Racism? Yes and no…

08 Jun

It is no accident that my “What’s new” picture for the last few days has been this:

curios 001b

There am I, third from the left, with a Japanese Christian and Mr Kim from Korea on my right, a couple of Indonesian Muslims, Rui from Tianjin China, two more Indonesians, a Korean, and another Indonesian on my left. It’s a long time ago now, and I have always been better with faces than names. This is just one group from the hundreds of students I came to know in 1990 to early 1991 when I ventured into the overseas student world. Most were those Chinese who had left their country in the wake of Tiananmen. Rui, for example, was a scientist.

Some of them did experience racism or at least xenophobia, often of the petty kind: finding people would not sit next to them in the train, for example. (On the other hand, I read of a black American in Korea who found an entire swimming pool suddenly empty of people when he dived in.) Some of them, like the thirteen Nepalese mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald today, found themselves conned or ripped off, though the perpetrators were quite often of the same ethnicity as the fleeced. Some overseas student agencies were ethical and indeed excellent, as is still the case, but some were shysters. Some private colleges were shonky, very shonky, and some were not. Some were owned by Indonesians or Chinese, some were not.

One Korean student reported racism to me once: taxis would not stop for him. I investigated by asking him what he did to hail a cab. He demonstrated with a hand movement which would work in Korea, but in Sydney would be interpreted as “I don’t want a cab.” Correct hand movement taught, the problem was solved.

I am not wanting to trivialise the degree to which racism is involved in some of the attacks on Indian students and others in recent days, but to embrace that as the only cause is a sure way to miss the fine detail and thus to act ineffectually. The idea that Australians are racist has some validity, but as a generalisation is no better than others such as “Chinese eat cats” or “Australians are lazy” or “Muslims are terrorists” or “Lebanese are criminal drug lords”. The word “some” should figure in all the above.

Very emotive thing, racism. I am firmly anti-racist, but regret some of the excesses this has led me into. Ask the Rabbit, whose indiscretion on one occasion (in the name of humour in his case, a bit Chaser-like and misplaced perhaps) I over-reacted to quite shamefully, forgetting the obvious point that in his actual life as I well knew there was very little evidence of real racism.

It is also true that overseas students are quite often vulnerable. I would baulk at travelling by train at night in some parts of Sydney; they have to, and are conspicuous. They may also be perceived as rich, though that too is a false generalisation. Jim Belshaw today canvasses more possibilities.

The desire to profit from overseas students sometimes runs ahead of ability (or even willingness) to consider their welfare. This is especially true of the worst private colleges.

On the other hand undoubted racists are making a meal of this situation, and the usual white supremacist minority would probably have been behind those leaflets distributed around the University of NSW.

See also my English/ESL blog.


35 responses to “Racism? Yes and no…

  1. Benjamin Solah

    June 8, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I guess the petition of anti-racists when we say Australia is a racist country is that we think all people in Australia is racist, which isn’t true especially since we ourselves are Australia and anti-racist but our opinion is the history and institutions of Australia are racist.

    See my blog for a photo of the demo today in Melbourne. It was a small turn out, but inspiring to hear the Indians take the microphone and speak.

    Got harassed by some racists though.

  2. Legal Eagle

    June 8, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    There are racist people in every country and every society. It’s not a peculiarly Australian problem, although we are very sensitive to such accusations because of our past history – namely, appalling treatment of indigenous Australians and the equally appalling White Australia policy.

    I think Jim is right when he says there is more to these attacks than simple racism. It is also about unscrupulous thugs targeting a specific group of people who they have identified as ‘easy pickings’ for theft – obvious outsiders who might not be aware that it isn’t safe to walk in a particular area alone at night.

    I agree with you totally when you say that we should be careful to provide for the welfare of international students who come here. Some of the private colleges are terrible. Some poor students get totally ripped off. It’s also about making sure that students get proper orientation and education about what is safe and what is not.

  3. Antony

    June 8, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    On a lesser ‘racist’ issue, many arrogant (white) native English speakers tend to enjoy poking fun on Asian’s not-so-perfect English, particularly when those Asians kindly translated some signs to provide convenience for arrogant native English speakers, there are even a number of ‘engrish’ websites dedicated to entertain fellow white native English speakers.

    It is not hard to find mistakes by non-English white Europeans, would those arrogant (and mostly white) native English speaker bother to poke mistakes by those? I highly doubt so.

  4. Neil

    June 8, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    I do laugh at “machine translation” though. Here is a sentence from the post above:


    Not too bad, that one. At least the gist is there. It comes back as:

    Want to profit from overseas students sometimes run ahead of capacity (or even willing) to consider their welfare.

    @Antony: I think that your example may or may not be racist, though it certainly is rude. But then laughing at the way other people use English has been the staple in comedy for centuries, including laughing at other dialects of English. I can’t help thinking there would be a whole area of humour for Chinese in the way gweilos mangle Chinese, especially in things most westerners have problems with like tone. I memorably called myself a dumpling once when trying out some Mandarin on one of my Wessex classes; they laughed. I meant “teacher”! They also laughed when telling me one of the students had gone into McDonalds and ordered a dick shake. We had some lessons then on TH, learning to poke our tongues out at the right moment to change D to TH. They laughed at my name because it sounds like the Mandarin for “girl”. I laughed too when it was explained to me, and then on when I introduced myself I would write on the board “NEIL” and explain it wasn’t 妞. M once talked about “Japanese toilets” in the city when he meant “tourists”; he joined in the laughter when we explained it to him.

    The racism we are talking about in this post is much nastier, though I can see why you would be annoyed.

    @Benjamin: I do know the materialist version of the history of racism, but do not accept it as I rather see racism, or fear of the other, as having a much longer history that may be explained in part in evolutionary terms, in part as a meme, and in part as a human failing. I accept that institutional racism can exist, and has done in this country, though it has receded. I do know people can be talked out of racism, or can lose it with experience. I know I did.

    @Legal Eagle: agree 100%.

  5. Neil

    June 8, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    @Benjamin. Good photo, by the way, and a good thought.

  6. rummuser

    June 9, 2009 at 3:32 am

    Neil, I am very impressed with this post and intend sending links via email to a lot of my friends, as I shall of Jim’s post on the same subject as well.

    In India, it has become a highly emotive issue, particularly after Australia refused to supply uranium to India, and the last cricket tour to Australia not exactly having been very pleasant. The use of the word “racism” is, I suspect, for want of a better substitute rather than in the way that it normally means. There is however the feeling, at least from the letters to the editors in the various papers, that Australia has become anti Indian on many fronts and this is one more proof of that happening.

    Quite how all this will play out is anybody’s guess, but I suspect that at least in the immediate future, the number of students from India going to Australia to study will come down substantially.

  7. Legal Eagle

    June 9, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Antony – I know I make funny stuff-ups in Japanese, and if one of them ended up on a Nihon-eigo site, I wouldn’t be offended. One of my friends told me I had a strange English language way of ordering my sentences. I don’t think I could ditch that unless I lived in Japan for a while.

    So, I don’t think it’s necessarily racist – it can be patronising and nasty laughter, but it can also be just genuine laughter at the bizarre results when things get “lost in translation”.

    Actually now I think about it, the people who have sent me e-mails with Chinese menu mistranslations have been Chinese. Obviously they find it pretty funny.

  8. Neil

    June 9, 2009 at 9:13 am

    @Ramana: Thank you. Anything any of us can do in our small way to defuse this situation is valuable. I have wondered too whether memories of the 2007-8 India-Australia Test Series are part of the background to the way this story has played in India. What do you think?

    @Legal Eagle: the effect of the language we have become “hard-wired” in on learning other languages is well known. Chinese are lucky to the degree that Chinese word order is not dissimilar to English, but our penchant for “unnecessary” words like “the” and our prepositional idioms trip them up, as of course does our habit of marking tense by altering verbs, not to mention our very subtle gradations of modality to express possibility, permission and so on.

    @myself. When I said people can be talked out of racism I was a bit glib. It can happen, but then racism is too often quite irrational, so it isn’t quite as simple as I may have implied.

  9. Antony

    June 9, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    The laughter resulted from imperfection of non-native can be nicely pointed out for rectifying the mistakes. However, it can be, as evidently enjoyed by arrogant native English speakers, used for entertaining among themselves. Those arrogant native English speakers have no interests in collecting mistakes made by other non-English European speakers, or even not-so-well-educated native English speakers. Unsurprisingly, they demonstrated a huge interests in making a big fuss on shaming Asian’s (Japanese or ‘Chinglish’) less-than-perfect English. I believe I have justified labelling those arrogant native English speakers ‘racists’.

  10. Neil

    June 9, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Antony, look at Laowai Chinese.

    If your goal is to learn a language without making any mistakes, I’ve got bad news for you: I couldn’t and I’ve never met anyone who could.

    Since making mistakes are an inevitable part of this complex, tricky, and often magical process of learning to speak in a different tongue, what should our attitude be regarding mistakes?

    I suggest the following approach:

    People can’t laugh at you if you’re already laughing, because then they’re laughing with you….

    My most common mistake in Chinese is certainly worth laughing at. In a way like Chinese spoonerisms, I often switch around the syllables of two-syllable words. I’ve gone into a store and asked for “bees” (mìfēng 蜜蜂) when I wanted “honey” (fēngmì 蜂蜜) and inquired about someone’s “divorce” (líhūn 离婚) when I meant “wedding” (hūnlǐ 婚礼). After hearing a joke about someone with my problem, I refuse to call a “briefcase” anything but a “bāo” 包. I’m just too scared of not saying “píbāo” 皮包 (”briefcase”) and ending up saying “bāopí” 包皮 (”foreskin”)….

  11. Antony

    June 9, 2009 at 9:18 pm


    You pointed out a site that is providing educational information. I was referring to arrogant native English speakers’ entertaining sites such as the famous Nothing but ridiculing Asians in particular, last time I checked.

    Please be aware that I did not refer to native English speakers arrogant, I did call those arrogant native English speakers racist, which is the subject of this blog entry.

  12. Neil

    June 9, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hmmm. Some people apparently find the portrayal of Manuel in Fawlty Towers racist as it laughs at Spanglish. I think that is to take it too seriously. (I do not condone full-on racist jokes of course, even if one of the best tellers of Aboriginal jokes I ever heard was Ernie Dingo, and the best Jewish jokes I ever heard were told me by Jews.)

    * Mrs. Richards: I’ve booked a room with a bath and a sea view for three nights. I specifically asked for a sea view in my written confirmation, so please make sure I have it.
    * Manuel: Qué?
    * Mrs. Richards: What?
    * Manuel: Qué?
    * Mrs. Richards: K?
    * Manuel: Sí.
    * Mrs. Richards: KC? KC? What are you trying to say?
    * Manuel: No, no no no. Qué, “what.”
    * Mrs. Richards: K. Watt?
    * Manuel: Sí: qué, “what.”
    * Mrs. Richards: C.K. Watt?
    * Manuel: Yes.
    * Mrs. Richards: Who is this C.K. Watt?
    * Manuel: Qué?
    * Mrs. Richards: Is he the manager?
    * Manuel: Oh, Manager.
    * Mrs. Richards: He is.
    * Manuel: Ah, Mr. Fawlty.
    * Mrs. Richards: Oh, what are you talking about, you silly little man?
    [to Polly]
    * Mrs. Richards: Girl, I start to ask this man about my room, and he tells me the manager is a Mr. Watt, aged forty.
    * Manuel: No, no no. “Fawwl-ty.”
    * Mrs. Richards: Faulty? What’s wrong with him?

  13. Antony

    June 11, 2009 at 9:50 am

    … inquired about someone’s “divorce” (líhūn 离婚) when I meant “wedding” (hūnlǐ 婚礼). …

    I’d like to point out that lí (离) and lǐ (礼) do not sound the same, and can be easily distinguished if pronounced correctly.

    And the case of “píbāo” 皮包 (”briefcase”) versus “bāopí” 包皮 (”foreskin”), it has been well known when someone decides to write just those two characters in horizontal fashion where the language accepts both left to right and right to left (or used to). Just want to point out that I’ve never heard briefcase being referred to as “píbāo” (皮包).

  14. Neil

    June 11, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Interesting, Antony. I note the two LIs are separated by tone, something we non-Chinese have enormous problems with. That was the reason for my dumpling/teacher error.

  15. Antony

    June 11, 2009 at 11:16 am

    What were the words you used for ‘dumpling’ and ‘teacher’? I did not ask earlier, but I still can’t figure out which two words of ‘dumpling’ and ‘teacher’ sound similar.

  16. Neil

    June 11, 2009 at 11:27 am

    jiào shī 教师 and jiǎo zi 饺子 using Mainland characters — I had to look that up! So it wasn’t only tone after all…

  17. Antony

    June 11, 2009 at 11:46 am

    My two cents, jiào shī 教师 is far too formal for speaking language. Use 老師 (老师) will do. Just make sure you don’t make it sound like 老鼠 (mouse).

  18. Neil

    June 11, 2009 at 11:53 am

    That is just the kind of information (degree of formality) that native speakers “just know”, and learners struggle with — as I am sure you have found sometimes.

    On a similar (but different) note: the Japanese backpacker I made friends with in 1998 told me that some obviously mischievous Australian in Japan told him that to sound authentic he needed to say “fucking” every few words… He soon found this wasn’t quite right.

  19. Antony

    June 11, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Good point.

    The story about Hiro was certainly very interesting (sans the ESL and referencing parts, sorry).

  20. rummuser

    June 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I have deliberately been keeping quiet on both your and Jim’s posts on this very sensitive subject as I find both doing a great job. I am of course, sending links to my friends.

    The answer to your specific question – I have already covered it in my comment. Yes, indeed it has as has Australia’s decision not to supply uranium to India. Every time Symonds does something crazy, as he has just now done in the UK, there are pundits here who say, ” See, there he goes again!”

    I think that it is best to let things quieten down a bit and see how events pan out. There are reports that many students who were planning to go to Australia this academic year, have decided not to.

  21. Neil

    June 12, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks, Ramana. It does seem Symonds has personal/alcohol issues. He has lost a lot as a result, but not knowing the man I can only speculate. (The Indian newsagent and I discussed that this afternoon.) The uranium decision was a sensitive one.

    I am sure things will settle down.

  22. Kevin

    June 14, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    To be honest, I have to admit that I’m a racist :(. I hate all Antarcticans. Every time I mention that it’s chilly out, some stupid Antarctican says, “You think THIS is cold? You should come to MY country!” They’ll say that even when it’s below freezing outside! Or they say something about the birds in their country don’t fly in the air, but instead fly under water. Like that’s even possible.

    Shut the hell up, stupid Antarcticans.

  23. Antony

    June 14, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    You can add Canadians into the group. Some of them are good at flaunting their (beautiful) snow, or something called ‘real’ winter.

  24. Kevin

    June 15, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Good point. I guess I’m a dual racist now. It’s not even cold up there. I went there twice in June and July last year. It seemed pretty warm to me. I think Canadians are all liars.

    Also, hey Canadians, ‘Newfoundland’ was found almost a thousand years ago. Isn’t it about time that you changed the name to Oldfoundland? Stay current.

    Stupid Canadians.


  25. Neil

    June 15, 2009 at 8:38 am

    From my all-time favourite Right Wing Aussie blogger, Sydney Cabbie Adrian Neylan:

    …“I only gamble when I’m pregnant,” she explained. “In my culture it’s considered that pregnancy either brings good luck or bad luck. So with each of my pregnancies I’ve gone to the Casino and usually I win.”

    When she claimed this practise had the imprimatur of her husband I was reminded of Rodney Dangerfield’s character in Easy Money. After his wife complains about his gambling he retorts, “You only hate it when I lose!”

    The passenger’s parents were a Vietnamese mother and a French father. And her husband’s heritage was Thai and Chinese.

    When I joked that her children were ‘Asian salads’, she laughed, “That’s it, but you know what? When people ask what they are I say they’re Aussies. Not because it’s easier to explain but that’s just what they are, Aussies.”

    That’s modern Australia.

  26. Kevin

    June 17, 2009 at 3:55 am

    Rut roh. I’m about to enter dangerous waters, as I do almost every time I visit your blog. As you know, my previous two posts were jokes, and I don’t care a whit about people’s race or where they originate from. Except for people who believe in the unholy koran.

    I like the fact that modern Australia contains descendants from a myriad of countries. That is neither a good nor bad thing in reality, since people are people, and who cares what color they are? But the left seems to think that having various skin colors in a group is important. So I’m happy that you’re happy. Mostly because I don’t care about color or race, but if it adds to your happiness then it’s no skin off of my back. Win/win!

    But when it comes to islam, I’m not with you at all. Can you ignore the violence in the name of islam and say that adding islamists to your country is good for Australia? If so, how do you do it?: How do you ignore the honor killings in your own country? Do you try to say ‘so and so religion is just as bad’ or something like that, to make the murders seem like no big deal? Do you excuse the murders as a clash of societies?

    I’m afraid that I’m not going to get a straight answer here :(. But I really want to know. I mean, REALLY. I hate not knowing things, and I so far cannot comprehend your belief system, Neil. I don’t want to argue, I just want to understand. Dozens of horrid acts carried out every day by (imo evil) muslims, and just about zero are carried out by every other religion in the world, and yet you defend islam, often as if they were a race of people! Don’t make me back that claim up – Your archives are too hard to follow to link. Just dismiss it if you think I’m lying. I won’t back it up.

    FWIW I’ll credit you with not approving of the deaths created in the carrying out of what’s in the koran, but you never seem to blame the koran itself. Instead you blame the person who read it and acted upon what it said. That seems very weird to me.

  27. Kevin

    June 17, 2009 at 4:02 am

    Crap. I just remembered why I got semi-banned last year. It was because of posts like the one above.

    Oops! Still, I stand by it. Love you like a brother, ninglun. Even if you ban me.

  28. Neil

    June 17, 2009 at 8:28 am

    Kevin, Kevin. The photo at the beginning of this post shows a bunch of people I enjoyed teaching. I learned a lot from them, and others I taught at that time. Half of the people in that photo are Muslims. So is Naj in yesterday’s post.

    No, I won’t ban you, and your views come as no surprise and I obviously don’t share them. But just as I don’t take you to task on this on your blog so there’s not a lot of point going further down this track. There’s a lot here and even more on the photoblogs that give us ground for discussion of other issues or ideas, so let’s focus there.

    By all means read what I say from time to time about whatever; I hope you might even follow up some of the documents I refer to at times when I do. But otherwise we can agree to disagree. If you really want to follow your theme here, go to the category for it to see what I have said recently.

  29. Kevin

    June 17, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Fair enough (or should I say ‘fair dinkum’? Hehe, I don’t know how to use that word). I will attempt to never mention it again, even when you mention muslims immigrating to your fine country like it’s a good thing. I have no desire to tick you off.

    But that means I’ll never get to truly know you. Why you think what you think, why it’s different from what I think, etc. That makes me sad. But I just saw a link on islamophobia, the irrational fear of islam, on your sidebar. I’m hoping it explains things for people with rational disdain for it too! I’m going to read it now, and not comment.

    Maybe I’ll understand you yet, Mr. Whitfield!

  30. Kevin

    June 17, 2009 at 11:52 am

    OUCH. It’s taking every ounce of strength that I possess not to comment on that post! But I’m a man of my word, unless it’s absolutely inconvenient :).

  31. Neil

    June 17, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I may from time to time disagree with you about Roma tomatoes, though I was disappointed to learn elsewhere that they are not named after the Queensland town of Roma.

  32. Antony

    June 17, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Sorry to jump in. Neil, did you ban Kevin last year simply because you did not like Kevin’s view? Isn’t that a kind of censorship?

  33. Neil

    June 17, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Yes, but I didn’t actually ban him. Our discussions were going in circles, so eventually he volunteered to stay away, which he did for about a year. You will, however, note that our conversation has always been friendly if different.

    I do reserve the right to edit or ban though. Don’t we all in practice? For starters, some commenters could get you into legal difficulties if you let them, and others are just trolls, while others might express viewpoints that I would in no way want to give time to on anything with my name on it.

  34. Kevin

    June 17, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Sorry for the confusion, Anthony. He never actually took the short steps required to ban me – he just told me to shut the hell up. Which I did, ’cause it’s just the internet, and who cares, really? For the record, if he DOES ban me, it won’t be censorship in a ‘bad’ way, since he’s not a government agency. I censor my kids pretty much every day.

    But Neil is a very interesting fellow, and I really want to ‘grok’ him (like in that book, Stranger in a Strange Land, by Tim Blair). I don’t agree with Neil on global warming, islam, the massive taxation that you Aussies are about to experience, multiculturalism, or that other thing I’m uncomfortable mentioning (because I don’t know the rules in current society). And so far, he’s shut me down on describing his beliefs on each of these subjects. BUT I WANT TO KNOW!

    So, I keep coming back :(. I’m going to keep prodding you, Neil, as soon as I learn to type with a gentle hand. And light my hand will be. I won’t even call you a hippie anymore, my hippie friend! Oops.

    Hey, I’m working on it. Give me a break.

  35. Neil

    June 17, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    It’s taken 65 years to get where I am now, Kevin, so perhaps you are too late. 😉 Anyway, I am quite content. There are plenty of like-minded people around me down here.

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