Updated: Mar 18, 2021
By Jessica L and Irisa R. (Editor)
It’s interesting- when we first think of racism, we think of all the events that occur in America. We tend to distance ourselves from the racism in our own country, because we don't want to acknowledge it as an issue.
In the supermarket aisle you see a bespectacled man standing casually in the bread aisle. He is looking around nonchalantly, adjusting his glasses as he looks up and sees two women carrying hot cross buns. He moves closer to them and appears to be asking them a question before quickly leaving. The two women look blankly at each other, and one asks the other, “Did you hear what he just said to us..?”
If you were there, you really would not have been able to tell that this man was a racist, you would assume he was someone’s middle aged uncle. This happened several weeks ago; my friend and I were buying groceries when a racist man verbally harassed us. My friend reacted angrily but I was unnervingly calm and ambivalent, almost unshaken by our circumstance. I simply treated it as something to be swept under the rug.
This incident fulfilled my expectations that somehow the xenophobia it unearthed seemed to be as contagious as the virus itself. A friend of ours was kicked by another passenger on the bus, who accused her of carrying the virus. My cousin was on the train home with another Asian woman when she was threatened with a glass bottle. Compared to other sinophobic incidents like those, I thought my situation was not anything burdensome. That incident simply became something to sweep under that already lumpy rug of mine.
The bespectacled racist found us at the registers. He had a smug look on his face and we tried to out - walk him but he picked up his pace until he was just close enough to hiss, “Go back to where you came from.”
A Tale of Sinophobia
Sinophobic sentiments were rampant in newspapers, filled with claims that Chinese immigrants were notorious gamblers, addicted to opium, were stealing the jobs of European workers or threatening the livelihood of white Australians. This anti-Chinese vitriol was enough to slowly incite attacks and riots, like the Lambing Flat Riots, against the Chinese community. Like other minorities, they were constructed as the contemptuous villains in this fairytale of White Colonial Australia.
From the very beginning, Sinophobia was linked to public health concerns. For example, quarantines were imposed on compromised countries to reduce the spread of infection but what continued to fester was the idea that inhabitants of those countries were disease - ridden. That they were invasive.
Politicians have always encouraged these paranoid sentiments, even suggesting that leprosy was contracted through Chinese made furniture. During the late 1800s, Australia quarantined boats full Chinese people for fear that they were all carriers of smallpox and leprosy. The Sinophobia reached such a heightened craze that it led to enforcing anti-Chinese immigration laws in 1888, which denied them citizenship, voting rights and further prevented any Chinese persons from entering the country.
By 1901, The Immigration Restriction Act (or commonly known as the White Australia Policy) prevented any non - white immigrants from settling in Australia. The quarantining of ethnic persons was justified through the language of “sanitary” and “unsanitary”, allowing xenophobia to possess a level of medical justification. Sentiments of “Dirty, Public Health risk, diseased” eventually developed into a starter pack of rhetoric, waiting to be racially weaponised.
“You brought the disease here, F***kwits.”
So what if he’s racist?
Growing up you would hear the subtle racism. You would hear the stereotypes of tiger mums & Kung Fu dads, the twang of “chingchong” or accents in offensive jokes.
The micro-aggressions were annoying, frustrating and disheartening but they were simply moments that could be swept under that rug. It was never a knife at our throats, just snide judgements and caricatures of East Asians mentioned in daily conversations. So we learned to laugh at the jokes. Sometimes we would make jokes at our own expense in hopes of distancing ourselves from the discomfort of confrontation.
Recently, there have been countless “No More Asians” posters plastered over telephone poles, bus stops and buildings. Reminiscent of the rhetoric of the 1880’s newspapers, with their concerns for the Australian economy and their desperate plea to save the ambiguous “Aussie Culture”. But I just saw it as a micro-aggression, if I started reacting in anger with every micro-aggression my day would come to a screeching halt, always dependent on the haughtiness of a racist.
So I acknowledged the existence of such offensive sentiments targeted at people like me and I moved on with my day. The local council filled with naive heroism publicly declared that these posters were unacceptable and proceeded to rip them down, as an act of “solidarity”. But this isn’t enough, it feels like the symptom of the problem is being erased but the reality of the sentiments are still there.
With the media reporting on East Asians eating “bat soup” with abhorrent disgust and Trump’s latest tweet of wisdom about the “China Virus”, our gaze is pulled into the chaos of the 24/7 news cycle. The constant exposure to this vitriol, leaves us in this paralysing state of inaction.
Stanley Cohen coined this term, ‘Implicatory Denialism,’ where you deny or minimise the psychological, political or moral implications that consequently arise from certain events or situations. Implicatory Denialism is when we brush off racial slurs as just an inconvenices or when politicians dismiss anti-racist speech in an attempt to distance ourselves from the fact that COVID - 19 has only uncovered the racism, it hasn’t created it.
It’s when our own Prime Minister responded to the rise of anti-Asian racism with, ‘The virus started in Wuhan, in China, that’s what happened, that’s just a fact. That’s just where it started.” Scomo just called it the “China Virus” without the minimalism of Trump. What fills the vague gaps is a dog-whistle to racists, saying to them that “It’s not racist if it's true”.
Is it even a hate crime?
The spectrum of racial abuse is not always criminal, sometimes it sits at the strange intersection of violence and a microaggression. On the NSW police website there is a section on “Hate Crimes” filled with information regarding “Why people don’t report?” and reasons to report such incidents. There is a presumption that after a racist incident you need to report it to the police, but to do so you have to ask yourself; would I go to court for this? You also have to ask yourself “in that situation did you feel unsafe or threatened?”, because the answer must be a “Yes” for it to be a hate crime.
You must have been emotionally distraught in order to truly accuse someone as a hate crime perpetrator. When hate crimes do eventually get to court they are rarely prosecuted, in Australia there have only been three people from Queensland who have been convicted of hate crimes whilst in NSW there have been no convictions.
This does not mean Queensland wins the title for the-Most-Racist-state, rather it solidifies the inadequacy of NSW when providing clear avenues for reporting. The reality is POC’s xenophobic experiences are not communicated or acknowledged to the fullest extent in our current system. You need to be the perfect victim otherwise how can we prove a “hate crime” truly happened.
Alternatives of reporting are available from organisations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Asian Australian Alliance. These organisations are collecting data to quantify the number of hate crimes to prove that sinophobia exists. The problem though is that while data is being collected it is not enough to understand the extent and frequency of sinophobia and the overall xenophobia in Australia. The data is not fully regulated as there is no official agency responsible for recording racism. The lack of cohesion between organisations leaves us in a shrinking room. We never have the evidence to legitimise the growing problem of sinophobia.
At the shopping centre, security guards encouraged my friend and I to report the man to the police. But we were five days late and our circumstances no longer fit perfectly into the legal requirements to be classified as a hate crime. We should have said “Yes we felt unsafe”. We should’ve been willing and ready to take this matter to court. But the incident was lacking in criminality; it wasn’t a physical threat, it was just tolerable verbal abuse not warranting the intervention of judges and juries. So we filled in the survey from the Asian Australian Alliance instead of reporting to the police. This still felt inadequate. What we really wanted was for an authority to legitimise discrimination.
In times of crisis systematic racism is amplified, and in Australia it is inseparable from its colonial history. With every retelling of our experience we find ourselves unpacking unacceptable slip-ups in our system’s response to xenophobia. Yet it is important to realise there will never be a quick fix to the two hundred year old problem of racism because there is still so much history left unexamined and trauma left unacknowledged. To start unpacking the problem of xenophobia requires us to be aware of our own complicity in the system.
When the racist man started turning his back towards us hiding his smug grin, my friend stood her ground and fiercely shouted, “We can hear you!” I didn’t realise it at the time but what she said couldn’t have been more perfect. She didn't need to insult him and she didn't want to just brush it off as another glass shard underneath that already lumpy rug. It would have been another poster removed, another joke waiting for a laugh and another person brushing off a micro-aggression to get through the day.
She wanted him to know and everyone to know that what he said cannot and will not be ignored.
I now expect nothing less from the systems put into place to protect all POC. And if that system were to fail us all, leave us unsatisfied and in a constant state of debilitating injustice after injustice, what should we do?
We can only hope to fix it for everyone else.
For those who have experienced anti-asian racism and want to report it here are the links below:
For violent incidents, please call the police.
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White, A., 2020. Historical linkages: epidemic threat, economic risk, and xenophobia. The Lancet, 395(10232), pp.1250-1251.
Zhou, N., 2020. Survey Of Covid-19 Racism Against Asian Australians Records 178 Incidents In Two Weeks. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/17/survey-of-covid-19-racism-against-asian-australians-records-178-incidents-in-two-weeks> [Accessed 17 May 2020].
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