Like many ethnic groups, especially non white ones, Bangladeshis often feel they are victims of racism in Western countries like Australia, America or Britain. This is undoubtedly the case. I remember what it was like as a scrawny, Bangladeshi kid in the school playground being thrown jokes about smelling like curry or my dark skin. Every foreigner has stories similar.
A part of my job as a psychiatrist is to assess claims for compensation, particularly in workplaces. This often relates to allegations of bullying or mistreatment. Racism is often a complaint.
One thing I have often observed is that groups like Bangladeshis can be quick to accuse people of racism when there is none there. Or they are extremely sensitive to even the most basic comments related to their ethnic background as some kind of racial attack.
For example, I had a recent case of someone citing bullying because colleagues in the office mentioned that the cooked lunch she often brought into the office smelt strong and must have been full of flavour.
"Our views on authority, hierarchy, harm to others and what is sacred determine our outlook"
Another man was convinced racism was the reason he didn’t receive a promotion, even though there was clear evidence the successful candidate was a good deal superior on every measure.
One reason for citing racism is when the truth that perhaps we weren’t good enough on more objective measures hurts too much. This can be unacceptable for our egos and to protect ourselves we project the blame outwards. By accusing others of racism we can feel comfortable that it had nothing to do with our failings. In my experience, particularly in first generation arrivals, this is often the case when things don’t go their way.
Another common reason for perceiving racism is related to different attitudes surrounding some of the key categories we view the world. Some of the best work about this has been done my moral psychologist Johnathan Haidt. He argues that categories such as hierarchy, authority, our views surrounding harm to others and what we consider sacred determine much of our outlook on the world. For example, people who might consider themselves progressive put a great emphasis on harm to groups they consider vulnerable, whereas conservatives will feel a stronger need to balance this with other priorities such as tradition or hierarchy.
This analysis can be helpful when trying to understand racism.
When I was a junior doctor, I found it interesting that English doctors often complained about different attitudes surrounding hierarchy. This is all part of the more Australian idea of egalitarianism, but this can also be annoying for some new arrivals. I met several English doctors who complained that nurses would ask them to do tasks such as photocopying or filing when nurses in the British National Health Service wouldn’t dream of asking for such a thing. If the doctors refused or looked annoyed by the request, they risked being considered arrogant or snobby. This illustrates different ideas about notions of hierarchy.
Likewise, people from the Indian subcontinent are derived from one of the most status conscious, stratified societies in the world. Caste or no caste, signaling status or being noted for one’s place in the hierarchy is a critical part of social relations. But interestingly, when nurses made similar requests to newly arrived doctors from say India or Bangladesh, the doctors were more likely to view it as an insult to their status and view it as a form of racism. They were often more sensitive to it because they had to take a significant drop in their status when compared to their countries of origin, sometimes struggling to find jobs, complete examinations or even doing jobs unrelated to their skills such as driving taxis.
These examples illustrate how in a diverse, multicultural society, when there are disagreements related to race it is often related to different attitudes towards markers such as hierarchy and authority and are more often misperceptions. This is not to say outright racism doesn’t occur. Of course it does and, in my experience at least, it is often more rife in ethnic communities than among whites.