Sunday, December 20, 2015

Is this Australian cartoon racist against Indians?

A NEW satirical cartoon by veteran Australian artist Bill Leak is being condemned around the world as racist for its depiction of Indian people.

However, it may reveal more about the country in which it was created than the one that it depicts.

The cartoon, published Monday in the Australian, a News Corp-owned broadsheet, features stereotypical images of Indians puzzled by box of solar panels, which are stamped with the United Nations logo and the words “made in China”. The drawing depicts one man smashing them with a sledgehammer while another group tries to eat them.

The title of the work is “Aid √† la mode”, in reference to the recent Paris climate change deal. Leak’s message seems to be that India is a poor country in need of food and basic necessities rather than high-tech solar panels that will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Is Leak’s cartoon inherently racist?

Many of the reactions against the cartoon’s alleged racism stem from how the Indians are depicted rather than from Leak’s intended message, which is also problematic. Emaciated, shirtless, turbaned and absolutely ignorant of what to do with new technology is an outdated stereotype for a country that has established itself as a tech giant.

This only demonstrates the… provincial ignorance of both the journalist, cartoonist and publication.
—Shoma Chaudhury, Catch News

In a move that is typical of the times, Leak’s Wikipedia page was “hacked” by a member of the public with unequivocal opinions about the cartoonist’s alleged racism. Though it has since been changed back, with an additional paragraph referring to the current controversy, I managed to catch a screen shot of the hacktivist’s work:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 21.25.32 leak wikiA pair of Australian academics — Professor Yin Paradies of Deakin University and sociologist Amanda Wise of Macquarie University — voiced their condemnation of the cartoon as racist, old-fashioned and ignorant of India’s status as a sophisticated tech powerhouse.

From the Guardian:

The message … is that India is too stupid to handle renewable energy and should stick to coal. Suggesting that ‘developing nations are stupid’ is racist given that such nations are invariably associated with specific racial groups (ie non-whites).
—Yin Paradies of Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

The conservative, anti-climate change action message of the cartoon was also condemned:

… actually it is people living in poverty that will suffer the most through food security, sea level rises, dropping of the water table.
—Amanda Wise, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Are racist stereotypes more acceptable in Australia?

Comparing Australia with the three other major, wealthy Anglosphere countries, Wise claimed that such a cartoon would be “unacceptable” in the US, UK or Canada. Yet is this just a case of the simplistic and lurid nature of political cartoons meeting a new standard for “political correctness” that has not taken hold as much in Australia as in some countries?

In my opinion, humorous, satirical stereotypes of nations or peoples — particularly done ironically — would not be inherently racist if all things were equal. However, all things have never been equal. There is a pesky backdrop of colonialism, white supremacy and racist persecution we have to consider. It is something that has not yet been adequately confronted and addressed by any country I can think of, what to speak of one with Australia’s history of colonization and racial policies.

Denial of racism and support from the Murdoch press

While many Australian publications and members of social media have joined their Indian and international counterparts and decried the cartoon, Leak’s publisher has stuck by it. Editors of the Australian, part of the right-wing Rupert Murdoch media empire, claimed that critics simply misunderstood the joke and that it was aimed at climate activists, not Indians. They repeated the standard, fossil-fueled party line that poor countries need “cheap power [read: Australian coal], aid and a hand up”.

Apparently, for the Australian’s editors, solar power does not qualify as any of the above.

Leak, who has been accused of becoming more right wing in recent years, especially since he suffered a serious head injury in 2008, has so far declined to comment on the controversy.

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