Fresh, thoughtful journalism and creative works produced by students
of the School of Art, Communication and English at the University of Sydney.

Symptom of a larger sickness — COVID-19 racism against Asian-Australians

Racism is a destructive infestation that crawls under the surface of Australia’s image of a ‘multicultural’ society.

It only takes a spark to re-ignite the deep festering racism that we are so reluctant to face. The pandemic is hardly the root of the issue here: the string of racist attacks targeted towards Asian-Australians fuelled by COVID-19 points towards a larger sickness.

Australia’s history of Anti-Asian racism

The 1910 song, ‘March of the Great White Policy’ by W.E Naunton.
The 1910 song “March of the Great White Policy” by W.E Naunton.

Whether you like it or not, Australia was founded on racist roots. Historian Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson, who specialises in Australia’s cultural and social engagement with China, said one of the founding policies of the Australian nation in 1901 was the very idea there should only be white people.

“The colony of Victoria, which is where Melbourne is, was we think the first place in the world ever to introduce a law specifically barring Asian migration,” Dr Loy-Wilson said.

According to her theory, white nationalists from diverse backgrounds found unity by depicting non-white Australians in deeply racist ways. “Asian-Australians were used as a political tool in an irresponsible and damaging way to bring white people together,” she said.

This was what happened 120 years ago, and it is what is happening now.

The Emotional Toll

As an Asian-Australian, I worry about how I will be perceived differently, that I am the person responsible for the pain and deaths that have occurred, that Asians are just exotic animal-eaters. Asian culture is not perfect but using us as scapegoats for COVID-19 is irresponsible. Part of the Eastern culture influence is the fact we were taught to be humble, to not stir up trouble. What’s deeply unsettling about that is by not speaking up, we are accepting whatever everyone else is saying about us.

“We have to be bold and brave about supporting each other to call it out,” Greens Newtown MP, Jenny Leong, said.

This starts with expressing what had happened and why you need support. I collected stories of people’s experiences to get a better understanding of the emotional strain these attacks can put on the individuals. Here are some of the responses.

“I remember feeling so let down by my own country…I feel like I am forced to carry a burden for something I didn’t do… it just reminds me of the sad reality that I might never be considered a real Australian, that I really have no place to call home.”

(Female, Vietnamese-Australian)

“She was travelling on a bus and was told she’s carrying the Chinese virus…she did not talk to anyone after that and had to go through some counselling.”

(Female, Chinese)

“I was really upset about it, upset that some people could be that stupid… it just proved that some people are making excuses to put down one race.”

(Female, Chinese-Australian)

“I was surprised, surprised that some stranger is shouting at me for bringing the virus to Australia…I feel like I don’t belong here.”

(Male, Indonesian-Australian)

“The minor things really hurt…I think people call it casual racism but those are the things that actually matter and need to be called out too.”

(Male, Chinese-Australian)

These incidents included being accused of making the place the new epicentre, listening in on racist banters, and being hollered at with phrases like ‘Chinese virus’, ‘Corona’ in front of children.

Jesse, a PhD student spoke of his own experience with casual racism:

We have to recognise that these incidents of casual racism are just as destructive as any other types of racism. Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at Per Capita and one of the collaborators of the Racism Incident Report survey said that it was problematic to assume racism is only associated with explicit and malicious acts of exclusion.

“There are things that people do and say that might unconsciously reflect underlying prejudice, and they do have an impact,” Mr Chiu said.

Casual racism happens quickly, is often hard to prove and brushed off as a joke. “It’s a form of emotional abuse,” Dr Loy-Wilson said. “It makes the person somehow think they’re overreacting to it, that they should just relax and let it go.”

She described this deeply-rooted sentiment as the cement of a house. “Even if you change the design of the house, sometimes the foundation will come back to affect the larger structure,” said Dr Loy-Wilson.

“It’s a symptom of a bigger problem of racism, and not acknowledging the history of racism in Australia,” co-founder of Asian Australian Alliance, Erin Chew added.

Symptom of a larger sickness

The racism that’s been amplified during this pandemic is no coincidence; Australia was, and still is, a racist country. “The person wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a larger movement in society, if they weren’t encouraged by certain quotes from leaders, certain things they read in the newspaper,” Dr Loy-Wilson said.

Mr Chiu speculates that Australia’s debate over the last year about its relationship with the People’s Republic of China has activated those underlying fears and prejudices that underpinned the formation of this country. “There’s an assumption that these big debates happen with nuance, and the reality is that doesn’t happen,” he said. “Everyone needs to be extra cautious and thoughtful about how they phrase and conduct these debates.”

President of the Chinese Australian Forum, Jason Yat-sen Li, said this was dangerous because it creates in the minds of the Australian public, this “villain attitude towards China”.

“If that goes too far, it leaves no mental space in the eyes of the Australian public for a positive and balanced relationship,” he said.

Anti-Asian attitude in the West immediately followed the outbreak of the Coronavirus in Wuhan in January,  ranging from racial slurs and racist news headlines to physical abuse and outright vandalism.

These are just the ones that were captured by the media but where are the un-reported ones?

One of the preliminary findings based on 370 responses from the Racism Incident Report survey, initiated by Erin Chew, found that nearly 90 per cent of people don’t report their cases to the police.

This is a shocking figure. Some of the responses to the survey on why that is the case include: “felt that it wasn’t serious enough”; “thought it was too much of a process”;  and “they don’t want to feel exposed”.

These responses expose a deeper problem. Jenny Leong MP said  Australia does not have adequate mechanisms to protect people who do report.

“The best way to get people to report is if they believe action will be taken,” Ms Leong said. “Australia’s human rights laws, our anti-discrimination laws, and our laws to protect people are just not strong enough to be able to give people that reassurance.”

Dr Loy-Wilson added: “What it shows is a lack of faith in the Australian legal system to actually prosecute racism.”

How Asian-Australians united to fight 

Tweet by Jenny Leong MP: "I just signed this petition in support of #unityoverfear - - please take a minute to do the same. The anti-chinese and anti-asian narratives and actions are causing many people, including myself, real harm at this time. Racism is NEVER okay."
Jenny Leong MP tweet

There is a silver lining. Since the outbreak, Asian-Australians have united to fight against this issue. One such movement is the #UnityOverFear petition which has gathered more than 60, 000 signatures. The Chinese Australian Forum (CAF) initiated this campaign following an open letter signed by 16 prominent Asian-Australians, expressing their concern for the rising escalation of racist attacks. CAF president Jason Yat-sen Li said the objectives are foremost to comfort the victims, and secondly, to raise awareness among the public and politicians that this is going on.

“We’re trying to lobby the government for a national anti-racism strategy that extends beyond COVID-19,” Mr Li said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly condemned these attacks. But there is so much more to be done.

Australia has never engaged in a nuanced and proper discussion about racism – its failure to acknowledge racism in its history, and its inability to address it in its governance, is shameful.

Erin Chew said the legislative system in Australia is just not well equipped to see any forms of racism prosecuted by the law. “If they’re not willing to call things a hate crime…then they’re more likely to sweep things under the rug because no country will want to be called a racist country,” she said. “I think a lot of the changes need to come from the top.”

The Racism Incident Report survey, on which Ms Chew and Mr Chiu collaborated, was a response to the lack of official data; failure to collate figures on these incidents to provide evidence for the government and regulatory bodies, and lobby for change.

“We were of the view that unless we actually started to collect these examples of racism, it would be brushed off as just anecdotal claims,” Mr Chiu said.

The underrepresentation of Asian-Australians in politics is also a stark contrast to Australia’s culturally diverse population. “I think as someone from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, who is a minority… issues like racism and discrimination will be prioritised,” said Mr Chiu.

Ms Leong agreed, and said bringing diversity to the parliament would bring a different perspective on issues.

Asian-Australians are here for the long-haul, collecting data and petitioning the government. Beyond law and order, there are other ways to deal with racism.

Jason Yat-sen Li spoke of the importance of broadening the Australian identity to be more inclusive, and to embrace the legends of the Asian-Australians, such as the forgotten contributions of the Chinese-Australian Anzacs.

What now?

We have seen history repeat itself over and over again. The pandemic is another global catastrophe that has again led to the most overused accusation of mankind: blame it on race. And it won’t end when the virus is over. What happens when the next catastrophe comes? What can we do now?

Photo: Perry Grone on Unsplash
Photo: Perry Grone on Unsplash

It starts with accepting our racist past; it starts with addressing the systemic racism rooted under Australia’s surface of a ‘diverse’ society; it starts with engaging in nuanced discussions about racism with one another; and most importantly, it starts with supporting each other.

We cannot let fear conquer us. Ms Leong spoke of the powerful connections between global anti-racism campaigners because of COVID-19. I think each of us can do the same — you don’t have to experience injustice to call it out. If you see somebody being wrongfully accused and abused, say something and give the victim the opportunity to speak up. Educate yourself, be sensitive of others’ feelings; racist ‘banter’ is not funny.

History has shown we are better when we are united, and strength will come from supporting each other.

The ABC would like to hear your story, you can report your incidents here.

You can also submit it here via the Racism Incident Report survey conducted by the Asian Australian Alliance.

If you would like to sign the #UnityOverFear petition, please sign via this link.

Project rationale

The outbreak of Coronavirus has exposed the worst of xenophobia in Australia. When stories about the virus started circulating in January this year from Wuhan — the first epicentre of COVID-19  — the anti-Asian sentiment in the West followed immediately. Australia was no exception. Australia prides itself on its diversity and multiculturalism, so why was it so easy for this racist sentiment to infect the country? As an Asian-Australian, I am strongly and deeply disturbed about this issue. My commentary carries significant news values in timeliness, proximity, conflict, prominence and impact. As Bradshaw (2017) states, good journalism standards apply regardless of the medium, and I think one of the principles of good journalism is that it delivers the newsworthiness of a story. ABC was first to report on racist attacks against Asians in Australia on Jan 31; the latest one to date was reported on May 21. While there has been coverage condemning these attacks, my commentary takes an analytical approach that explores the historical context, the emotional toll of these attacks on individuals, the underlying prejudices, and the governance systems so often missing in Australia’s debate about racism. Only by having a nuanced conversation that digs deeper into the heart of this issue can we then formulate actions to tackle this long-overdue problem. That is the rationale for this project. The main argument presented in this commentary is this: Anti-Asian racism is a deeply rooted issue that extends beyond COVID-19, the racist attacks are symptoms of a larger sickness and Australia was and still is a racist country.

The pandemic is hardly the root of the issue here: the string of racist attacks targeted towards Asian-Australians fuelled by COVID-19 points towards a larger sickness.


Lucy Xu
Lucy Xu
Lucy Xu is a postgraduate media practice student at the University of Sydney. Passionate about social affairs, she writes about it occasionally. Bilingual in English and Mandarin. Twitter: @lucy_s_xu

Want fresh, thoughtful journalism in your inbox? Subscribe to Salience.