Released amidst yet another incident of racist abuse on public transport and a spike in attacks against Muslim women, it would seem that the popular YouTube video 'Muslim Hate In Australia', which bills itself as a “social experiment”, provides the perfect antidote to the fear and intolerance.
Viewed well over a million times in the two weeks since it was uploaded, the four-and-a-half-minute clip features a young brown man with a discernible accent verbally, and at times physically, confronting visibly Muslim women and children.
The Islamophobic abuse he hurls invokes much of the anti-Muslim rhetoric we’ve been hearing the last several weeks. At one point he demands to know why some Muslims “don’t want to be a part of Team Australia”, whilst at others he questions passersby, “Don’t you find them (Muslims) confronting?” He even snatches a bag from a young Muslim man, demanding to know if there’s a bomb inside it.
In every confrontation shown, a white person comes to the aid of the victims. The racist, brown aggressor is told by old and young, men and women alike to leave his Muslim victims alone. When he abuses a young family with a small boy, a young, white woman steps in and yells, “How dare you? If you don’t like it, you can go live somewhere else.”
The video’s producers, a group calling itself Talk Islam, claim it is “proof that hate against Muslims is not welcome in Australia,” and describe the reactions of strangers as “truly inspirational.”
While I admire them for their honourable intention to show the tolerant, compassionate side of Australia, I am highly sceptical of these claims.
Firstly, it is teetering on offensive that the person playing the part of the racist abuser is himself a non-white person, with a strong accent no less. Racism, as we should all know by now, is an entrenched system of inequality and discrimination that privileges and centres whiteness at almost every conceivable opportunity.
As such, it is bizarre to cast a brown man as the racist whilst limiting the role of white people to that of the hero. Rather than challenge racism, this, if anything, seems a (albeit unintentional) nod to the trope of the brown savage who must be put in his place by civilising white forces. Particularly cringe-worthy are the scenes where white men “rescue” Muslim women from this uncouth brown man. The White Saviour, it seems, is alive and well.
Which brings me to my second point. It is highly likely that the reactions of the passersby were skewed by the race of the abuser. Since the perpetrator is himself brown, it is entirely possible - if not outright probable - that the animosity people show towards him is not only related to his actions but also buoyed by their own feelings (whether conscious or not) towards his race.
Remember the recent case of the Chinese café owner who refused to hire a black barista because he didn’t think white people wanted a black man to make their coffees? He became a victim of racist abuse himself, and was told by many tweeters in no uncertain terms to “go back to China”. As New Matilda journalist Max Chalmers drolly noted at the time, “First they took our jobs and now they’ve taken our racism, too.”
Realistically speaking, would the young white woman who told this brown racist to “go live somewhere else” have said this to a white man? The truth is, white people are generally seen as belonging to Australia; there simply is no common perception that they have “somewhere else” to go back to.
This is not the first social experiment caught on tape that shows how people react to other people doing bad things. This American video shows reactions to three different people stealing a bike in broad daylight: a white man, a black man, and a white women.
In every single scenario, the reactions of witnesses changed markedly.
The white man - even when he admitted the bike didn’t belong to him - was not confronted. Although some clearly unimpressed witnesses questioned him, he was largely left alone to finish his task. In marked contrast, the young black “thief” was set upon almost immediately. A crowd quickly gathered with some people shouting at him as others called the police. As for the white female thief, well, not only did no one attempt to stop her but some men actually started to help her steal the bike.
I’m not saying that no one in the 'Muslim Hate' video would have been similarly disgusted or come to the aid of the victims had the antagonist been white. Indeed, there have recently been real incidents of people doing just that. But, as the cases of the Chinese café owner and the bicycle thieves show, people’s reactions are shaped by the race of the perpetrator.
Nor am I suggesting that only white people commit racist acts. Indeed, the young man who stormed an Islamic school wielding a knife was described as of “Pacific Islander appearance”. What I am saying, though, is that however 'feel-good' this video is, it not only does not help us understand racism, it actually obfuscates the reality.
Racism is a deeply entrenched system that affects how we subconsciously perceive the world. It is a system that implicitly and explicitly favours whiteness, and it is perpetuated by all aspects of society.
I fully understand that the producers are reaching out to white Australians to let them know that they don’t judge them all by the actions of a few, which is what happens to Muslims on a daily basis. However, at a time when Muslims are under attack to the extent that some are afraid to leave their homes, it is neither appropriate nor truthful to prioritise white people’s feelings.
Allowing white Australians to feel good about themselves for telling off a brown man for saying things white people usually say is a dangerous step towards absolving them from any responsibility for our country’s increasing racial intolerance.