The question of whether there has been an increase in anti-Asian racism has become a political football between Australia and China. Claims that China’s warnings are politically motivated and that COVID-19 related racism is on the rise are not mutually exclusive but denials of growing anti-Asian racism in Australia go against the personal experience of many Asian Australians
Australia struggles to have a mature conversation whenever racism becomes an issue. Too often discussion about racism is seen simply through the lens of a culture war or political attack to denigrate Australia rather than it being the lived experience for many here.
We have seen that dynamic at play as geopolitical tensions between Australia and the People’s Republic of China have grown. The issue of anti-Asian racism has become a political football between the two countries, China warning tourists and international students to reconsider travelling to Australia as it is unsafe because of racist attacks.
Contrary to claims by China, Australia remains a relatively safe destination to travel to. At the same time, across the globe, there have been increasing reports of anti-Asian racism. Australia is no exception to that trend. These are not mutually exclusive facts.
There is little doubt the claim Australia is unsafe is politically driven. The Commonwealth Government’s response to these claims has been to pushback and to avoid appearing to give any credence to claims about growing anti-Asian racism made by China. But rather than a confident rebuttal, the ham-fisted responses by some Ministers have come off as defensive and tone deaf.
It has not been aided by the Government’s record on anti-racism such as their hostile treatment of the former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, their attempts to change Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and their failure to fund a national anti-racism strategy. Furthermore, the denials of any significant growth in anti-Asian racism go against the every day experience of many in the community.
The survey I have collaborated on with the Asian Australian Alliance has sought to shine a light on incidents of COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism in Australia. To date, we have received over 400 responses since early April, more per capita than the Stop AAPI Hate tracker that Asian American groups set up. The sheer volume of response to a community-led survey shows how widespread an issue this is.
We have never pretended our survey is an academic study. We initiated it because there was no sense of how widespread these incidents of anti-Asian racism were because of poor official data collection. The Race Discrimination Commissioner has also noted this lack of cohesive data on racist incidents is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Our preliminary findings found nearly 90% of those who experienced anti-Asian racism did not report it to police. The significant underreporting and a lack of good data may be one reason why cases of anti-Asian racism are getting downplayed as isolated and rare. Unfortunately, it creates a vicious cycle where action does not occur because official data does not show it is a big problem.
The very narrow focus on violent physical attacks misses the other dimensions to this upsurge in anti-Asian racism. Reported racist incidents have primarily taken the form of racist comments, slurs, physical aggression and intimidation, being spat or coughed on and other microaggressions. Neither young nor old are spared and women are more likely to be targeted by perpetrators.
What is so confronting is the unprovoked, every day nature of these incidents. Most happened in public places as people were going about their daily lives, the perpetrators being total strangers. One person recounted their elderly mother had her path blocked while out walking, was racially abused and blamed for COVID-19 until bystanders intervened. Another told how they were spat on in a shopping centre, called a “f-ing filthy bateater” and told that “the Chinese” were taking over Australia. These stories only skim the surface of what is going on.
These incidents challenge people’s experience of Australia as a diverse, tolerant, multicultural society. Even if an individual did not personally experience the incident, the sheer frequency has meant many know someone who has or they have heard of incidents from friends or family. For Asian Australians, this still has a cumulative effect on how you see your place in our society. You feel unwelcome because you are visibly a minority and may try to minimise doing every day activities in public like shopping because you do not want to deal with the stress of being confronted based on your race.
While racism did not begin and nor will it end with COVID-19, it feels like it has let the genie out of the bottle. It has brought into the open deep-seated views that some have, a fusion of historical anti-Chinese narratives and broader anxieties about the power and influence of the People’s Republic of China. I hope I am wrong but I worry that the racism COVID-19 has activated could worsen as attitudes towards China become increasingly negative. Many Chinese Australians I speak to already feel like collateral damage in a conflict they have been dragged into which they have no influence over.
Acknowledging the increase in anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism in Australia does not and should not diminish the serious racial discrimination or human rights abuses that occur in China. However, dismissing it as not as bad here or unimportant sends the signal to many Asian Australians that they should be grateful that it is not worse. It also shows a failure to grasp why these acts are so hurtful and cause such anguish. It is because it hints that our belonging to Australia is contingent until it is no longer convenient.
Instead of seeing the acknowledgement of growing anti-Asian racism as admission of Australia’s permanent moral failing, we need to understand that our ability to address it shows the fundamental strength of Australia’s democracy. Only by being strongly anti-racist can we confidently demonstrate our commitment to values such as multiculturalism and equality and push back when racism is used as a geopolitical wedge.