Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"The suspect is of Indian appearance..." Oh wait, no he's not.

I have written in the past here and here about some of the problems with ethnic descriptors of criminals. A news story this week raises more of these issues.

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard the report about a man who was suspected to have committed several sexual assaults at several Melbourne train stations. The most recent one involved him inappropriately touching a 13 year-old girl from behind while on an escalator at Flinders Street Station.

The description of him given on ABC774 was being "of Indian appearance."

Is this based on the police description? I'm not sure. They describe him here as "about 175 centimetres tall, of average build with black hair, tanned skin and was wearing a blue top". So did the radio station see the picture and make their own conclusions about his ethnic appearance?

Here's a photo of the man. You decide whether he is "of Indian appearance".


If you thought, "Nah, he doesn't really look Indian,", you'd be right. If I had to guess, I would pick him as someone from Northern Africa, of mixed African and Arabic ancestry.

Indeed, the man has been caught and has been found to be a 27 year-old Libyan student, Almahde Atagore. He has only been in Melbourne 41 days and has indecently assaulted at least 3 people.

Now for a member of the public in a position to help the police with their inquiries, would the description of him as "of Indian appearance" be helpful or not? I would guess not. This man only looks Indian if you don't really know what an Indian looks like. If I had seen Atagore walking around, and was then asked if I'd seen a man of Indian appearance, I don't know if I would make the connection. Fortunately they did catch him, and it was probably based on the visual footage rather than the radio's description.

The other issue is that radio reports like that are not particularly good PR for the Indian-Australian community. Recently I have heard of a number of widely-reported sexual assaults in Melbourne committed by men described as Indian (who were indeed either Indian or at least South Asian). My first reaction upon hearing this latest one was "Damn, another Indian?"

Perhaps that says something about the way I see the world. But I do not doubt that there will be many people who hear descriptions like that and use it to reinforce certain prejudices and stereotypes they have about Indians. I remember this case in which a Malaysian man was brutally bashed to death in Sydney by two men described as having olive skin and curly hair. Straight away a lot of people assumed the assailants must have been Lebanese or Pacific Islanders (two groups highly represented in cases of violent crime in Sydney). It turns out the men were Indonesian; but that initial reaction tells you a lot about preconceptions.

Describing someone as looking Indian can be useful, certainly. Everyone knows roughly what an Indian looks like, whereas using the more accurate term "South Asian", which is not all that commonly used in Australia, might actually confuse people - they might confuse it with merely "Asian", which in Australia is usually taken to mean someone of East Asian appearance.

Yet it is problematic at the same time. Yes, there are lots of Indians in Australia, but they are not the only South Asians. Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis also fall into this category. You will also find people from Mauritius, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran and Burma who could accurately be described as "South Asian in appearance". Indeed, so could many people from the Middle East (and apparently, if this case is any guide, Afro-Arabs as well).

Indians, as the most prominent nationality of this bunch, end up carrying the can. We don't describe suspects as being "of Chinese appearance". So why Indian?

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