Opinion

Yassmin Abdel-Magied
Manmeet Sharma and race in crime

It is not known what motivated the killer of Manmeet Sharma. But Queensland Police know what they do not want it to be: racism. They immediately blamed the attack on mental health and pre-emptively reassured the community that it had nothing to do with the colour of Sharma’s skin. This was misplaced, and potentially damaging. But it was also predictable. We go to extraordinary lengths in this country to not discuss race.

And yet until we understand racism as a system of oppression that exists beyond individuals, we will fail to adequately address one of the root challenges to social cohesion. 

The story is now well known. Manmeet Sharma, commonly known as Manmeet Alisher, was a 29-year-old Punjabi singer, actor and casual bus driver for the Brisbane City Council. People who knew him described him as “popular” and “adored”. In late October – without provocation or warning – he was killed. A 48-year-old man named Anthony O’Donohue has been charged with his murder.

According to reports, O’Donohue walked onto the bus Sharma was driving and threw an “incendiary device” at him. A fire was sparked, and engulfed the driver. Sharma was pronounced dead at the scene – an innocent man doing his job, burnt to death at the hands of a fellow Australian. This is perhaps one of the most brutal ways to die. This was no ordinary incident.

Naturally, the police were quick to reassure the broader community. And perhaps due to the ethnic backgrounds of the victim and the perpetrator, they immediately struck down the ideas of racism or terrorism as potential motives.

“There is no evidence at this time of any linkage to terrorist-type activities and certainly that has not become evident through the ongoing investigations that have occurred,” Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said to reporters shortly after the incident.

“We do not believe at this stage that there is any evidence linking this to a racial complaint or concern by either of the people involved.”

South Brisbane Superintendent Jim Keogh echoed these sentiments, ruling out racism or terrorism. There was, he said, “no apparent motive”. This was before the day’s end, and certainly before the matter was presented to a court.

There are times when the response to an attack can tell us more about a society than the attack itself. So what does the quick denial of any racial or terrorist motives say about us as a society? What implication has that had for the Indian-Australian community in this country? Where do we go from here?

The response from the Indian-Australian community and the broader Australian community across the country has been positive in the face of tragedy.

“This incident brought the Indians together,” said Pinky Singh, from the Punjabi Welfare Association of Australia. “People want to help, they are donating money in the trust to support the family, and they are organising candlelight vigils. The mainstream Australian community has also been very helpful. People ask us how we are doing, attend the vigils, and place flowers at the site of the tragedy.”

Amit Sarwal, an Indian-Australian academic and SBS Hindi radio producer who was on shift when the news filtered through, agreed. “The community handled it well,” he said, comparing it to the racially motivated attacks on Indian students in 2009. “Although there were similar vibes to the 2009 attacks, we saw a more mature reaction from the community this time. Somehow people across the country came together. In Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, even Darwin – across the country there were commemorations and offers of support.”

However, within this unity there is a sense of disquiet. Sarwal describes it as “controlled anger”. Although there is a belief in the justice system, there is also suspicion that any discussion about the effect of race will be swept under the rug, ignored and unaddressed.

“We need to talk about the elephant in the room, which is: are these things racially motivated?” Sarwal says.

Because the reality is, some incidents are racially motivated. Not everything is – this is not a petition for us to swing the pendulum completely to the other extreme and assume everything is motivated by racism – but race plays a role in events in our society. To say it doesn’t is presumptuous, ignoring lived experience and statistical evidence. It demonstrates the power of the privileged to define what is and isn’t important. Before jumping to say otherwise, as those in authority often do, it is worth actually listening to those who are racially different and paying attention to that for which they are asking. In many cases, and in this one, it is simply to ensure race is given due consideration. This is about understanding events and the structures of society, in the hope of improving them.

I know Sharma’s Brisbane. I grew up there. I was fortunate enough to have a clear before-and-after picture, a memory of two worlds. As a young, Arab-African Muslim girl living in Queensland before 9/11, I was the subject of curiosity, but not often anger or ill intent. For the same child after 9/11, that changed significantly. Suddenly, day-to-day interactions were filtered through a lens over which I had no control. My Islamic school was the subject of arson. Police liaison meetings with our community became common. The mosque my family attended was burnt down.

Religion isn’t a race, I am often told. Discrimination against Muslims isn’t the same as racism. Okay, sure. But when you think of a Muslim, do you think of a German national, or a Scandinavian, or an Anglo-Australian convert? Or do you think of someone with darker skin and a beard or a woman in a traditional hijab?

Post 9/11 my existence could no longer be described as neutral; it was politicised, racialised. Race also became shorthand for something more sinister. Any crime committed by someone who looked like me or my family tended to be seen through a racial lens. If they were brown, they were labelled terrorist, radical, extremist. Those who looked more like the police had the privilege of individuality. 

It is important to understand the difference. Opening a discussion about whether an incident is racially motivated – and Manmeet Sharma was not a Muslim – is distinct from immediately claiming race played a role. However, this is the nuance that is lost when authorities jump to quell community fears. By not allowing space for a mature conversation about the role of race in our society, especially after a crime as appalling and difficult to make sense of as the murder of Manmeet Sharma, questions remain unanswered, attitudes festering.

Such acts do not occur in a vacuum. There is a global, national and local context for incidents such as this, and we ignore context at our own peril.

Alex Bhathal, the Greens Party candidate for Batman in Melbourne and an advocate for the Indian and South Asian communities, first raised this concern at a vigil in Federation Square. She later expanded on her comments:

“The fact that the Queensland police issued a very early and categorical statement about a lack of racist motivation in this case has had the unfortunate and unintended effect of driving greater anxiety especially within many South Asian-Australians that the justice system will fail to deal with this case adequately and transparently.

“I think many in our community will be left with the continuing, open question about whether the attack may have been motivated by hatred of Indians. Those questions won’t go away with the reassurances of police and they unfortunately won’t be resolved by the findings of any particular criminal investigation.”

At a time when the rhetoric around the world, and in Australia, is divisive and often explicitly racial, sweeping statements and reactive responses are not enough. It will take nuanced, courageous dialogue about the structures and systems of privilege and oppression in our society to enact any meaningful change.

This extends even further than the lived experience of racially diverse migrants and refugees. Having a conversation about race means facing up to the injustices suffered by the First Peoples of this nation. It is a conversation that understands the construct of “whiteness” and the fragility that accompanies it. It is a dialogue needed in a nation that has still not come to terms with its history, steeped as it is in racism and discrimination.

It is easy to say race isn’t involved. It is easy to blame terrifying incidents such as Manmeet Sharma’s killing on intangible motives or on mental health, particularly if interrogating it further might perhaps lead us to truths we would rather not face. It is easy to assume race does not play a role in an incident when one claims not to “see” race, or when race does not play a role in one’s life. But for those – like myself – who don’t leave our race at the door when we leave our homes, race does play a role.

Only people in positions of racial privilege – that is, white people – ever say they are colourblind. The rest of us live in the real world: a world of colour.

It may be easy to look away, but that doesn’t make it right. Yes, it is frightening to accept that sometimes racial prejudice is brought to bear in violent crime. And perhaps Sharma’s murder was not racially motivated. But rather than shut our eyes and pretend racial violence doesn’t happen here, automatically ruling it out as a criminal motivation, we must acknowledge the possibility and try to understand why racial hatred manifests. Only then can we begin to think about remedies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Colour blindness". Subscribe here.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied
is the founder of Youth Without Borders, and a mechanical engineer and internationally accredited F1 reporter.