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Offensive Trends: How (Not) to Stand Up to Racism





By Amal Awad

21 April, 2015

Last week, another video emerged showing a vile racist rant on public transport. Like others before it, the clip went viral and a new heroine was born.

It featured a young woman named Stacey Eden, who swiftly became a poster girl of Good Deeds for confronting a passenger who verbally attacked a Muslim couple on public transport.

By now you will have probably seen, heard or read about it, and if you have an opinion, you're either on Team Eden - thanking her profusely for her stoic defence of a seemingly passive couple of victims - or you're proselytising on why Eden's act of defence was actually an example of the patronising "white woman saviour" complex.

This issue has been furiously debated during such campaigns as #illridewithyou - a gesture that was meant to show support for, rather than condescend to, Australian Muslims following the horrific Lindt cafe siege.

I like to believe that Eden's defence of the Muslim couple - a rather loud, at times presumptuous defence to be fair - was well-intentioned. I can't see how stepping in can be a bad thing, when there are countless examples of racist attacks where people stood by and did nothing. Among my own circle of friends, there are numerous stories that show racism is disturbingly and dangerously real in Australia.

But something about this video - and the way in which Eden was subsequently celebrated - made me cringe. I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first, but then a Facebook debate about whether or not it was a patronising act gave me a more conclusive response.

Notwithstanding the couple's public gratitude towards Eden, what bothered me was that Eden filmed it, and then posted it online. Indeed, it seems that's the standard thing to do nowadays. We don't value privacy, we seek notoriety, no matter who else is involved.

And that is exactly the problem. I see occasional updates on social media from people who share an experience that has happened to them, or in which they observed something happening to another. But the point at which I switch off is when someone appropriates another person's experience and makes it about themselves.

Years ago, when I wore the headscarf, and even at times when my ethnicity or religion has been evident in other ways, I experienced racism. There was the bus driver who wouldn't stop the bus, only to yell at me when I approached him (politely, I should say, giving him the full benefit of the doubt). He pretty much kicked me off the bus, clearly oblivious to his own foreign accent - I couldn't get off fast enough.

Then there was the time I was leaving home to go to work, and some of the local council's workers decided to serenade me as I walked past by singing, "Taliban, Taliban, Taliban" over and over again. My face burning, I turned around without stopping and replied with full force something clever like, "Very funny!"

Then there was an amazing moment when, feeling hot and overwhelmed, I plodded along during the City2Surf, and a young man mimicked a bomb going off before exploding into laughter (pardon the pun) and basking in raucous laughter from his mates as I walked past. Of course, I had a response (see above).

But, hey, at least I had a response, and I'd like to think my gumption reminded the person taunting me that I am human, rather than some odd cartoon figure open for merciless mockery.

There have been other occasions - I don't need to go over them. They weren't always as simple as mockery or taunts, which pale in comparison to some of the mightier threats to which women in the Hijab are often subjected in public. But they all had something in common: these attacks were humiliating experiences, where I felt threatened but not powerless, and wanted it to be over as soon as possible.

If a well-meaning stranger had tried to offer assistance, I would have politely accepted the support, but perhaps would have indicated that I, too, had a voice. After all, I was born in Australia. I grew up here. I know this playground, and I don't fear it. But more than anything, I would have been grateful there was no one there to film it, upload it onto social media, then get lauded for saving me. Because the last thing you want is to be a social media talking point, reliving your humiliation and allowing others to watch as someone attacks you for your beliefs.

When ABC reporter Jeremy Fernandez shared a racist rant on public transport, it was powerful because he was in charge of telling that story. He chose to speak about it as a means of informing. Had someone else done the talking for him after the fact, it would be a different matter entirely.

The difference here is clear: it is Stacey Eden and the Muslim couple that we are talking about, and I don't even know the couple's names. I only know about Eden, her alleged heroism, her pretty face - and that she is the story, not the racist rant itself.

This couple's experience is now being discussed, liked, disliked - and even I am now complicit in this dissection. But it's worth discussing, now that it's out there, because there are different points of view to consider, and no one clear answer regarding to what to do when racism is happening in front of you.

Arguably, the right thing to do is - to the best of your ability - intervene if it's safe to do so, and perhaps don't assume that the victim is unable to stand up for him or herself. But waiting ten minutes before whipping out your phone then recording your defence? I wish there was an "unlike" button for that.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and author of The Incidental Muslim: Undiluted Perspectives on Life, Love and Pop Culture and This Is How You Get Better. A Palestinian-Australian Muslim, she graduated with an arts/law degree, but following a brief stint in legal practice became an editor and journalist.