WAR on racism in Australia: discussing Black Lives Matter with Aboriginal activist Boe Spearim

WAR on racism in Australia: discussing Black Lives Matter with Aboriginal activist Boe Spearim
Protesters sit on the road outside South Brisbane police station, holding ground until the Aboriginal flag is flown by the station. Photo by Lilly McKenzie, 06/07/2020

In our first piece for In Conversation, Lilly McKenzie takes us to the streets of Brisbane to offer a different perspective on Black Lives Matter.

Walking through the Brisbane Cental Business District (CBD), you hear the roar of the crowd before you see them, stragglers walking alongside you. Spilling out from King George Square is a group that’s over 30,000 strong – the biggest protest the city has seen in years. This one looks different in other ways too, with protesters in masks standing apart rather than crammed together, and scattered medic stalls handing out masks and hand sanitiser to anyone who hasn’t brought their own. 

These stalls were an important inclusion to organising group ‘Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance’, not accidentally known as ‘WAR’. WAR founder and Gomeroi, Kooma, Murawarri activist Bogaine ‘Boe’ Spearim felt it was important to hold the march on June 6th, during waning coronavirus restrictions, stating that “as Aboriginal people we’re very outraged about what happened to George Floyd…Over here in Longbeach jail [in December 2015] an Aboriginal young man by the name of David Dungay Jr’s last words were ‘I can’t breathe’ and you know he said that about eleven or twelve times.”

Boe continued to tell me that “Lots of Aboriginal people, earlier on in that week before we started the rally, we were upset and frustrated that mass media in Australia, but then also the public here in Australia, they weren’t sort of gravitating to what was happening here with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people regarding Black deaths in custody or police brutality.”

Since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released in 1991, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody.

In 1991 the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released, investigating the reasons for the high numbers of Indigenous deaths during arrest, pursuit or while in custody. Since this report and its recommendations were released, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody. You can view their stories in Walkley award-winning database ‘Deaths Inside’ by Indigenous journalist for the Guardian Lorena Allam.

“It was an urgent thing to sort of say hey, wait a minute, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we stand in solidarity with Black folks in the United States because we know what happens…Hold up for a minute, we don’t want you to not share what’s happening in the United States to George Floyd or other Black folks, but could you also share what’s happening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country as well?”

This isn’t the first time Australia’s Indigenous communities have stood with people of colour from around the world, and found solace in shared issues – in fact, it is in WAR’s very foundation, as Boe told me:

“In 2014 myself and two other young Aboriginal people went to Canada. We drove from the West Coast to the East Coast, stopping off at different Indigenous communities that were either land defenders, or that were blockading mining companies, or had tent cities set up in protest of mistreatment of Native folks – like police brutality but then also missing and murdered Indigenous women.

…we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples.

“That also informed me on a personal level as well as focusing my political understanding on Indigenous folks globally as to how we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples. And that really was a really powerful shift and inspiration in starting Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance after that as well. The three mob that I went with plus my partner now, we were the (I guess you could say) founding members of WAR. So those things were very informative and very inspiring to me as well.”

The crowd in Brisbane marched through the city streets, stopping at intersections to dance, chant, and make speeches. Walking across the William Jolley Bridge to South Brisbane the crowd paused on the busway as Boe addressed the crowd, inspiring them to help stop Black and Indigenous deaths in custody:

“If we can empower people to film coppers, or if we can empower people to you know, if there’s more of them and less coppers, to intervene and save that person, even if it means getting physical, we may save a life.”

WAR organised protests across the country on June 6th 2020, their members working with local Indigenous groups in each area, like the Brisbane Blacks, and the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE), formed at Musgrave Park.

Yet for Boe this follows nearly a decade in activism work: “I got involved [with activism] through the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy in Musgrave Park when the embassy was set up in 2012, after the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy.

“The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy. So what happened was the founders of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy attended the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, they came back to start an embassy – one of those people was my older brother, and the first night it was set up he said come in for the night bro, have some mad yarns around the fire and stuff.

“And I’ve gone in and sure enough, sat around the fire and had some great conversations about issues that have always affected Aboriginal people, but I guess really resonated with me and with my generation – and so I was going to stay one night but I ended up staying three or four nights. That was my introduction to activism and my being politicised I guess in some way.”

The Brisbane Tent Embassy has been described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.

The Tent Embassy in Canberra was set up in 1972 opposite Parliament House, protesting the contemporary government’s approach to Indigenous land rights. Over time the embassy developed, fighting for sovereignty, and moved around Canberra before becoming permanent in its original location in 1992. The Brisbane Tent Embassy was formed in Musgrave Park, an area that has always been culturally significant to Indigenous people, and where the Musgrave Park Cultural centre was established in 1998, described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.

The protest on June 6th was the beginning of an increase in actions to stop Black deaths in custody. On Wednesday the 17th of June a protest was held in King George Square in Brisbane city before marching to Parliament house – on the second day of parliament sitting – to pressure the state government to take action regarding Indigenous deaths in custody.

The crowd outside the Kangaroo Point hotel-come-detention-centre chant in solidarity with the 120 men inside who watch from their balconies.
The crowd outside the Kangaroo Point hotel-come-detention-centre chant in solidarity with the 120 men inside who watch from their balconies. Photo by Lilly McKenzie, 13/06/2020.

When the crowd got to parliament house, they turned, marching down to the entrance of the riverside expressway before holding ground. Uncle Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton, Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) member, Indigenous activist and coordinator of the day’s march, addressed the wall of police officers. He called for the Police Minister to come down and talk to him about the officer who allegedly assaulted his daughter, Ruby Wharton, on Saturday the 13th of June.

Ruby, a young Black activist from the Gold Coast, is involved with coordinating Black Lives Matter protests and was taking part in a separate protest; the Kangaroo Point Blockade. This blockade is outside a hotel where asylum seekers are being kept, and they aim to stop the transfer and deportation of 120 men that have been in detention for seven years.

Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away…

On Saturday the 13th of June a peaceful rally was held, and hours later Brisbane City Council Member Jonathan ‘Jono’ Sri, Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward – who is one of the organisers of the blockade – was arrested while leaving the event. Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away, many with their phones out filming the police, and Ruby was allegedly assaulted by a police officer for continuing to film. 

Uncle Coco named Jerry Moffat, the officer who allegedly assaulted Ruby, holding up a photo of him on his phone, and called on any of the police to take a report from him. The police began to move the crowd on, pulling gloves on before they did, and when Uncle Coco stood his ground, he was arrested. 

The march continued with Ruby at the helm, redirecting the crowd across the CBD before standing ground outside the Brisbane Watch House, calling for Uncle Coco’s release. Uncle Coco was released without charge that night, after lawyer Debbie Kilroy became involved.

Black Lives Matter protests have been continuing in Brisbane and around Australia – including outside local correctional facilities – fighting to make their voices heard. The Kangaroo Point Blockade is indefinitely ongoing.


Lilly McKenzie is a freelance journalist and a 2018 Mid-Year Walkley Award finalist. She is currently focused on covering minority issues, human rights, and politics in her home city of Brisbane, Australia.


Boe Spearim’s podcast, ‘Frontier War Stories‘, can be found here, and his latest article for ‘The Guardian’ can be found here.


24 views

Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter

Don’t misread Orwell: 1984 supports Black Lives Matter
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

Russell Square is a bustling and leafy area in the middle of London. It is home to many great institutions that in their own way represent British history, including the School of Oriental and African Studies, a university founded to train colonial administrators, and the British Museum, a beautiful collection of artefacts collected from around the world. Between these two institutions steeped in controversial colonial history sits Senate House, the striking building that Orwell modelled the exterior of his Ministry of Truth upon in his famous novel 1984. Its white art deco façade seems to rise endlessly into the sky, making it one of London’s most striking, and arguably austere, buildings. The proximity of these institutions to a building that plays such a key role in Orwell’s most famous work is prescient in times when 1984 is being invoked to criticise Black Lives Matter’s attempt to get the UK to recognise the legacy of colonialism, most notably in the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. In particular, the following quote from 1984 has been used by many on social media to criticize this act:

…every statue and street building have been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Those who have shared this as if it denounces the felling of statues like Colston’s have misunderstood 1984 and George Orwell. Orwell’s point is better illustrated by the fact that the statue stood for 125 years in the first place. The spaces we inhabit act as tributes to historical individuals whose true impact and role in history is often erased by foregrounding more favourable characteristics. Colston’s statue did not engage with his role in the slave trade, instead describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’. Where Orwell’s statues are “renamed” ours are recategorised so that Colston, and many others, are remembered by their virtue rather than their violence. 

This discussion has never been just about Edward Colston, or even statues. It is about why our society is so protective over the dominant, but incorrect or obscuring, narratives of history. The characters in Orwell’s two most famous fictional works, Animal Farm and 1984, are served narratives that reinforce dominating power structures through false tellings of history. This is what Orwell stood against: the protagonists of both Animal Farm and 1984 were not the people supporting the status quo but were instead subversive thinkers, in the case of Winston Smith of 1984, and revolutionaries, in the case of the animals of Animal farm.  

Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, rebelled by collecting parts of the cultural legacy cut out from the dominant narrative. The nursery rhyme line “Oranges and Lemons, ring the bells of St Clement’s” led to him learning about a history which wasn’t endorsed by the near-omnipotent Big Brother, from a small antiques shop in the proletariat area of the city. This simple fragment of history led him on a fateful journey to a showdown with authority in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. The experience of learning about history through fragments collected outside of the mainstream will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in British colonial history, which is noticeably absent from the national curriculum and more jingoistic popular histories of Britain.  

Orwell was critical of the status quo and was no shrinking wallflower when it came to challenging power. His work is so often used to invoke the USSR and communist dictatorship, however, it is also evocative of some episodes in the history of the British Empire. A particularly famous example is the burning of documents relating to the detention of over a million Kikuyus in settlement camps in Kenya during the 1950s as a response to the threat of a small nationalist insurgency known as Mau Mau. This has left historians unable to see the incarceration from the perspective of the British government and prevented the extent of the atrocities from becoming widely known to the public until the mid-noughties. Only in 2011 did the government admit that they had continued to keep 200,000 documents secret from the public for over five decades, some of which showed that the government had covered up the systematic abuse in the internment camps. 

This nuance is lost on many. In the Daily Express Leo Mckinstrey writes

For most of us 1984 was a warning.
For radical agitators it was a blueprint.

McKinstry is right of course in saying that Orwell meant 1984 as a warning, but he is wrong that it is the ‘radical agitators’ of the left using it as a blueprint. It is not Black Lives Matter who present a threat to history; many have been very clear about their desire for a broader history curriculum and for more context to be given to British history. The people who are using 1984 as a guide are some of the politicians running our country. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man famous for lying, has recently claimed ignorance over footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign that forced a major government U-turn and had have his own words quoted back to him by the leader of the opposition to remind him of his original policy about COVID-19 and care home safety. This is not to mention his unconditional support for Dominic Cummings whose trip to Durham was painted as a reasonable decision by government ministers while most of the country was shocked by the audacity with which they revised the meaning of the lockdown conditions.  

This has been a persistent problem since Johnson became leader of his party: during the 2019 General Election an independent fact checker found that 88% of Conservative Party adverts contained lies, while the Tories rebranded their twitter as ‘Fact Check UK’, a fake fact-checking service. This enduring problem with truth from our current government recently led to an anonymous civil servant tweeting the following from a civil service twitter account:

Arrogant and offensive.
Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?

If social media existed in the universe of 1984 then Winston Smith, who was a civil servant tasked with rewriting history, would most likely have written something similar from his desk in the Ministry of Truth, given the chance. 

What many who are invoking Orwell seem to have missed is that those with power are the ones that control the narrative of history. The very nature of protest suggests that people feel they do not have enough power to influence the course of, and telling of, history. Orwell would not be surprised that his work would be used to smear protesters that Donald Trump has called ‘Anti-fascists’. He recognised that becoming part of the cultural canon was part of reinforcing the narrative of those in power; he is afterall the man who wrote that “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. The crowning irony is, of course, that Orwell was a self-professed anti-fascist who went to Spain to fight alongside anarchists against the fascist armies of General Franco. This was the cognitive dissonance that Orwell sought to capture in the word doublespeak. A term in the fictional language of 1984 termed Newspeak which was designed to reduce the possibility of subversive thoughts. People are concerned that history is being re-written in front of our eyes. This is a valid concern. The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has always been true. However, in this epoch there are new challenges ranging from politicians who are no longer held to account for their pathologically clumsy lying such as Johnson and Trump, to the social media echo chambers that have seen fake news so successfully spread. One thing is for certain: against this backdrop it is unlikely that Black Lives Matter is the movement that will lead us into the world of 1984.


Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


118 views

Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic

Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

By Shivangi Kaushik

All articles in In Depth have been subject to double-blind academic peer-reviews.

The word ‘subject’ has been intentionally used in the title of this article to frame “racialisation” as an essentialising act of power. Racialisation1 here is not only seen as an exercise in othering or exclusion, but also as a means of imagining people in a particular way. An imagining which is so daunting that it becomes difficult, almost impossible, to break out of or challenge: it is an act of power because only a few people can imagine while the rest are imagined, apropos without their choice. 

Pandemics have the potential to unleash a series of concomitant events/occurrences which challenge the existing status quo and threaten to topple the existing power relations in a country. As in other countries, India’s urban centres have borne the major brunt of the pandemic. As the number of COVID-19 positive cases increased with every passing second, cities such as Delhi and Mumbai became the epicentres or “hotspots”, which again amplified the cry for self-isolation and physical distancing, thereby strictly and legally prohibiting all forms of gathering, including religious ones. In these cities, this pandemic has exposed the fact that some sections of Indian society who have always been at the periphery of the socio-historical discourse of the country, are once again at the receiving end of the worst forms of exclusion and racialisation. Even though Arundhati Roy remarked that the pandemic actually provides a means or a “portal” to overhaul the existing hierarchies and rebuild a more egalitarian order, in a hypothetical post-pandemic lifeworld, the hierarchy, inequality and exclusion which is a structural feature of Indian society will seemingly continue to penetrate every aspect of life, especially for those in the periphery. 

As the elite and the middle class snuggled inside their homes with expensive wine and comfortable work-from-home schedules for the lockdown period of twenty-one days, the major urban centres of India (for instance the National Capital Region of Delhi) began the process of gradually extruding several million informal migrant workers. As the pandemic strengthened its tentacle in the country, the rich and the privileged sought to oust these informal labourers by pushing them back to the villages from where they had initially started their journey to the city in order to earn their livelihoods. The sudden exposure of the extreme vulnerabilities that haunt the precarious existence of informal labour gives us a unique opportunity to explore how the Anthropocene leads to the creation of a pathological society impacted by moral breakdown at the societal level. In Durkheimian terms, anomie would be the right word to denote the present circumstances where the pandemic has evidently challenged social conventions and norms as well as the social institutions (the state for instance) which govern these conventions. 

The social milieu feels more like an anomie because of the fact that even though every aspect continued to unfold and become documented right in front of our eyes through social media and news channels, people could only appal their helplessness in the entire situation and do nothing apart from discerning their privilege. Even as medical and scientific endeavours break down due to their impotency in the face of COVID 19, not only the economic proletariat, but also those who do not possess an ‘Indian face’, experience the darkest sides of this pandemic. 

The importance of an Indian face

The people that I am talking about are the countless migrant students, workers and residents from the distinct ethnolinguistic communities and different states of what is known as Northeast2 India, the easternmost peripheral geographical territory of India, which share their borders with China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. People from this region who identify as belonging to ethnic communities like that of Zou, Rongmei, Angamis, Hmars or Dimasas have physical features that resemble the people of the aforementioned neighbouring countries of India. The overwhelming focus on caste-based social discrimination both outside India and within India has always overshadowed the potential to even start a discourse of racial discrimination in the Indian context. 

Throughout the world, there has been a conspicuous trend to racially discriminate against citizens of countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand, and other South-Eastern countries. People who have a certain set of physical features have been homogenised as carrying the ‘China virus’ (even by the President of one of the most powerful nations) and are targeted in their daily lives.

It is important to note and read closely the aforementioned sentence. A close analysis of the phrase will tell us how an entire country has been equated to a life threatening pandemic. This affects people irrespective of their distinct ethnic identity or where they hail from: whether they are immigrants or second generation American citizens is not taken into account. Equating people with a pandemic is particularly worrying owing to the fact that these migrants are taken to be criminals where each of them is seen as  responsible for “spreading” the virus. They can be ‘tried’ for just sneezing in a public space, for something beyond their control. If racialisation had an anatomy, then this criminalisation and homogenisation could be called the building ‘bones’. Stereotypes and prejudices could be seen as the fluid or blood in this case, which could supply the fuel to keep racism alive. Exclusion would be the oxygen to keep this anatomy alive. 

If ‘race’ is taken to be the founding basis or the criterion through which racism and racialisation are articulated, then the very existence of racism as a systematic apparatus has to be questioned. Anthropologists like Claude Levi Strauss (1985: 6) have refuted the idea of race, pointing out that “if we attempt to trace racial differences back to their origins, we condemn ourselves to ignorance; and the subject of our debate becomes the diversity of not races but cultures”. Levi Strauss points towards the fact that tracing an individual’s race is a futile exercise, as there has been so much intermixing between the different races that it is difficult to pinpoint who belongs to which race.  It was individuals like Gobineau who advocated the use of scientific racism to hierarchise the different races to establish the superiority of the white race in terms of both physical and intellectual terms. Moreover, it is important to take note that this was during the pinnacle of the colonial era, where scientific racism was used to justify the dominance of the white race or colonizers. The Sara Baartman (Ahmed 2002: 57-58) episode where a black woman was exhibited to the white onlookers is a reminder of the power that racialisation exerts over a group of people not only owing to the way they look but also owing to the fact that they being dominated becomes essential to establishing the domination or superiority of another more powerful group. 

Who are chinkies or the coronavirus in India?

At the outset of this article, I talked about the migrants from Northeast India facing racial discrimination in India. Owing to the lack of better schools, colleges and employment opportunities in the different states of Northeast India, a lot of students and workers migrate to cities such as Delhi and Bengaluru in search of higher education and employment opportunities, especially in the retail sector. Here it is important to note that the migrants that I am talking about are not only distinct via their physical features but also have a  set of linguistic and cultural features which distinguish their rituals, cultural features and language and diverse dialects from the rest of the country. In a way, it can also be said that when India attained independence, the eight states of Northeast India (namely: Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya) had a problematic annexation with the state. This also meant that there have been innumerable struggles going on in the different states of the region which throughout history has been met with brutal state repression. 

I work with migrant students from different ethnolinguistic communities, and for my research I have been racially abused as “coronavirus”. During Holi (the Indian festival of colour), some of the female students were targeted and water balloons were thrown at their private parts. After being attacked with water balloons, one of the students heard the remark, “Are randy tera chut dikh raha hain” (You whore, I can see your vagina). Sometime back in the month of March, a journalist from a reputed Indian national daily had come to North campus, University of Delhi, to interview some of the students who were the “victims” of these racist attacks. I was also present in this meeting. The reporter kept asking them to narrate in detail what happened to them in each of these attacks. Moreover, she also urged them to give a full face interview which they declined owing to security/anonymity reasons before, after a long deliberation, they settled to giving interviews where their faces were blurred and their voices doctored. 

It was then I realised that for the reporter (despite being one of the rare journalists who at least took an interest in covering these incidents), the evident racialisation and the accompanying essence of being called a chinky or a momo in Delhi made these students’ experiences appealing. It made me question why their daily life experiences of going to a church, temple or mosque or of the numerous festivals organised by the various students’ associations, were never highlighted in mainstream newspapers or news journals. It is clear that they are not imagined as having anything beyond a racial identity. Why and how does the denigration of migrants from the region by people from other parts of the country appeal to journalists, writers and academics from outside NER? This was highlighted by Sara Ahmed (2007: 51) that racial projection (e.g. labelling someone a chinky) is not only a visual response triggered in us when we look at someone who has a different set of physical features. Racial projection also happens when a person is racialised to an extent that they are unable to be recognised in any way other than being a ‘chinky’ and this imagining becomes difficult to be challenged or changed. 

Spitting as an act of racialisation

Apart from being racially abused as momos or chinkies, the latest gun in the arsenal for racial discrimination is being called coronavirus

India has been under a lockdown period for the past three months since it was first declared on the 24th of March, 2020 owing to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. One of the residents from Manipur in a locality called Vijar Nagar near Delhi University was spat on by a resident who was passing by on his two wheeler vehicle and who is from a different ethnic and racial background than the woman from Manipur herself. After a lot of condemnation from the students, the police finally filed an FIR3 and arrested the perpetrator. A couple of weeks after the incident, on the 6th of April, 2020, there was an incident in Mumbai where another student from Northeast India was spat on by a passer-by. It is important to note that the migrants from the Northeast have always been homogenised and called  ‘chinky’ or ‘momo’ on the streets of Indian cities. However, being spat on and then being compared to a life-threatening virus is as new as the coronavirus itself. If one sociologically analyses the act of spitting per se, unravelling its various layers and its different context-specific usages, then it can also be interpreted as an act where the one who spits intentionally wants to infect the migrant worker or student from Northeast India who is being spat on, not only to show his disgust at her belonging to a particular racial or ethnic background but also to transfer the virus and the disease to her. Then the whole act of spitting as an act of denigrating someone fulfils its function thereby marking out a racialised body in the process. Thus spitting in itself is an act of power because only the residents and not the migrants can engage in this act of constituting a racialised subject. So how does one become a racialised subject to be spat on? 

To understand the above, there is a need to deconstruct the term ‘Northeasterner’ (since this term denotes more than just a geographical and territorial exonym) and to understand how one is constituted as a racialised subject in urban India. From what I can understand, racist attacks like calling people ‘coronavirus’ are the manifestations of a lack of intention or the absence of a genuine attempt to understand which ethnic community, religion and state they hail from. They are likened to the people of China (where COVID-19 originated) because there is a conspicuous overlooking of the different identities with which to identify themselves. For the people outside of NER, it is only their physical features which become the reference point to identify them. This ability to overlook or to collapse all forms of identities and the choice to imagine them only in a straitjacket fashion is an exercise in power which people from Delhi as well as migrants from other parts of India can have. Thus it can be said that racial projection works in one way and that is where the power to imagine them lies. 

Peripheral spaces of difference

When someone is racialised to a certain extent and is viewed only as a ‘chinky’ or as a Chinese, indirectly they strip that person of their agency (for a lack of a better word) and politics and always view them as mere “victims” of racial abuse. However, from my fieldwork, there are certain institutions which can be called positive “deviations”, as Durkheim would say. For instance, some of the colleges in Delhi University have Northeast cells (NE cell) or Northeast societies which were made compulsory by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) after the death of Nido Taniam in the year 2014. These NE cells have played a very important role in organising panel discussions and Northeast festivals which create a lot of awareness about the various socio-political issues, cultures, attires and food habits of the different ethnic groups in Delhi. I went to a lot of these festivals and I could see that many students who were not from the region attended, and expressed an interest in knowing more about the different states, the different ethnic groups, and the different languages of the region. Moreover, when the first racist attacks of abusing students as coronavirus occurred in the college canteen of Kirorimal college, it was the KMC NE Cell which encouraged the student to come forward and file an official complaint with the principal of the college. This kicked off a huge online storm with the NE cells of many colleges across DU who came out in support of the college. It also encouraged a lot of students across DU to come out and talk about their experiences of racism in their respective colleges. 

These small spaces I have termed as peripheral differences because they seek to challenge the racial stereotyping and the peripheral position that the students from the region are pushed to within academic spaces. These spaces also help the students to question this peripheral position and provide them with the required support to do so. Moreover, the ethnic students’ associations and the community church with the help of intricate networks do help them to ‘cope’ with racial discrimination in the city, always reminding them to stick/return to their “ethnic roots”. 

These spaces of peripheral difference are not taken into account while talking about racism in India, not even by the respected and the much followed M.P. Bezbaruah committee report. I am afraid that these well intentioned documents may end up reinforcing the racist stereotypes and assumptions by addressing all of the students from the region simply as Northeasterners and not taking into account the ethnic specificities.  Duncan Mc Duie-Ra4 talked about how their inability to “mingle” in a city like Delhi owing to their physical features, aggravates racial discrimination in the country. However, the question here is whether they even wish to mingle, or instead seek to continue being a Christian Khasi or a Thadou speaking Kuki in Delhi. 

Owing to COVID-19, there has been a mass migration of the migrant students and workers from the NER back to the region. The ones remaining not only have to physically distance themselves to protect themselves from COVID-19, but they also have to fight racist attacks. This brings me to an observation that within urban spaces like Delhi, it is not always about othering or being excluded, but of imagining people in a particular way, and during the times of COVID-19, this is how they are imagined. The task to break out of this form of imagination henceforth becomes extremely daunting. Unfortunately, this power to imagine them lies with the ones who possess an ‘Indian face’: a uni-directional exercise of power.  The problem I feel is that these peoples are never imagined as unique individuals who have a distinct ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identity. As Ahmed (2002:47) says, the one who is racialised is never asked how they would want themselves to be imagined or ‘known’. Delhi in times of COVID-19 becomes the city where they are imagined as victims of racial abuse and nothing more than that. This facilitates them to be compared to and scapegoated as the citizens of a country which was the epicentre of a pandemic that brought the entire world to its knees. 

Thus, racialisation and the comparison of an entire people having a unique set of physical features to a pandemic has been an exercise in power, a phenomenon that has its entrenched roots in India’s colonial history as well, especially in the way racialised bodies were ordered and exploited. The problem is that it continues to be a reality even today, and now these migrant students, workers and residents are at the receiving end. As a lot of migrant students and workers prepare to make their way back home from Delhi to the different states of Northeast India to grapple with COVID-19, they are also haunted by and faced with the tragedies of an uncertain future. Leaving the greener pastures is never easy, especially where migrants have made ‘home’ and most importantly attained their livelihood. However, it seems that the greener pastures have been uprooted and burnt ablaze with the embers of racialisation. 

Shivangi Kaushik is a 2nd year DPhil student at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. 

Endnotes

1.  Racialisation and racial discrimination as shown by Ahmed (2002) and Banton (1969) are different concepts. The former refers to assigning someone with a particular set of attributes and characteristics on the basis of a person’s physical features, which the person may have not identified with before. Racial discrimination is the actual practice of excluding a person from an educational institution, institute of employment or denying her accommodation because of her appearance. Thus racialisation is responsible for the formation of racial subjectivities. Ahmed, S. (2002). Racialized Bodies. In M. Evans, & E. Lee (Eds.), Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction (pp. 46-64). New York: Palgrave.
2. Northeast India is the easternmost region of India. The region comprises of eight states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
3.  “First Information Report (FIR) is a written document prepared by the police when they receive information about the commission of a cognizable offence. It is a report of information that reaches the police first in point of time and that is why it is called the First Information Report. It is generally a complaint lodged with the police by the victim of a cognizable offence or by someone on his/her behalf”. Source: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. (n.d.). First Information Report and You. Retrieved from https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/police/fir.pd4.  McDuie-Ra, D. (2012). Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

33 views

Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality

Philanthropy is no get-out clause for immorality
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski, 2020

The current zeitgeist over statues in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’, says Jake Smaje.

At the time of writing (the 8th June, 2020), the first sentence of the infamous Edward Colston’s Wikipedia page reads, “Edward Colston was an English merchant, slave trader, Tory member of Parliament, and philanthropist”. This combination of slave trader and philanthropist seems like a strange oxymoron that has become a polarising factor in the debates about his legacy after his statue was dropped into the Bristol quay during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The ability to be both an important part of a system of oppression and remembered for your benevolence leads to questions concerning the role of philanthropy within society, and the potential motivations behind it. 

Where charity aims to alleviate a problem, philanthropy is an action that seeks to address the causes of the problem. It has a long history, but for most invokes benevolent and powerful business leaders – in the modern day, people such as Warren Buffet, George Soros and Bill Gates. All three are arguably now as famous for their philanthropy as their business ventures. However, their business is not without controversy and has human costs, costs which are often not addressed by their philanthropy. Infamously, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation attempts to maximize return on its endowment, an approach which does not address the ethical considerations of investments. This leads to glaring inconsistencies, such as the Foundation having a $2.2 million investment in a company that profits from running private prisons in the US, some of which hold migrants. The source of wealth is inextricably linked to the cause it is spent on. Despite some inconsistencies in the sources of his foundations funds I don’t doubt that Bill Gates wants to change the world. I may disagree with the philosophy and methods of his, Soros or Buffet’s philanthropy, but I believe in their intentions to have an impact. 

There is, however, another type of philanthropist…

There is, however, another type of philanthropist, the type who consciously uses philanthropy to offset the immoral source of their wealth. A contemporary example is the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma has been sued for their role in promoting opioid treatments that have led to the opioid epidemic in the United States. The family’s company continued to aggressively market opioids, such as Oxycontine, after admitting in court that they had misrepresented its addictive qualities. However, their name is still memorialised in institutions throughout the world, such as the Sackler library at the University of Oxford. While many institutions, such as The National Portrait Gallery and The Tate galleries, will not accept donations from the family, others will allow them to whitewash their name through association to famous and prestigious institutions. Academic libraries seem to be a fashionable choice for dubious philanthropy, another example being The University of Leeds naming their recently completed library the Laidlaw Library after the tax exile and donor Irvine Laidlaw. This association of one’s name with an institution is a way of creating a legacy, intertwining your name with its prestigious history.

Another way to ‘philanthropise’ your brand is to attach your name to a particular event. Jeff Bezos donated $100,000,000 to US food banks in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a seemingly eye wateringly large amount of money. It becomes a tiny sum when you consider that his estimated net worth increased by $32 billion between January and May of this year as a direct result of COVID-19 increasing the value of Amazon. He profited from COVID-19 and people’s isolation while getting reputational credit for a donation that, while huge, is small against the scale of the misery and fear that has recently spread across the globe. This is to say nothing of Amazon’s tax avoidance, lack of workplace safety, union busting and unfair trading practises against small businesses. Does $100,000,000 coming from the CEO of a corporation which has benefitted from a global crisis to the tune of $32,000,000,000 really allow them to purchase the term philanthropist? 

More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

If you are part of the world’s ultra-wealthy class, philanthropy becomes an important tool in maintaining your personal brand. If you pay for a prestigious building at a top university, associate your name with the relief of an ongoing crisis or create an organisation which combines your name with some words that signify your virtue, such as The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, then you can become a philanthropist lauded for your generosity with little investigation into how and why you became so powerful and wealthy in the first place. More than a just hobby of the wealthy, philanthropy becomes a branding exercise curated by PR executives. 

It seems that what is missing is a step that addresses motivation, that signifies an actual desire to change the world. If the Sackler family wanted to improve the livelihoods of people across the world they could withdraw OxyContin or recommend new guidance on its prescription, Laidlaw could pay his taxes and Jeff Bezos could change the business practises of Amazon. Instead, they memorialize their philanthropy in high profile spaces, while continuing damaging business practises elsewhere in their empires. Soros, Buffet and Gates should not be absolved of criticism, but their philanthropy is of an altogether different nature, and is often invested in social and technological innovations designed to address the root causes of problems. Alleged ‘philanthropy’ such as the Sacklers’, Laidlaw’s, or, historically, Colston’s, is instead just an act of PR set across a backdrop of immoral profiteering. 

The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’

Philanthropy should not absolve immoral legacies from criticism. This encourages insubstantial acts of philanthropy as an exercise in branding. The current tearing-down of statues should serve as a warning to contemporary ‘philanthropists’ hoping to capitalise on this. The plaque on Colston’s statue commemorated his philanthropy reading, ‘’Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’’. For critics who feign worry about historical erasure as statues fall, I suggest a plaque should be placed above where Coulston rested at the bottom of the Bristol quay that reads ‘’Sunk here by the citizens of Bristol was one of Bristol’s wiliest sons, whose attempt at virtue failed to hide his atrocities AD 2020’’. This may just be the antidote needed to the dubious philanthropists of the future, and the present.


Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.


180 views

Remembering Apartheid: Civil Rebellion in Black-and-White Photography

Remembering Apartheid: Civil Rebellion in Black-and-White Photography
'Homeless Couple, Cape Town'. 1976 © Steve Bloom

In Review editor Antoinette Nguyen reviews the photography exhibition ‘Steve Bloom: Beneath the Surface – South Africa in the seventies’ at The Beaney, Canterbury 

Three amazingly vivid, oversized, strikingly melancholic portraits greet me upon entering this exhibit at The Beaney museum in Canterbury, England in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. They are remarkably clear, each wrinkle and crease of the faces of an old woman, crying child, and middle-aged man captured in the black-and-white photography of Steve Bloom. The clarity of this initial triptych of photos immediately felt like a stronghold, a defense, a rebellion.

Bloom photographed apartheid-era South Africa in order to capture this critical moment in history. They were taken in the mid-1970s, when South Africa was entrenched in the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation, which deprived people who were not classified as ‘white’ of their basic human rights. Most of the photos were taken in 1976, the year in which the first major cracks in the apartheid system emerged in the form of the Soweto Uprising: a series of protests in which Black school-children took to the streets to oppose a disempowering education system taught in Afrikaans, the colonial settler language. The authorities struck back violently, killing and injuring many of these children. These acts snowballed into larger realisations, changing attitudes, and shifting tides: white complacency would no longer be tolerated and Black communities would no longer remain quiet.

Bloom’s work is poignant, moving, and raw. It reveals the instability of a country facing enormous change; his work caught the mood of the time – the essence of the moment that South Africa began to experience powerful, irreversible rebellion. 

The starkly white room makes the black-and-white photographs pop. As I walked through the exhibition, I was struck with striking expressions of grief, misery, illness, but also of resilience, pride, and endurance. Fifty of his prints are neatly organized about the room; each painstakingly detailed in their depiction of subject. Each photo serves as a microcosm of civil protest; the figures and their expressions are bold, despite the individuals’ disenfranchised and marginalized status. 

Homeless women, Cape Town
1976 © Steve Bloom

One in particular in the leftmost corner of the room caught my eye. It is an image of two women, titled Homeless women, Cape Town. The focus is on the woman in the front, she happily sticks her tongue out, almost mocking the photographer, but not quite so malicious. Her smiling eyes are exuberant, every wrinkle and mole on display create an external masterpiece of inner strength. These women have been punished for being nonwhite – they have literally been cast into the streets, forced to live without homes and stripped of their human rights which should, as defined by the United Nations, be granted regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. The tongue is an act of defiance, her happiness a subversion of what apartheid was invented to do – oppress and render inferior all nonwhite people. The woman behind has her eyes trained on her friend with a questioning look on her face. She questions her friend’s ability to effortfully maneuver her facial features into an expression of joy, when there is so little joy to be had. However, they sit together still, close enough to present to viewers their solidarity. Their solidarity, their small rebellion, is captured permanently here, memorialized, and blown up into prints where their faces are larger than life. Their being shown 25 years later gives life to these women’s pride and resilience. 

Khalifah performance, symbolic of the power of flesh over steel through faith
1976 © Steve Bloom

This image was placed across from another one, which shows quite a different picture. It is two men this time; however, these two men could not be more different from one another. One is Black, the other white. One is on display, the other curiously, imperiously watching. The image is titled Khalifah performance, symbolic of the power of flesh over steel through faith. The man wears sunglasses, a symbol of modernity that prompts the viewer to think about these photos in their living present – that racial inequality is still rampant, despite the end of apartheid in 1994. The white man on the right of the photo looks upon the other man as an object, pointing his right index finger at him in a microcosmic act of colonialism. The title is significant because it speaks of resistance, ‘the power of flesh over steel through faith,’ it recognizes the ongoing protests and rampant unrest in the fight for greater equality. The contrast between seeing only the white man’s profile and the Black man’s frontal form is significant. The Black man, the man on display, reigns the photo’s subject. He faces the camera head-on, arms and body clenched, ready for action. Just as the Soweto Uprising begins, and his kin are ready to fight back against apartheid, so is he. Bloom has successfully captured the essence of civil rebellion, and the key moments right before the riot – the intake of breath before the strike.

The exhibition will run from Saturday 19th October to Sunday 19th January 2020 at The Beaney Museum in Canterbury, England. The exhibition is free, and you can find the details here

Antoinette Nguyen is a visiting student at the University of Oxford with a concentration in Human Sciences and English Literature, also attending the University of Rochester as an incoming medical student in New York, U.S.A. She serves as Deputy Director of Education for Oxford Omnia, and is section editor of In Review. She has previously interned for SOVA, an NGO that promotes women’s health and education in Odisha, India, and for the Nhan Hoa Federal Health Center, in California, U.S.A.

Our thanks to Steve Bloom for the publication of his photography.

78 views

Vietnam Raises South China Sea Disputes at UNGA

Vietnam Raises South China Sea Disputes at UNGA
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh giving a speech at thê UNGA

This is a translation for Oxford Omnia by Ky Nam Nguyen of an article on the Vietnamese news site thanhnien.vn, originally published in Vietnamese on 29th September 2019.

Why Ky Nam thinks this article is important; ‘though he didn’t mention China directly, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister’s speech to UNGA on the 28th September confirmed expectations: that Vietnam would bring its case to the UN to mobilise international support in relation to the Vanguard Bank Incident in the South China Sea.’

Vietnam urges for respect for international law in the South China Sea.

“We urge relevant parties in the South China Sea to respect international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, considered the Constitution of the oceans,” Pham Binh Minh stressed in his UNGA speech.

Being a conduit for the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea has strategic importance to peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The Deputy PM iterates that mutual efforts of relevant parties will bring on positive outcomes for resolving differences and conflicts.

“On multiple occasions Vietnam has voiced its concerns about the recent complicated developments in the South China Sea. Relevant countries should exercise self-restraint and refrain from unilateral actions that may escalate tensions at sea, settling disputes through peaceful measures in accordance with international law, including the UNCLOS,” said Pham Binh Minh, restating the country’s stance on the current territorial dispute between China and Vietnam.

Leading to this moment, since the 4th July 2019, the day the Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship and its escorting forces started illegal surveying operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam, spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Le Thi Thu Hang has denounced these acts at least five times, demanding China to end its maritime law violations at once.

Vietnam has also communicated with the Chinese on many governmental levels, asking the country to respect international law, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam within its territorial seas. 

International law is the basis of equitable relationships between states

In his UN speech, Pham Binh Minh also recalled the hard-learned lessons in “the bloodiest chapter in mankind’s history”, World War II.

The horrendous price of the war helped nations realise the necessity for a centralised security system predicated on multilateral control and international law, as a foundation for post-war world order. That decision has proven to be judicious. 

However, multilateralism is facing the challenge of opting between reserved national interests and collective values; competition and confrontation between great powers are favoured over collaboration, dialogue, and respect for international law.

Pointing out the realities, PM Pham Binh Minh emphasised other global challenges that no countries are immune to, weak or strong, such as climate change, environmental degradation and other lurking conflict risks.

The advancement of science and technology has brought about new weapons and means of warfare. Military expenses are at their highest in history, as the world veers in the direction of a new Cold War. 

In that context, Pham Binh Minh urged all nations to collectively revive multilateralism and consolidate the United Nations mechanisms. States must unanimously enact laws and abide by those laws.

“International law is the foundation for equitable relationships between countries. All actions must be in accordance with and respectful of international law. Vietnam believes that upholding international law is the most important measure to avoid conflicts and find solutions to conflicts. We endorse all efforts to resolve feuds through peaceful means in alignment with the UN’s principles and international law, including negotiation, mediation, and judicial”, the Deputy Prime Minister said. 

Ky Nam Nguyen is a student at Dickinson College pursuing Political Science, with a special interest in economics, social issues, education, and international relations. Currently, he’s taking a year out to do social work and research around his fields of interest.


12 views

Vietnam to bring up the Vanguard Bank incident at the United Nations General Assembly?

This is a translation for Oxford Omnia by Ky Nam Nguyen of an article on the Vietnamese news site voatiengviet.com, originally published in Vietnamese on 25th September 2019.

Why Ky Nam thinks this article is important; ‘Vietnam and China have been engaged in a tense territorial dispute since the latter sent a survey ship to the former’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea in July. Vietnam’s statements at UNGA might gain the country leverage against its northern neighbour.

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh addressed the UNGA in 2016

A high-ranking Vietnamese official is expected to give a speech at the world leaders’ meeting UNGA. Analysts have raised that Ha Noi should put forward the confrontation between the country and China at Vanguard Bank,  claimed by both Vietnam and China, to mobilise support from the international community.

The office of the Spokesperson for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated that, according to the current schedule, a Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam will address the Assembly on 09/28. Vietnam’s foreign affairs ministry confirmed that Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh has flown to New York to join other world leaders. 

On 09/18 press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang demanded that Vietnam “immediately end” unilateral oil inspecting activities at the Vanguard Bank. All the while, Hanoi has denounced Beijing multiple times for illegally escorting the Haiyang Dizhi 8, or Marine Geology 8, survey ship into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone prescribed in the UNCLOS. 

“China has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands), hence sovereignty and jurisdiction rights regarding territorial waters of Wan’an Tan (Vanguard Bank), situated within the Nansha Islands”, Mr.Shuang stressed.

Commenting on the statement deemed “perverse” by many Vietnamese, Mr. Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that Vietnam bring the dispute to its UNGA agenda. 

“In the long run, Vietnam’s only option, with the aim to fend off China’s territorial self-proclamation, is to garner global backing so that Beijing feels the sense of diminishing diplomatic reputation. Heretofore, other than the US, Hanoi has yet to secure any countries’ standpoint in the issue”, Mr.Poling said. 

“A speech at the United Nations General Assembly will draw the attention of influential countries such as Australia, Japan, Britain and encourage opinions of usually reticent ones.” 

Last year at the UNGA, when tensions regarding the South China Sea were less simmering, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc mentioned the topic of territorial waters disputes, with the assertion that Vietnam “always steadfastly holds in high regards the Charter of the United Nations, basic principles of international law in resolving oversea conflicts with peaceful measures, among which are disputes in the East Vietnam Sea (South China Sea), on the basis of the 1982 UNCLOS and the guaranteeing of maritime and aviation security and freedom.”

One year before that, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh also stressed similar remarks at the United Nations, calling upon “all involved parties to restrain themselves.”

Mr. Poling reasons that mentioning the Vanguard Bank incident will, for certain, set off China’s ire, but it will also spawn negative response against Beijing from similar-standpoint countries in Europe, the USA, Canada, or Japan. Moreover, it will open the door for these countries, especially the US, to seek more international-stage approval on behalf of Vietnam.”

President Donald Trump, on 09/24, used his UNGA speech to send a firm message to China about the US-China trade war and caution that the world is watching how Beijing handles the situation in Hong Kong. China’s minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi retorted that Beijing would not kowtow to any threats.   

Pertaining to the upcoming speech from Vietnam, asked if Hanoi stands much chance of gathering approval at the UNGA on the Vanguard Bank incident, Mr.Poling said that “there are more countries who oppose China’s territorial claims than those who don’t”.

In 2016, more than 50 countries congratulated Philippines’ “win” when it filed a lawsuit against China’s territorial claim of almost the entirety of the South China Sea at the UNCLOS’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, whereas just over 30 states, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, stood along Beijing’s side to object to the court ruling. A host of scholars and activists in Vietnam have pushed Hanoi to follow in Manila’s footsteps to sue China.

“The Vanguard Bank incident will undoubtedly encounter reluctance due to China’s pressure on small states in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and some Asian countries, but more will be on Vietnam’s side than on China’s, and the former ones have much more in influence,” said Mr.Poling.

Ky Nam Nguyen is a student at Dickinson College pursuing Political Science, with a special interest in economics, social issues, education, and international relations. Currently, he’s taking a year out to do social work and research around his fields of interest.

7 views