In the last few weeks, fears of #AfricanGangs have resurfaced in popular media with the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying that there is "a real concern about Sudanese gangs," in Victoria.
In January, immigration minister Peter Dutton said that Melbournians were too “afraid to go to restaurants due to their fear of African gangs.” The sensationalised news coverage on the issue has created the perception that violence amongst Africans is on the rise, an assertion that the Victorian police dispute.
The depiction of Africans as packs or gangs has led to even more profiling and scrutiny of the community. The rising “fears” have since taken a bigoted turn with leaflets displaying pictures of black men being circulated in Melbourne with a call to stop “gangs hunting in packs”. The language used is problematic as it paints African men as uncivilised animals, hunting for their next “victim”.
The comments made by several politicians recently have been met with resistance and disappointment from members of the African community.
Dorcas Mbugua is an employment and industrial lawyer living in Melbourne. She is one of the outspoken African Australians who took to her social media to criticise the statement made by the PM through an open letter. She wrote:
"You owe the African Australian community an apology…being a young migrant nation, the misconceptions about Africans in Australia already exist without your help. It is insulting to the Australian community at large to spread fake news in an attempt to retain political power."
Despite the fact that Victoria's Crime Statistics Agency shows that crime has reduced by 9 per cent in the last year with big drops in abductions, burglaries, theft, deception and drug dealing, and that majority [71.7 per cent] of the crimes were committed by Australian-born Victorians, Victoria continues to be positioned as 'terror zone’ terrorised by African gangs. The problem with these “tough on crime” racialised statements and attitudes is that they win votes in this country.
Negative labelling also extends to how people respond to victims of violent crimes. In the last week, a young Sudanese girl Laa Chol was murdered following a brawl that ensued after a party. The immediate comments that were made by Peter Dutton wrongly conflated her death with ‘Sudanese gangs’ violence, therefore influencing the public’s reaction and sensitivity to her death. A young woman's murder was used to push a political agenda, reducing her death into a political spectacle.
The label of the #AfricanGang
It has been interesting to look at the language that has been used to describe Africans in these stories.
Juvenile justice and criminology researcher professor Barry Goldson argues that labelling creates a sense of “othering”. By locating ourselves through the binaries of “us” and “them”, we produce marginalised, disenfranchised outsiders and help to “…establish, consolidate, and/or confirm offender identities…which attract further intervention and/or negative reaction and so the process continues.”
In the context of the numerous labels, the black African body remains political as it often occupies a contested and criminalised space. The confluence of blackness and “danger” cannot be overstated - particularly in an environment where black skin is weaponised and seen as inherently suspicious.
The danger of labelling is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy often created from the idea of the single story. In her famed Ted-talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues that if you name a person as one thing- and one thing only, that is what they eventually become, literally or figuratively. When Africans are viewed as monolithic, and through a single and problematised lens, then their humanity is diminished and minimised by those who mark them as “different”.
Stories matter…many stories matter
When people in power speak for those in less privileged positions, they must do so without dehumanising them. They must also do so without homogenising a diverse group of people or promoting harmful stereotypes about them. Chimamanda states that the problem with stereotypes is not that “they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”.
We must encourage a sociological imagination in the way we tell the stories of others. A sociological imagination encourages people to examine how power moves and functions through stories. The single story of Africans as dangerous criminals or uncivilised animals is just as offensive as it is untrue.
To insist on a single story of any person is to assume that the single story about them is their only story. The single story emphasises that Africans cannot embody multiple stories which ultimately denies them the opportunity to be complex- which is a privilege afforded to other people. Africans too are, and can be multi-storied.
My instinct is to defend the majority of Africans who live in Australia, working hard, obeying the law, paying their taxes and carrying on with their everyday lives but I'll spare you the popular hashtag#NotAll. I will instead finish off with the words of Chimamanda that “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”