Asian-Australians experience a lot of racism. It’s not uncommon for Asian-Australians to experience racism and discrimination most days. Or even every day.
As an Australian of Chinese heritage living in Melbourne, racism is something that I’ve experienced all my life. I don’t expect racism to stop anytime soon.
According to a study by the Australian National University, 82% of Asian-Australians surveyed reported they experienced discrimination in Australia. A survey of 6,001 Australians found over 30% experienced racism on public transport or at work.
Racism comes in different forms. There’s direct racism which is when someone overtly treats you differently, intimidates and attacks you because of your race. There’s also casual or everyday racism: subtle racism ingrained through conversations, body language and jokes.
Over a quarter of the Australian population is born overseas. Many within this demographic originate from the Asian region as per the 2016 Census. Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese are some of the most common languages spoken around Australia.
Despite the culturally diverse makeup of Australia, there are constantly high levels of racism towards Asian-Australians, Asian migrants and ethnic groups here. Here are some common forms of racism Asian-Australians experience*.
1. Public transport racism
Racism is common on public transport in Australia. These incidents are disturbing face-to-face discrimination and sometimes make the news.
There are anti-Asian rants on buses in Sydney. Indian passengers on Melbourne trains have been told to ‘go back to your own country’. There was an incident where a Chinese passenger was accused of ‘not f**king Australian’ and not paying for their ticket on a bus in Adelaide.
Research from the University of Queensland found bus drivers discriminated against dark-skinned students and Indians as they boarded with defective cards. Sometimes bystanders intervene during these incidents. Other times bystanders don’t as they want to avoid getting hurt.
Once I was in the train during morning peak hour in Melbourne. I sat in a carriage where pretty much every other passenger was Anglo-Saxon. An Anglo-Saxon ticket inspector came through the carriage, asked to see my ticket and then walked off to the next carriage without checking anyone else’s. I wondered why.
2. Asians seen as thieves
Often those of Asian background are seen as threats to the so-called Australian dream, perceived as ‘stealing everything’. Chinese investors are constantly dubbed the new ‘Asian invasion’, driving up property prices in Australia.
There has been ‘Stop Incoming Asians’ graffiti plastered over property billboard advertisements in Sydney. Similarly, Chinese bulk-buying and exporting baby-formula has been labelled a craze in local media, causing shortages.
A study conducted by business consultancy firm Cross Border Management shows Chinese property investment is negligible compared to the wider investment market. At the end of the day, if someone has the means to afford and invest, that’s a way to keep trade and the economy going.
3. White ethnic faces in the media
There’s a lack of cultural diversity and representation of Asian voices in Australian media. Those of Asian background are usually cast in tokenistic doctor or taxi driver roles in Australian TV programs, or are shown smuggling prohibited items into the country on Border Security.
Shows such as The Family Law and MasterChef Australia feature Asian Australian personalities while exploring cultural themes through family connections, sexuality and art. This is a step towards more realistic representations and recognising Asian Australians as Australian.
Notably ‘white ethnic faces’ arguably get featured more over other ethnic faces in Australian media. As I’ve written in White Ethnic Faces in the Australian Media, non-accented Asians who are well assimilated into Western culture tend to be given more of a presence in Australian commercial media.
The more one looks and sounds like someone from the majority cultural group, the more likely they’ll be relatable and accepted. Will I ever get the opportunity to present the nightly news on commercial TV in my non-Anglo accent? I wonder.
4. Bamboo ceiling
In Australia it’s challenging for those of Asian background to climb the career ladder in certain industries due to institutional racism. According to Malaysian-born, Australia-based business leader Ming Long, Asian employees in Australia are often expected to conform to quiet stereotypes which makes it hard getting into leadership positions.
The representation of Asian Australians in public life is seemingly not proportionate to the population. Many are stuck in middle-management roles.
To get ahead professionally, one might choose to conceal their Asian identity. For instance, Westernising one’s ethnic name on resumes is what some do in hope of bettering their job prospects in Australia.
Many years ago I was keen on working in the media, be it being a journalist, copywriter, segment producer, editorial assistant, reporter or a coffee runner for crew on a TV set. I applied for numerous jobs in the predominantly white Australian media.
I never once heard back. I had qualifications in communications, work experience through an internship and solid referees under my belt. I wonder where I went wrong. Maybe it was just tough luck.
5. Offensive names
Time and time again Asian-Australians are called offensive nicknames. ‘Asian invasion’, ‘yellow peril’ and ‘ching chong’ are some phrases used to describe us – phrases painting us as a threat or a specimen to be laughed at.
A person’s name is a measure of their identity and persona. Ascribing an offensive nickname to someone not only turns them nameless but also voiceless.
One time I was walking in Melbourne CBD on a weekend afternoon. A white guy came up to me, yelled, ‘Hey chink!’ in my face and walked off. I wondered what his intentions were.
6. Exotic fetishization
Australia has come a fair way from the White Australia policy days and the implementation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. However, there are still instances where being Asian in Australia is seen as exotic objects of affection.
In South Australia, there is Asian-themed gastropub pub called Hotel Longtime, a name which arguably mocks the exploitation of Asian women. Frankly speaking it’s not the first Asian-themed bar around. But a name like that isn’t tasteful and draws attention to cultural stereotypes which not all of us are comfortable with.
There’s also racism surrounding modern online dating in Australia. Some online profiles on dating apps like Tinder preference for someone of certain cultural backgrounds. On one occasion a white Australian guy approached me in a shopping centre and pretty much told me he wanted to be with Asian girl. I wondered if he knew his intentions towards me were unwelcome.
7. All round outsider
‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where are you really from?’ ‘Where are your parents from?’ These are just a few questions we get asked again and again as Asian-Australians.
At times these questions are perfectly honest. Other times these questions are loaded with stereotypical judgement. For most part we’d rather not be asked these questions as they remind us of our conflicting and confusing identities.
Can racism be stamped out?
Some might prefer to put racism out of mind and out of sight as it’s so unpleasant. However it’s important to speak up about racism because that’s pretty much the only way to work towards respecting different cultures.
When faced with racism, we should acknowledge it and speak up about it. We need to reflect and share the racism we’ve experienced with others, talking and writing about these experiences. We need to have level-headed conversations with those who are racist to learn where they are coming from.
Observing Hollywood narratives written from the perspectives of cultural minorities, Kevin Cheung over at Idiot With Camera writes that many of Chinese heritage are not putting up with Western superiority anymore. It’s encouraging to see minorities stand up to racism and white privilege.
Australia’s Race and Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane wrote Australia should be a society committed to tolerance without stifling freedom of expression. He mentions ‘racism isn’t just about prejudice and discrimination; it’s also about power.’
In some instances racism affects us even if we don’t experience it directly. Yummy Lummy blogger Gary Lum wrote about this in his blog post An Embarrassing Story of Racism: at a medical conference in Australia, Gary felt embarrassed when his Chinese American-born colleague Fred mentioned he got sneered at for his American accent on a train in Brisbane.
What Gary experienced can be called second-hand racism – a time when we don’t directly experience racism but feel stressed and uncomfortable when others experience racism.
Maybe racism will never be stamped out. A racist opinion is an opinion, an opinion expressed with attitude on the basis of our beliefs. In other words, racism is essentially a difference in opinion. All opinions deserve to be heard and some opinions will be more offensive than others.
That said, racism discriminates against one’s cultural background and no one deserves to be attacked because of their heritage. No one is better than the other person beside them.
When it comes to working towards stamping out racism, we don’t necessarily need to change our beliefs. But we need to change our attitudes. By changing our attitudes we can change the way we treat others and articulate our opinions.
If we stop judging each other based on what we think we know of them, maybe we’ll understand each other more. Maybe we could then discuss each other’s stereotypical traits and not offend each other. On living together in this world, writer Jessica Cyphers over at the blog Shift said:
‘Racism is entirely stupid. I wonder what this world would be like, how much richer all of our lives would be, if we all took a step back and looked at our combined “bigger picture,” and at how our stories overlap, and at how, together, (we) create both our own “truths” and history.
Some of us don’t fit stereotypes. Some of us fit stereotypes. Or maybe both. That’s me as an Asian Australian and probably a lot of people too.
There’s more to each of us than our background, the colour of our skin and how we speak. None of us deserve to be discriminated against where we are from – and who we are.
Have you experienced or seen racism?
*post updated September 2020