Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dance of difference(s) – 6 – Indians, and Other(s)

Dance of difference(s) – 6 – Indians, and Other(s)
March 31, 2010
Torrey Orton

I wondered recently what I could say about Indians and us that everyone might agree about. I couldn't come up with a thing, since obvious ones like that there are two nationalities, Indian and Australian, would be open to the minimising argument that we are all the same or the relativising one that they blend indecipherably into each other. Let's start by noting at least three good efforts to cover the contentious ground in the last two months from three different perspectives which overlap in some detail – (1) the state-to-state, (2) long-term local and visiting Indian, and (3) local Australian socio-cultural.
  • Hanson and Medcalf's 18/02/10 The Australian op-ed "Clear the air with India" which is concerned with relationships between leaders as representatives of gross cultural constructs like Indian and Australian.
  • Tony Walker's 6-7/03/10 AFR article "Anatomy of an Indian tragedy" which picks up the Indian perspective from inside Australia (long-term Indian residents /citizens and places of origin of students).
  • Kate Shaw's …19/02/10 SMH article "There is little that is black and white in attacks on Indians" which covers the explanatory territory well and proposes social systems interventions for change.
For a socio-cultural counterpoint, look at Amrit Dhillon's "Untouchable Prejudice" in THE AGE of Feb. 27, 2010 which presents the historical social structure of the place called India as it affects the least powerful there now.

Yet, I feel a need to try a few things in this ongoing saga of public distress about private happenstances. Some things have been left out, or brushed by in the story so far.

Darkskin Lightskin
For example, we both want to be some other colour than we are. Sales of skin whiteners in the one place and darkeners in the other place, especially to women, are a marvel of the counterintuitive for racists. If you like what you are, and disapprove of others for not being what you are, as the light skin folks sometimes do, why at the same time would you be trying to darken yourself, even to the tune of taking a solarium bath which endangers your health with high certainty? Darkskin folks, like lightskin folks can tell when a foreigner has arrived on a darkskin patch, especially in a lightskin defined ghetto like Redfern, Harlem,…or a cabbies protest in Flinders Street.

Simple racists?
The Indians (yes, I know, there's really no Indians, just self-identifiers) wanting to look more like 'us', is an aspiration which they share with many Asians as far as I know – that is to be lighter (so as not to be confused with peasants or others who work in the sun). What are they really thinking? Are they racists, too? I guess so, in the simple meaning of the term. So, there's another thing we all share – we're racists in a simple meaning of the term.

What, then, does that meaning offer us about Australia's problem with recently arrived Indians, and the Indians problem with being recent arrivals? Well, let's try this: visible difference is a quick way of imagining we are in the presence of a challenge to our basic understanding. This challenge arises anytime a culture gap of sufficient magnitude opens around us. The step from colour to accent to foreign language, mediated by foreign coverings and behavioural exceptionalities (a local's viewpoint from a distance) is a progress of distancing, with unreachability the ultimate feared outcome. One effect is what the impact of unexpected and unusual difference is on an existing 'community'. I think it can look something like the following.

Difference for a change
At the local level, the personal level where most of us live (not the state to state, institution to institution level, where pollies and interest group leaders parade in the public discourse), if a change happens in our neighbourhood too fast about too many neighbourly things like management of the local 7-11, washNdry, newsagent, cafe….we may feel alienated from our home grounds. If the change comes not only fast but in such great numbers that the passages of everyday life are increasingly occupied, or even blocked, with what will soon be perceived as invaders (because we didn't invite them to be in our yards, did we?) a rational response and an irrational one may soon be indistinguishable…and no one wants to hear it do they because it's racist to say I am uncomfortable, feeling dispossessed, overwhelmed across all my senses by the influx…and the parading public discoursers didn't ask or tell us this was coming because they didn't care, didn't know, couldn't imagine…were, in brief, incompetent to think below the level of spinnable generalisations like the economy and the industry and lucrative and…nor did they tell the new arrivals in their hopeful learning plumage covering residential expectations that there were things to know about our open and free and democratic place that locals know – dangers of various kinds (who goes down to King Street at night to play, or walks home through dark parks?).

It all runs on for us a bit like that - one sensation / perception into another with only our past to guide us, our leaders having abandoned us to market forces, and 'get with the action' Rudd mantra and struggles across great distances for the moral head space of their respective masses, all the while knowing that we all have more or less racist moments and systems and sensings but unable to speak that truth when it's appropriate because there are moments of fear of difference(s) the denial of which insures their eternal return, partly because the very ones who mouth the 'we are one' platitudes are the same who use the racist (in the deep institutional social structural senses) levers to manipulate! And, partly because we cannot change an embedded perception and belief without some pain.

Whose out group?
So, we (the Indians and Other(s)) also share knowing when we are in group or out group in our respective societies, and respond to the perception that we are an out-group, indiscriminately for some Other(s), with the fear and trembling that is appropriate to an attack on our identities. And, we also share the idea of having some purpose for being, which is prior to our right to be in terms of its moral or human interest (as distinct from the abstract interest of our right to be - a fallback position for the possibility having purpose, but not a replacement for it). Purpose is what we make of the opportunity that right has given us, or that we claim in the absence of right!

In my first blog on difference 12 months ago I wrote:

We are entering more dangerous times for difference. As many threats, and a few promises, assail us, our room for response contracts. This will lead to uses of difference (stereotyping, demonising, etc.) which make normal engagements with difference unmanageable, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy of difference's distastefulness and, eventually, punishment worthiness.

I think now that the most manipulative users of differences of usually kinds are always those the furthest from them – the politicians, party organisers, big bosses and their associated support machineries of spin'sters in their variegated plumages.

Manipulate the manipulators
And what do we know about the psychology of times which dispose us all to manipulate and be manipulable in this way? We know that they are times like ours – times in which at the individual, family, workplace and societal levels we are chronically assaulted by multiple physical, social and spiritual stressors. We experience these in emotional overwhelms more or less consciously. As a result, our feeling/thinking becomes increasingly regressed, appearing in actions which are formally rigid and emotionally florid – too hot or too cold to handle. These are the instruments of racism on the playgrounds of social and personal disorder. Exposure and debunking are the first treatments of choice for them.

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