning South Asian) by wearing shalwar kameez and so on. In fact, I made a resolution (which I didn’t entirely keep) to always wear shalwar kameez until she was out of parliament. But at the same time, I knew that when she said ‘Asian’, she meant the other Asians.
And seconding Aamer’s point about the difference between the different cohorts. The earlier cohort (or some members of it) went out of their way to distance themselves from the embarrassing newbies who were [sarcastically] ‘asking to be beaten up’, really.
Eugenia: I definitely think about this a lot, even in terms of ‘my’ Asians: how Chinese people slip in and out of being the model-migrant due to things like class and the earlier migrants being configured as hard-working business owners. So much of the 1990s Hanson-led wave of racism against Asians was not really about Chinese migrants, but it felt more about South East Asians like Vietnamese and Cambodian young people… but I still got yelled at on the street during that period and told to ‘go home’.
Aamer: Yes Shakira, I remember this! Established South Asians basically did not care about poor people and newer migrants being victims of racist attacks because it wouldn’t happen to them in their suburbs, and because of that sneering South Asian superiority bullshit when it comes to class.
The first Hanson era, followed quickly by the Tampa crisis and 9/11, was really formative for me. The first protest I ever went to was against Hanson. Even then, I remember it being about solidarity with my ‘Asian’ friends, not because I felt she was talking about ‘us’ specifically.
Shakira: My most formative time was when I was living in London at the time of the murder of Stephen Lawrence [in 1993], which took place not far from where my extended family lived. There were some very big anti-racist marches. The BNP office was in that area as well and if you saw young white guys on the street, you had reason to be scared. At the time, I thought that the UK was ‘ahead’ of Australia in combating racism. Of course, I was wrong about that.
Aamer: To your point Shakira, I think you are right in one sense (this strikes me whenever I go to the UK), the UK is ‘ahead’ in the sense that South Asian communities have been there longer (some now up to 4 or 5 generations). There is a longer and much stronger history of organising against racism, both by themselves and in coalitions with other communities. South Asians in the UK have always seemed to me to have a stronger sense of identity and been much more confident in speaking out.
Shakira: I felt that there was a place for me in the UK anti-racist movement and I wasn’t sure where I slotted into it in Australia…
Eugenia: So, yes, I wanted to ask about organising and solidarity work. Obviously, racism has played a big role in our lives and we have flipped that into anti-racism work. I talk about these things – anti-racism and this period of conservatism in the late 90s and particularly 2000s – because for me this was a period of great pain, but very little solidarity between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous non-white people. But then things started to change around the time that I met both of you, sort of in the late 2000s. Do you think that’s a fair way to remember race relations across that period?
Shakira: Yes, I think so. This is another reason why I found it easier to engage with anti-racism in the UK than here. At that stage, the dispossession of Aboriginal people was seen as a binary issue between whites and blackfellas. ‘Asians,’ however defined, tended to take that as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Aamer: Yes, I definitely think so. And, again Australia’s immigration timeline has a lot to do with it. While South Asians were putting down roots in the UK in the 50s, 60s and early 70s, the white Australia policy was still in effect here. Our communities are so young that the first generation of people who could organise was coming of age in the Hanson/Howard era.
Eugenia: Yeah, I’ll never forget when I first learnt that there were feminists organising in the UK under the political term ‘Black’ and that this included Asians, Arabs, and black people. It was this solidarity I hadn’t experienced and just a deconstruction of how I was taught by white Australian society to think about race. The response to me as someone who is both black and Asian is as though those two things are such polar opposites as to be freakish.
The response to me as someone who is both black and Asian is as though those two things are such polar opposites as to be freakish.
– Eugenia Flynn
Shakira: Oh yes. That old-school definition of ‘Black’ blew my mind. I don’t use it here and now for obvious reasons, but I still find the thinking behind it to be very, very useful. Southall Black Sisters still does a lot of good work.
Aamer: I think now there are such clear systemic distinctions in the way black and brown people face racism in the UK, combined with the obvious anti-black racism and lack of solidarity from South Asian communities, that ‘political Blackness’ as a concept has been rightfully abandoned. But the history of these solidarities is important, even if the terminology is outdated and the relationship between communities is complex and often fraught.
Eugenia: Okay, well I am interested in both of your work in anti-racism and specifically in solidarity work. Why do you think it’s important to do this work in the Australian context? How have you done that work? Aamer, I know you have done this through trying to educate the Muslim community about race, racism and specifically anti-black racism. And Shakira, I know you have done this through your scholarship and solidarity work between women (which is how we met in the first place).
Aamer: I guess the way I had been educated about racism was always systemic. That it was something that required a collective response. So it was just something that always needed to be done. Also, I think from an Islamic perspective, the concept of living on stolen land is something that can’t be ignored. That was a perspective that people needed to understand: that they could be victims of racism and also be embedded in a racist structure where they were beneficiaries. I knew from doing community work that young people were frustrated about racism but often didn’t have the language or framework to channel that frustration, so organising events where people could hear and learn from more experienced activists and speakers, particularly Aboriginal activists, was really important.
Shakira: For me it’s not just that working in solidarity with other communities is, well, the right thing to do, absolutely essential if we’re to get anywhere at all, and so on. But it’s also just a richer and more fulfilling way of being in the world. You’re left feeling less isolated, you don’t feel as though you’re just pissing into the wind.
Eugenia: The three of us have been working together, supporting each other’s work, and working in the anti-racism space for well over 10 years. Do you feel like things have changed over that time (if you think back to those early days when very few people were working together)?
Shakira: There’s a much larger cohort of famous brown celebrities now of course, ‘positive role models’, but I don’t think that’s really been much of a game changer.
Eugenia: Ha! For me it’s definitely a feeling of, so much has changed in terms of people being cognisant of the role of race and racism in Australia, but then taking their politics from the US because of social media. And then as you say Shakira, anti-racism being mainstreamed into ‘diversity and inclusion’ on television, in music, in writing and journalism…
Shakira: We shouldn’t only care about racism when a famous brown person is vilified online or in the mainstream media (as abhorrent as that is). And ‘victory’ isn’t more brown people on our tv screens and in our boardrooms.
Eugenia: I know it’s a cheap shot, but I can’t help but blame social media. Yes, it’s been good, but it also just transported US race politics and then also a ‘cool activist’ brand into our worlds.
Shakira: Anti-racism as a ‘brand’, as a commodity…[sarcastically] ‘Wow, brown people have money. On average not as much as white people but some of them have shit-tonnes of money and like to spend it sometimes. Let’s not use Sam Kekovitch as our brand ambassador anymore…Racism defeated!’
Aamer: So social media has been amazing for social movements, but it’s definitely a double-edged sword. There’s been a massive proliferation of social justice language and terminology. For example, everybody knows what ‘white privilege’ is as a concept, whether they agree with the idea or not. These ideas were simply not this widespread in mainstream discourse 10 to 15 years ago, and while social media has created amazing ways to run political campaigns, it also allows some people to learn their politics without having to actually organise. So I think it can lead to a level of superficiality where people learn the language, some buzzwords and some basic analysis and that’s it. Being ‘political’ means constantly recycling these things as opposed to actually organising for change.
… while social media has created amazing ways to run political campaigns, it also allows some people to learn their politics without having to actually organise.
– Aamer Rahman
Social media has also introduced a type of currency to activism that didn’t exist before. You can be a celebrity activist now in ways that you couldn’t previously, and I think that can attract people who want a certain type of notoriety and recognition.
Eugenia: I completely agree with both of you and can’t help but feel worried for the future with the role that social media is playing in both inciting racism and in mainstreaming anti-racism organising. But agree with you, Aamer, that social media has really propelled forward social movements. I guess no matter what 2021 throws at us, I know I can face it working in solidarity with you both.