If we’re Asian Australian, chances are we’ve faced racism as we live our lives in Australia. That is, chances are life is hard on some occasions because of our cultural background.
As an Asian Australian who has lived in Melbourne for most of my life, racism is something that I’ve experienced for as long as I can remember. Each racist moment I’ve experienced is memorable, unforgettable.
Racism and discrimination come in different shapes and forms. When we speak of racism, there’s the idea that a certain racial group, a certain skin colour or certain culture-specific traits are superior over others.
On one hand, there’s direct discrimination and racism: when someone outright tells you or treats you differently because of your race and dislikes your heritage. On the other hand, casual or everyday racism is more subtle: racism infused through conversations, body language and jokes. Casual racism is arguably more harmful because it can be almost invisible yet so ingrained.
Australia is a multicultural country. As the 2016 Census found, over a quarter of the population is born overseas with this demographic predominantly originating from the Asian region. Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese are among the most common languages spoken around the country. Despite the culturally diverse makeup of Australia, racism towards Asian Australians persists again and again.
We’re Asian Australian if we’re born in Australia and of Asian heritage. Migrants who call Australia their home or second home are part of the Asian community here too, many of whom are often close enough to being Asian Australian in many ways. If you’re someone of Asian descent living in a predominantly Western country, perhaps you can also relate to the kinds of racism that Asian Australians face.
Racism vs Asian Australians
1. Public transport racism
It’s quite common to hear of racism on public transport in Australia. These incidents tend to be in-your-face, face-to-face discrimination, disturbing and even petrifying. These racist incidents commonly make the news. In recent years there have been anti-Asian rants on buses in Sydney, times where Indian passengers on Melbourne trains were told to ‘go back to your own country’ and 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. At times others intervene during such incidents, at times others don’t. Nothing wrong with not intervening because that could potentially make things worse and not all of us are keen on drawing attention to ourselves in public places.
Racism on public transport happened to me once. I was traveling by train to an outer western suburb during morning peak hour. I sat in a carriage where it seemed I was the only Asian person and the others Anglo-Saxon. A 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 are thieves
Sometimes those of Asian background are seen as threats to the so-called Australian dream, perceived as ‘stealing everything’ to loosely put it. Chinese investors are increasingly investing on the local property front and constantly dubbed the new ‘Asian invasion’, driving up property prices. There has been ‘Stop Incoming Asians’ graffiti plastered over property billboard advertisements in Sydney as well. Similarly, Chinese bulk-buying and exporting baby-formula has been labelled quite the obsession, giving the impression that that is what the Chinese are here for in Australia.
Notably, last year 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, it’s fair if one has the means to afford and invest, and that’s a way to keep an economy going.
3. White ethnic faces in the media
There’s a lack of cultural diversity and representation of Asian voices and stories within Australian media. It’s common to see those of Asian background playing tokenistic doctor or taxi driver roles in numerous Australian TV programs, or featured caught smuggling prohibited items into the country on shows such as Border Security. In recent years shows such as The Family Law and MasterChef Australia feature Asian Australian families and personalities whilst exploring themes of family connections, sexuality and art. This is a step towards more realistic representations and publicly recognising Asian Australians as rightfully Australian.
Notably it’s ‘white ethnic faces’ that 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 Australian (Western) culture tend to be the ethnic demographic given a voice in Australian commercial media. The more one looks and sounds like someone from the majority cultural group, the more likely they’ll be relatable, accepted and perhaps even seen as familiar role models. Will I ever get the opportunity to present the nightly news on commercial TV in my non-Anglo accent? I wonder.
4. Bamboo ceiling
It can be challenging for someone of Asian background to build a career or get their foot in certain industries in Australia 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 or be labelled aggressive, and so for them getting into leadership positions is hard. Also, the representation of Asian Australians in public life is seemingly not proportionate to the population; many are stuck in middle-management roles. At times, to get ahead professionally, one might choose to conceal parts of their Asian identity: 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 digital or print journalism, open to being a copywriter, segment producer, editorial assistant, reporter and even would have been happy being a coffee runner for crew on a TV set. Naturally I applied for numerous jobs in the media all around Australia but never once heard back. I had qualifications in Communications, had hard-to-come-by hands-on work experience and solid referees under my belt, and I do wonder where I went wrong. Maybe it was just tough luck.
5. Offensive names
Time and time again Asian Australians find themselves on the receiving end of offensive nicknames. ‘Asian invasion’, ‘yellow peril’ and ‘ching chong’ are some phrases that we might hear others use to describe us – phrases painting us as a threat or a specimen to be picked upon. In these instances our name goes unacknowledged. Then there’s not forgetting when the instances when our ethnic name is mispronounced.
One’s name is a measure of one’s identity, culture and also who they are as a person. Ascribing an offensive nickname to someone not only turns them nameless but also faceless and voiceless. One time I was walking in the city on a busy afternoon in Melbourne. A white guy came up to me and yelled ‘Hey chink!’ right in my face and walked off. I wondered what his intentions were.
6. Exotic fetish
Australia has come a fair way from the White Australia policy days and the implementation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, working towards a multicultural society. However, there are still instances where being Asian in Australia is seen as nothing more than exotic, a foreign object of affection. Earlier this year an Asian-themed gastropub pub opened up with the name 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.
Also, as seen on dating apps such as Tinder, there’s racism surrounding modern online dating in Australia; some online profiles preference for someone of certain cultural backgrounds. Moreover, there’s not forgetting the notion of yellow-fever in the realms of attraction. A few years ago, one day a white Australian guy approached me in a shopping centre and pretty much outright told me he was attracted to Asian girls. I wondered if he knew his intentions towards me were unwelcome.
7. All round outsider
‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where are you really from?’ ‘What is your nationality?’ ‘Where are your parents from?’ These are just a few questions we get asked over and over again as Asian Australians. It’s a normal part of life for us, questions that come with stereotypical judgement, questions for most part we’d rather not be asked because they can remind us of our conflicting and confusing personal lives and identities.
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Can we really stamp out racism?
When faced with racism, we can acknowledge it, confront it and speak up about it. We can speak up about it by trying to have level-headed conversations with those who seem to have a problem with our cultural background. We can reflect and share what we’ve experienced with others, talking and writing about these experiences publically.
When faced with racism, perhaps some of us might not want to believe it and prefer to deny such negativity ever happened – you just don’t expect it to happen. However it’s important to speak up about racism because that’s pretty much the only way to draw attention to it and work towards cultural tolerance and respect. As Australia’s Race and Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane wrote, Australia should be a society committed to tolerance without stifling freedom of expression and ‘racism isn’t just about prejudice and discrimination; it’s also about power.’
It comes as no surprise then as Asian Australians we might feel unsure as to what to do when we experience or even hear of racism. Specialist pathologist and 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 told him how 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 when others of the same cultural background or mindset experience racism.
Similarly, the more the media yellowfaces characters and mocks Asian Australian stereotypes, the more it perpetuates white privilege and colour blindness, and the more racism perpetuates and the more Australians see it happen. In contrast and as depicted within Hollywood narratives written from the true perspective of cultural minorities, Kevin Cheung over at Idiot With Camera writes that many of Chinese heritage are not putting up with Western superiority anymore. Australia does have a long way to go towards fostering an inclusive society.
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, an expression of difference in opinion. All opinions deserve to be heard – inevitably some opinions will be more offensive than others. That said, racism entails discrimination against one’s cultural background and no one deserves to be ostracised just because of their heritage. No one is better than the other person beside them.
When it comes to acknowledging racism and working towards respecting each other’s cultures, we don’t necessarily have 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, then maybe we can get to know each other a bit more. Maybe we could then even point out each others’ 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 will challenge and not fit stereotypes. Some of us will inevitably fit stereotypes one way or another. Or maybe both. Well, that’s me as an Asian Australian and probably a lot of us. There’s more to each of us than just our background and the colour of our skin, the way we dress and how we speak. Each of us doesn’t deserve to be discriminated against where we are from. Or rather, perhaps to more politely it, discriminated against who we are.
Have you experienced or seen racism?