Brown proxies for economic anxiety

I have brief moments of curiosity when I catch my reflection in a mirror, when I’m with friends. I’m different – my friends are white, and I’m brown. Neither of these things has any bearing on my identity, or theirs, nor does it impact on how deeply I love them. It’s a fleeting bit of  nothing, and I forget it as quickly as it popped into my consciousness. At least, I used to.

Since last Sunday, I’ve had to dwell on the feeling of being defined solely as a viral surge, smothering Sydney suburbs, as espoused by Senator-Elect Pauline Hanson. Six days prior to writing this she said, when asked about 1996 claims on Australia being ‘swamped by Asians’, that:

“You go and ask a lot of people in Sydney, at Hurstville or some of the other suburbs. They feel they have been swamped by Asians and, regardless of that now, a lot of Australians feel that Asians are buying up prime agricultural land, housing,”

I’m Asian. South Asian, specifically. I was born in London, and my parents are Gujarati. When I was 7, travelling in a train across the UK, a bunch of teens ran alongside, screaming ‘Paki!’. My family was visibly distressed, but they didn’t say anything, which at the time I assumed was out of sheer politeness.

When I was in high school, after having migrated to Australia in 1994, a bunch of kids screamed ‘HEYYY CURRY MUNCHER!‘ in mock-Indian accents as I walked past the canteen. I couldn’t speak, but my stomach tied itself into ridiculous knots and my legs were shaking when I got back to the year 10 area. I remember trying hard not to throw up as I quietly ate my lunch.

Recently, an anonymous anti-wind farm group took to labelling me ‘Rogan Joshi’, when I worked in the wind industry – a lame pun on my skin colour and my name. When I went to drop off a laptop at the repair store, the guy spoke in slow, simple English before I’d had a chance to properly outline why I was there.

When I was out with friends, wearing my favourite Carl-Sagan-inspired outfit, I was re-branded ‘Carl Sikh’n’ by a friend-of-a-friend. Not to my face. He muttered it as a joke to his friends, out earshot. I didn’t say anything to him when I was told about it, but I fantasised for weeks about the various eloquent and aggressive ways I could have challenged and embarrassed him. At the time, I just stood there and my legs felt weak.

I’m lucky. I’m male, and my parents worked hard when I was growing up, so I had a good education, a roomy house and a comfortable existence. I have had advantages in life that I don’t deserve, and that I didn’t earn. Plenty of migrants kids didn’t get the same luxuries that I did, and discrimination still dominates Australian society in a variety of other formats, beyond racism.

Still, for the past week, I’ve become different. This is a piece of my life that emerges because those gazing at me see an incoherent brown blur, rather than a sentient organism.

Being a writer and an analyst means I relish considering ideas and arguments with a level head. Being racially abused means this option is disabled as your being shuts down: every single faculty of thought and speech seizes up. Being the target of discrimination leads to a horrible, painful cocktail of rage, sadness and paralytic helplessness.



The re-election of Pauline Hanson has been attributed to a scream of disaffection; with elites, with politics, with economic uncertainty. There is a sizeable push to avoid labelling the resurgence of One Nation as a movement of racism, and a parallel call to avoid mockery and disregard of Hanson and her supporters. Margo Kingston wrote in the Guardian that:

“Hanson is also a nice person. She’s a Liberal who’d always worked very hard in small business and was surprised to have been expelled from the party for racially charged remarks. She had no idea that what she’d said about Aboriginal people was racist”

In her piece, Kingston appeals for calm, and for a considered approach to what feels like an incoming onslaught of racist discrimination. Mark Ludlow, from the AFR writes:

“The more journalists and the political chattering classes lampoon her for her views, the more it boosts her support base of disaffected, middle class voters who feel left behind by the major parties, the political system and the economy”

Michael Bradley from Marque Lawyers concurs, urging we avoid using the term ‘racist’:

“Does being scared of specific other people, not because of anything they’ve done or threatened to do but because of a label you’ve applied to them along with the ingredients you believe that label contains, make you a racist or a bigot? Or does it just make you a sad, self-alienated outlier in our multicultural society?”

A Queensland MP also urges some understanding and kindness:

“I think that, I spent time in Cairns, Townsville, MacKay and Gladstone during the campaign and there is a noticeable economic downturn in those places. So it’s really wrong to look at people who voted for Hanson and say they’re all racists”

Derek Barry, editor of the North West Star, writes:

“I am no fan of Ms Hanson’s political views however when I was working for the Gatton Star newspaper in 2015 I had the opportunity to cover in close detail her campaign to win the state seat of Lockyer.

I ended up with similar feelings and a similar respect for Ms Hanson that journalist and author Margo Kingston had for her after she covered her (Pauline’s) 1998 campaign to win the seat of Blair, a story Ms Kingston recounted in her book “Off the Rails”. Ms Kingston could see, as I could too, Pauline Hanson had a great way with people and formed quick bonds with everyone she met on the street”

Tracy Spicer and Wendy Harmer have published some stern warnings:

There have been some dissenting voices, too. Osman Faruqi tweeted:

Fatima Measham from Eureka Street wrote:

“As Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic, the affinities drawn by Trump are cultural in nature, shaped closely by attitudes regarding immigration and diversity. Whatever economic anxiety is felt by white voters, it really only goes as far as blaming non-whites. That is, obviously, not an economic argument”

Sekan Ozturk writes in Pr4thePeople:

“More “conversations” or ways to “understand” racist fascists will not add anything to this debate. That is pure middle-class fantasy that lives on a dream that a cup of tea and ‘talking civilly’ can solve the world’s great evils”

‘Lana’, on Twitter:


Sushi Das, a journalist, writes:

“Racism, in all its overt and insidious ways, has the capacity to sear its mark on a person. It matures into self-loathing. It doesn’t always hurt so much when it’s actually happening. The pain comes in adulthood, when you look back at the wound and realise it’s bigger and uglier than you thought”

[Edit 10/07/2016 – also see this great piece from Ruby Hamad: “Those of us in One Nation’s firing line don’t have the luxury of focussing on economic disaffection, on humouring Hanson’s followers, and looking for common ground”]

Did you noticing the same disparity between the two groups that I did? With the (sort of) exception of Guardian writer Jeff Sparrow and Ryde councillor Justin Li, the people advocating a level-headed ‘battle of ideas’ (and weirdly reasserting Pauline Hanson’s ‘niceness’ and various other virtues) aren’t likely to be the targets of racist abuse.



Racist sentiment inspired by economic anxiety and political disenfranchisement is still racist. Wounds created in the flesh and soul of coloured kids don’t heal any quicker because they were inflicted by people converting economic worries into a hatred of immigrants. Racist abuse is not an acceptable conduit for the expression of economic anxiety. We’re the ones who’ll be cut and torn and silenced when people safe from harm urge the normalisation of this anxiety-racism conversion.

I have some sympathy for Kingston et al’s views. My history in the wind industry taught me that discontent manifests in strange ways – the phenomenon of ‘wind turbine syndrome’ was clearly a cry of disenfranchisement, and it remains incumbent on the industry to empower local communities better than they have. But this fact does not mean misinformers spreading pseudoscience are justified, nor does it mean they should be respected. The misinformed deserve empowerment, respect and economic support. The misinformers deserve to be mercilessly debunked. Cruelty is no less cruel when it emerges as a proxy for something else.

We, the living  and forever-marked targets for Northern discontent, are not allowed a voice in this dual interaction, between two groups of people who have never felt their legs quake in fear and anger, and never felt the instant paralysis as their skin colour becomes a channel for abuse and harm.  We’re told to respect this emotional transference – that we should politely engage with people who are obsessed with the wavelength of light our skin absorbs, because their job isn’t as secure as it was before, or something.

I concur that something needs to be done to address the anxiety inspired by economic strife. This makes sense – address the root cause. And, of course, choosing abuse as a response is foolish no matter the context. What is required here is a crystalline identification of what it takes to respond unequivocally and strongly to the emergence of racism. I don’t care how nice the advocates of racism are. They hurt us, and they don’t care.

Don’t ask people who know what it’s like to feel the somatic vocal paralysis of racist abuse to shut up and take it, and stay paralysed. It isn’t right.

Header image – Nathan Paterson, who was given a full write-up and profile in the SMH, after having his photo taken at a racist rally. 

  1. “identification of what it takes to respond unequivocally and strongly to the emergence of racism” is exactly what we need. Much of the racism is whipped up by the Murdoch & Fairfax stables, so any response will be confined to the media outside of that mainstream. And we must be careful to distinguish between the dog-whistling, opportunistic career-politicians riding that media-driven fear & loathing, and the voters that support them, many of who have few (or no) other sources of information.


  2. Social scientists (like my partner) will suggest this can only be tackled in early life and that we have to start immediately. Children aren’t born racist, but they do recognize difference, we can teach them to celebrate it and enquire about it. We don’t though and there are no resources.

    We just lost a generation to this problem, having been further enabled by Abbott, Brandis, Divine, Jones, Bolt, Christensen etc etc.


  3. Great article Ketan. I liked this bit but it’s still problematic, “The misinformed deserve empowerment, respect and economic support. The misinformers deserve to be mercilessly debunked.” It’s too easy to patronise the misinformed. we need a better word for people who don’t think like us. And aren’t the misinformed, misinformers too?


  4. I really never thought about how casually racist Aussies were until I started to read articles like this one, Ketan. I wasn’t aware of it in me and have changed. I’m sure others can change when they read articles like this. It really annoys me that Hansen (et al. as she isn’t the only politician nor media figure promoting racism) is feeding our inner racist. The voice of the disaffected is using that voice to hurt us all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am a short man at 5’4″. I went to 5 schools to finish high school education, and at each school I was teased and bullied for being the shortest kid in the class. When I moved out of South India to Eastern India at first and then the to Western India, I was mercilessly mocked for my ‘accent’, my name, for the exaggerated movie stunts of South India. When I moved to Moscow, a brown friend and I were attacked in a subway by neo-nazis. I escaped with a black eye; my friend developed partial amnesia due to a blow to his head. A Chinese shop-keeper gave me the most racist treatment in Sydney so far and treated me like filth. I am convinced that everybody has prejudices. It could be race, religion, economic class, ‘caste’, language, dialect, even height and weight 🙂 , but after realising that people develop prejudices out of fear and ignorance more than hatred, I am more hopeful than cynical.

    My change management experience taught me that by attaching labels, we only harden positions. Blatant racism has to be called out and opposed. So should judgemental labels. After my subway attack, I made more Russian friends than before and I am happy I didn’t walk away thinking all Russians are racist.

    We both had experiences with racism, but I ended up with a different take on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Good article, Ketan. Also see excellent Ruby Hamid here

    Similar ‘classwashing’ (or attempts of) I’ve seen on topics of Brexit and Trump, even from the luminaries such as John Pilger and Glenn Greenwald. To a person with a hammer, everything can look like a nail, and so is the class divide to some progressives.


  7. Zvyozdochka resonates with me. I’m 74 and grew up in Australia. I can remember only one family racist comment: My father, of NSW rural origins, said Aboriginal people smelt. (not surprising, I don’t imagine access to designer bathrooms for indigenous folk in the 1940s was common).
    And that was the one and only comment ever made.
    But there was no lecturing either.
    My mother grew up in a remote NSW country town where the Chinese miners and vegetable growers constituted 2000 of the total population of 7000.
    I never ever heard a racist word from her.
    I believe that this set me on a path of tolerance.
    Start with the kids, although they seem to do it pretty well on their own.


  8. Australia needs a lot more racism, actually. We should probably re-implement the white australia policy to ensure that the white proportion of the population doesn’t dip any lower than it already has.

    There’s nothing wrong with a people wanting to preserve their ways of life.


  9. It’s worth remembering that Hitler was a democratically elected politician who ran on a platform of ‘economic reform’ which manifested itself as the looting, torture and extermination of millions of Jews, Homosexuals, Jehovahs Witnesses and disabled people and embroiling the entire planet in a decades long war.


  10. The problem I’ve found with discussing the racism topic with Hanson supporters is that it has no effect on them. The inevitable come back is “What race is Muslim?” and I have not yet discovered a reply that works to either shut them up or change their views. In their minds racism is defined by skin colour or nationality and if you’re identifying your targets based on something else, it can’t possibly be racism, even when all of your targets happen to be brown.

    Despite their focus on religion, we know the victims of their actions nearly all have brown skin. We’ve seen stories where victims of Islam-focussed abuse were identified in the street by their skin colour and appearance rather than asking them what religion they adhere to, which has led to Sikhs and Atheists being abused, thinking they were Muslims. The Cologne rape perpetrators were all identified by their skin colour and assumed to be refugees even though later on it turned out very few were actually refugees and some weren’t even Muslim. It’s likely that for many, racism is the underlying cause but they can’t see it in themselves. They have convinced themselves that Islam is the target and that therefore they can’t possibly be racist, even if every action they take is against brown skinned people.

    Interestingly, when they’re accused of being Islamophobic, they slide away from Islam directly and attack related aspects, such as Halal certification and head coverings, for tokenistic reasons. They’ll then claim they’re not Islamophobic, they just care about security and the economy.

    It’s difficult to cure a racist. The feeling of superiority over a massive portion of the human race is fundamental to them and to accept that brown people are just as good as them will damage their self esteem too much for them to accept. The best you can often do is convert them to feeling superior to some other group such as Greeks or women.

    This is why ridiculing them doesn’t work. By ridiculing them you lower their self esteem. The only response they can take is to push some other group down to help them feel better by comparison.

    But you can sometimes turn them away from Hanson without changing their most fundamental identity by pointing out some of the other nuttiness in her policies. For instance, many of them promise more money to more people but never say where any of the money is coming from. Some of them contradict other policies, for instance by suggesting that we solve unemployment by having kids leave school at 16 and get an apprenticeship, while a different policy suggests that the future of Australia is in Universities and that more people should study there. And then there are the paranoid conspiracy theories encoded into policy, such as the climate change and voting policies. These ones can be a bit dangerous if the person you are talking to is inclined to believe the conspiracy.

    In the long run, we do need to address the underlying racism that currently manifests as a hatred of Muslims, so I’m not suggesting we stop talking about it, but I think it will take generations before we have achieved much. Hanson in the Senate is more dangerous than a bigot on the street and is also a problem that we can solve much more quickly than curing racism.

    If you’re running into a brick wall when discussing racism with a Hanson supporter, try switching tactics. Treat them like intellectual equals (even if they aren’t) and give them an opportunity to feel intellectually superior to people who fell for Hanson’s lies.


  11. @anon It’s interesting to hear your standpoint. Your comment is emblematic of a very real and definite fear that admitting more non-white people into the country will erode something which is assumed to be valued equally by all (white) Australians. I’ll humour it because, even if you’re trolling here, a lot of people certainly do share this belief.

    The catch is, I’m utterly unconvinced that such a shared set of values usefully exists in practice — certainly nothing which couldn’t also be shared by any non-white migrants. Leaving aside racism itself, the only artefacts of an exclusively white culture that I can put mind to are hardly things really worth worrying about or protecting (or do people really want to exist forever in a world where a shitty piece of white bread, some devon and some tomato sauce — with the crusts cut off — is the pinnacle of cultural sophistication? A world where mowing the lawn or drinking a beer while watching football is the most exciting domestic activity? Is repeating a tired cycle of unimaginative, complacent and anti-intellectual domesticity the way we should spend our time on Earth? Should we feel our lives would be threatened, rather than enriched, by new experiences?)

    As far as I can possibly see, non-white migration has been an enormous net benefit for culture explicitly enjoyed by white Australians.

    So what are we protecting, really? If we assume for a moment that culture won’t be ‘eroded’ (continuing with the geological analogy, I’d say that incorporating a multitude of human cultures into a whole is more of a sedimentary process!) — and there’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that the legal rights of a token white Australian would in any way be damaged by migration — I would posit that the remaining fears of migration are loosely grouped into:

    1) Fear of economic displacement
    2) Actual xenophobia

    I feel that it’d be a mistake to assume the first concern is born purely of the second — certainly people are often feeling the effects of existing economic depression, and I think any xenophobic association comes later, when public figures like Hanson use (perhaps even uncynically — she definitely believes what she preaches!) people’s existing xenophobic disposition to explain their precarious economic situation. It’s a convenient and easily understandable excuse which doesn’t require giving a complicated, difficult to swallow answer around education, tax reform, welfare, programmes encouraging commercial investment in rural and regional areas, etc. It doesn’t address the increasing urbanisation of Australian society — the failure of our government to capitalise on the mining boom to truly future-proof the economy — it learns no lessons from ‘The Lucky Country’, and unfortunately for all of us delivers no real answers.

    Housing affordability is definitely a problem in the major capitals, but there’s just as much evidence to suggest negative gearing is a big contributor, as there is for foreign investment. Furthermore, non-white Australians are suffering with the rest of us on that front.

    Jobs and growth (to recycle the slogan) are consistently encouraged by migration rather than stifled by it. Furthermore, we have clear skills shortages in certain industries, and especially in rural and regional areas which are conspicuously unsatisfied by white Australians — most of whom are themselves migrating to the larger cities.

    This is obviously a very superficial flyover of the anti-immigration, nationalist sentiment fuelling support for One Nation and other white-supremacist political movements. However, I think for the purposes of a blog comment, one could conclude by asserting that immigration is more likely to protect our ‘way of life’ than to erode it, that the idea of a single nationally experienced ‘way of life’ (as though Australia were some kind of alien hive-mind powered by whiteness) is an entirely artificial construction and doesn’t exist in reality — and therefore there /is/ nothing to erode, nothing to preserve.

    On the subject of the article, pretending that One Nation isn’t a hate group only accelerates their course toward legitimacy. And from my perspective, nothing could be more offensive, or embarrassing to me as an Australian.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Ketan. Your experience as a 7 year old was uncannily similar to my own as an 8 year old. In my case the location was South Wimbledon, and the scene was travelling on buses with my older brother and mother. The racial slurs though were identical.

    Of course it’s possible to be disaffected “with elites, with politics, with economic uncertainty” and not ‘blame non-whites’. Apportioning blame for one’s own disaffection, upon the ethnic, cultural or religious backgrounds of fellow citizens is a matter of choice, not an inevitable consequence worthy of considered and respectful understanding. And besides, disaffection and economic uncertainty would surely be a general experience in a democratic, ethnically diverse society – rather than an exclusive symptom suffered only by ‘whites’.

    What I think distinguishes many of Hanson’s ‘disaffected’ supporters from disaffected voters per se, is a real belief in the intrinsic superiority, and therefore privilege, of the historically dominant culture in Australia – i.e. white European. If someone holds a presumption of cultural superiority and/or privilege, any efforts at promoting the egalitarian concept of equal citizenship through ‘multiculturalism’ can only logically be anathema to them.

    So when Hanson famously opined in her maiden parliamentary speech that “They [Asians] have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”, it was the status of this privileged culture which she was defending. An increase (‘swamping’) of Asians in Australia, threatens this imagined Euro-centric national identity, by recalibrating a minority influence on national culture to something greater than it’s been. And all the more threatening since under multiculturalism assimilation/absorption into the dominant culture is not even a requirement. An Asian immigrant’s individual embrace of citizenship and loyalty to it, is ultimately irrelevant when they are considered fundamentally inferior on the measure of their relative cultural worth.

    In the same context, perceived privileging of the indigenous Aboriginal population is decried by Hanson for sort of the opposite reason – non Aboriginal (i.e. white) Australia is being discriminated against by applying unequal standards in welfare, government support etc. One ethnicity/culture is being prejudicially favoured over another. The irony of the complaint seems lost on her.

    That for Hanson, Muslims have now eclipsed Asians as a supposed threat to the cultural security of Australia is (I believe) for her simply a function of political opportunity. Whilst there are significantly less ‘Muslim Australians’ than ‘Asian Australians’, there is today significantly more political capital to be made from antipathy to the former. Specifically anti Asian groups and sentiment, more common before and during the period of her first rising, have now either been comparatively marginalised, or to some extent have been incorporated within the broad contemporary anti Islam movement – with the added bonus that their prejudice is now claimed as immune from being automatically labelled ‘racist’ since ‘Muslim’ is, whilst definitely an ‘other’, not technically a race in the traditional sense of ethnicity.

    So for Hanson the core source of her support is largely the same, but she is politically shrewd enough to update her bigoted agenda and move with the times. I wonder though, in accepting support from everyone from neo Nazis such as Ross May, to the (Asian led) Christian fundamentalists of Rise Up Australia (, to the exclusively anti Islamers of the Q Society’s Australian Liberty Alliance and Reclaim Australia, whether this incongruous diversity in her support may eventually also be her Achilles heel. I guess time will tell.


  13. Hi Ketan,
    I was drawn to your article as a link from Jason Wilson’s piece for the Guardian about Qld as “an early warning system” and saw my article among your quotes. You make many good points, and it’s true that I and the others who have “defended” Hanson (or more accurately defended those who voted for her) are unlikely to be target of racial abuse (although in my case that’s only true in the Australian context – born and bred in Ireland I experienced plenty of racial abuse when I lived in the UK in the 1980s). However one point I was unable to make in my editorial due to space reasons was Hanson’s 2015 campaign was in a state election and she rigorously stuck to state issues. She refused to be drawn on feelings towards immigration so I never got to see that side of her personality. She was disciplined and mostly uncontroversial. I’m sure it would have been a more more unpleasant – though revealing – experience, had I followed her in a federal campaign.

    Anyway, a thought provoking article and a good read. thanks.


    1. Thanks so much, I really do appreciate your comment. I’ve had a bit of a chance to stew on many of the issues I touched on, and I think there’s a bit of a problem (which I’m kind of complicit in I think) of not really being specific about who it is I’m referring to. It’s such a tricky, complicated balance, but it’s pretty clear to say that if someone isn’t saying racist things, or encouraging racism, then, yay! And, though I personally disagree with her politics, if she’s actually doing good for a segment of society that’s been forgotten and disempowered, then, that’s also good thing, in the end.

      It gets complicated when there’s a frothy blend of (what I talk about above) mixed with (genuine concerns and justifiably strong feelings about economic disempowerment) all blended into one homogenous blob.

      Again, appreciate your comment and thanks for reading 🙂


  14. Thanks for articulating the false equivalence. I haven’t heard the phrase, ‘whites are the most racially discriminated people in Australia’ but it’s probably just a matter of time.
    On the related topic, if I was your close friend and I saw you dressed like Carl Sagan, I would have said something like “Carl Sikh’n”. I would not be able to help myself. If you were offended, it was not funny and I would apologise. I would have been trying to amuse you; not make you feel sick to the stomach.
    Critics of political correctness think no-one can make a joke or a comment anymore, whereas PC is much more about not being a dick.
    I wondered about this in a blog post.

    If you want to be offensive be funny, not lazy


  15. I agree with what you’re saying about the racism angle, but I do agree with some commentators who say that sneering at Hanson and her supporters for poor grammar, bad spelling or lack of general knowledge is counterproductive. Someone who condescends to the poorly-educated makes themselves feel good and reinforces the feeling that “elites” are in charge of the country and regular people are ignored and excluded by them.


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