By Christine Chen
Image Description: An Asian couple, both dressed in black with facemasks, walk down a set of stairs in a gray industrial area.
I remember the first time that I became aware of my race. It was on my first day of preschool, and I had just spent an extended period of time away in China with relatives. With immense trepidation, I walked into my predominantly Caucasian class and approached a nearby group of girls playing with some toys. As I opened my mouth to begin to speak, no words followed—only a feeling of immense panic and dread upon my realisation that I could only introduce myself in Chinese, not English. I knew then and there that I was different.
This difference never used to bother me. Of course, in my adolescence, I would forcefully laugh and grimace my way through all the jokes and stereotypes about being “good at maths, bad at sports”. I would brush off the unsolicited remarks about the shape of my eyes, the type of food I brought into school, and the expressions of disgust over the ‘exotic’ things I had eaten in China. For the most part, however, I grew up without encountering personal experiences of overt racism, and although I was conscious of my race, it never became something I felt was an impediment or problem—until recently.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has been my rude and personal awakening to the ugly face of racism, particularly towards people of Asian descent.
In the weeks following the outbreak, a video of a supposedly-Chinese woman eating a bat (which has since been attributed to an episode of an online travel show filmed in Palau) circulated the internet, and was met with thousands of commenters resorting to the familiar narrative of blaming “dirty” or “foul” Chinese eating habits for the disease. Some had even declared that Chinese people were the carriers of coronavirus. And while these people were not scientists, nor experts, a part of me still believed their vitriol; a part of me felt ashamed of my heritage and culture.
“The issue of coronavirus has many dimensions,” says Dr. Yu Tao, a political sociologist and lecturer of Chinese Studies at UWA. “Coronavirus is not a creator of racial tensions—it exposes them,” he says.
Indeed, a tendency of people ‘racialising’ disease to legitimise their prejudice is by no means a novel concept. Throughout history, there are dozens of examples of minority groups portrayed as scapegoats during public health scares. In the late-1800s, racial tensions over Asian immigrants contributed towards “Yellow Peril”, engendering stereotypes of Asians as unsanitary people who were prone to consuming food carrying diseases like smallpox or leprosy (a similar phenomenon was observed again during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in the early 2000s).
Australia—a country widely regarded one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world—has not been immune to adopting this tendency, either. Decades before the coronavirus outbreak, as far back as Australia’s time of federation in 1901, the Australian government instituted its infamous White Australia Policy, entrenching xenophobia in legislation. And while it was effectively abolished in the latter part of the 20th century, an undercurrent of hostility and malaise towards China has remained.
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s rhetoric, fears over the growing influence of Chinese corporations like Tencent or Huawei, and the media’s portrayal of international Chinese students as either cash cows or Communist party spies are all manifestations of such contemporary sentiments, most of which are often overlooked due to economic interests or political correctness. But as the Chinese economy wanes, the US-China trade war remains unresolved, and coronavirus worsens, it seems that the confluence of indeterminacy, uncertainty, and misinformation around the new disease has fuelled Australians’ fears and driven pre-existing racial tensions to a breaking point.
Image Description: A Facebook post on the page ‘Confessions at UWA’ which reads: “If I had to choose between maybe coming off as a little bit of a racist asshole by minding certain things around some people or catching a deadly virus then, in the name of self preservation, call me a racist asshole.”
Life has become more complicated for Asian people in Australia as these tensions come to light. I have seen it in our domestic media coverage, with sensationalist headlines such as “Chinese Virus Panda-monium”, or “China Kids Stay Home”. I have seen it in the quiet shunning of those who appear to be of Asian descent and choose to wear facemasks in public spaces, in hospital waiting rooms, or in airport lounges. I have seen it during everyday activities, such as grocery shopping or eating out at restaurants. I have seen it at university—posts on Confessions at UWA, the popular Facebook page among students at the University of Western Australia, feature posts of those who proudly declare their intentions to mind “certain things around some people”. I have even seen it in myself—these past months, I have made less eye contact with people in public spaces. When getting on a crowded bus in the morning, I am hyper-aware of the fact that I am Asian, even if others are not.
On the UWA Confessions post, Dr. Tao had this to say: “The people who use the excuse of self-preservation to substantiate their racism are wrong. We must ask ourselves whether we have to be racist to protect ourselves? I don’t think so.”
Image Description: The feet and floor of travellers on a busy metro train.
When it comes to issues pertaining to race, I am always extremely cautious of how I respond, for fear of “race-baiting” or appearing overly sensitive. Perhaps my learned reticence is due to the fact that, more often than not, racism in Australia does not come in the form of objectively discriminatory policing scandals or neo-nazi marches, as it does in places like America. The public discourse coronavirus has engendered in Australia constantly treads the line in its ambiguously racist undertones. And for a while, it was more convenient for me to brush this aside—like the schoolyard jokes of my adolescence—and even endorse, internalise, or feed into it. I have come to realise that pretending to laugh along, or attempting to rationalise racism, overt or not, is part of the problem.
“Coronavirus serves as an opportunity for Australia to reflect and think introspectively about the bigger issues which we often hide due to political correctness. If we approach [coronavirus] tactfully, it will push Australians to confront our perceptions and feelings towards China, and hopefully get educated in the process,” Dr. Tao says.
Will Australia find the ability to confront such feelings? As the outbreak continues to develop, we will find out in due course. In the meantime, we should all question our own individual responses: if we find ourselves believing sensationalist headlines, or feeling ashamed of our own culture, as I did, we must learn that it is okay to stop rationalising racism, explicit or otherwise; if our responses are something we must resort to anonymous confessions or online comments to express, it is indicative of a deeper issue that requires addressing.
Moreover, the next time we make our way into a public space, we should be less cognisant of the races or nationalities of those around us, or whether people choose to wear masks or not. Instead, we should be cognisant of how we choose to interact with other people—increasingly, the coronavirus outbreak is more than a test of science, it is a test of our values as Australians as well.
Images one and three courtesy of Unsplash