Australia’s twin pandemics: COVID-19 and racism

“They’re not that creative with words. It’s always ‘Ching Chong Chinese’, rice eaters, yellow skins, maggots, pests, rats – that kind of thing.” A South Korean international student shares his experience with racism before and during the pandemic. (Image Source: Peter Jennings/Flickr) 

By Jasmin Teurlings | @JasminTeurlings

At six-foot-four, former South Korean navy petty officer and international student Mark Choi admits he is not an “easy target”. But at six-foot-four I, and perhaps you, have already had our confirmation biases challenged on at least one superficial level: size. While this stereotype might seem harmless or trivial, it stems from a much larger and dangerous historical rhetoric. One which is far more contagious than any pandemic throughout history. 

South Korean international student, Mark Choi. (Image source: Mark Choi)

“They’re not that creative with words. It’s always ‘Ching Chong Chinese’, rice eaters, yellow skins, maggots, pests, rats – that kind of thing,” Choi tells me.

The 26-year-old engineering student has lived and studied in Australia for the past five years and in Adelaide for three of those. While I’ve seen him supposedly become accustomed to the racial slurs exchanged in ‘jest’ between his housemates, he says the incidents have become far more sinister outside of his home since the coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier this year Choi was set upon by a woman in Rundle Mall accusing him of bringing the virus to Australia. “She grabbed onto my backpack and started yelling, ‘go back to the shithole you came from you fucking spy,’” he says.  

She continued on her rampage undeterred by Choi’s subsequent attempts to explain that he was not in fact from China where the virus is thought to have originated. This caught the attention of another two dozen bystanders – some of who joined in on her crusade: “bat eater”, “job stealer”, “land invader”. It went on.

“It was so much. It’s quite amazing how much words can hurt. One on one, yes, but one on many is just fucking painful,” Choi says. Spurred on by her supporters, the initial instigator became more violent pulling his clothes and spitting at his feet. “Now from her perspective, I was something less of a human. It wasn’t an even fight anymore,” he says.

“At this point, I was just looking for some sort of assistance to help me out. I didn’t need the entire public to back me up. All I needed was one person. One person who could have said let the kid go. It’s not his fault … But they just stood there. Watching. Listening.”

“Good entertainment I guess.”

This particular incident occurred in early March when the virus was still in its infancy in Australia. However, there were already reports of people avoiding Chinatown as rumours ran rampant that Asians were carriers of the potentially fatal disease. Since then hundreds of people across the country of East Asian descent have been the subject of racially charged incidents in shopping centres and on public transport. They have been coughed on, bumped into and insulted in public places and within their own work or study spaces.

All of this comes at a time of unprecedented stress for international students who have not been afforded the same financial safety net available to many Australian citizens and residents. In April the Prime Minister told international students and other visa holders who could no longer support themselves that it was “time to go home”; adding that Australia had to focus on its own citizens first.

Many of those that chose to stay or had no viable means of returning home are now on the verge of homelessness – including Choi, who has defaulted on his last six weeks of rental payments and is currently reliant on food donations from his local Korean church.

The Asian Australian Alliance Victorian Convener, Molina Swarup Asthana, says these compounded issues are taking a toll on the wellbeing of the Asian-Australian community. “The people that they are victimising are going through what all of us are going through at this point in time. They are under the same restrictions and are under the same risk of contracting the virus,” she says.

“Migrants and [international] students are much more isolated than anyone else … they have very little support systems here. But now they have this added burden which is not even theirs to cope with – by being blamed for something they are not responsible for.”

In April the Alliance launched a COIVD-19 Racism Incident Report survey which has recorded almost 380 racially charged incidents in the past two months alone. Over 60 per cent of respondents said that their experience of racism came in the form of racial slurring, with just under a quarter of those stating that the name-calling was “made as a joke” by someone they knew. But perhaps what is more concerning is that 90 per cent of respondents did not report their incident to the police.

Asthana says this is partly due to confusion about which authority to report to. “Plus, a lot of people from Asian backgrounds have an inherent fear of the authorities and are not necessarily confident that they will get justice,” she says.

Choi’s case sadly reaffirms this. He alleges a police officer watched the entire altercation unfold but only chose to intervene when Choi defended himself by brushing off the attacker yanking his clothing. The officer did so not to stop the attacker but to issue Choi an unofficial warning. “I had enough … I was just fucking out of it,” Choi says. “So, I jolted her a bit. Which I admit is wrong, because I used my force.”

“I wanted the officer just to fine me so I could file a report against him or the lady. But he said to me, ‘Don’t try to make things more complicated. It’s best you just go.’

“Police are just doing their job. But at the end of the day, they are also only human. They have their own beliefs. But even if you believe in racial discriminating ideas as long as you are wearing that uniform you have an obligation not to perform them.”

The University of South Australia’s Associate Professor in Sociology, Peter Gale, agrees that minority groups in Australian society still have a distant relationship with law enforcement agencies – which eerily echoes the Black Lives Matter movement currently playing out across Australia and the world.

“There has been a cultural shift within our law enforcement agencies over the last thirty years towards an emphasis on law and order,” he says. “We are still in a position in Australian society where we could turn that around so that law enforcement agencies become a lot more part of this process of having an inclusive society.”

But he says to bring about that level of change would require a lot more resourcing on the part of governments for training. “We need cultural change within all law enforcement agencies so that police see themselves as educational officers as well.” 

To realise this, Associate Professor Gale says there needs to be far more emphasis placed on graduate entry into the police force as well as greater preference given to cultural diversity in the selection criteria. “We have dumbed down our police force. We don’t see them as professionals at that level. Governments have to take that role more seriously,” he says. 

South Australian Police were contacted about the alleged incident and its broader conduct but declined to comment.

In May the News South Wales Government launched a public awareness campaign to help victims of racially fuelled threats and abuse to understand their legal rights. The Federal Opposition is calling on the Morrison Government to reinstate a similar campaign at the national level, which could be modelled on the Gillard Government’s ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ campaign defunded in 2015. The Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles, says it would tackle both existing problems of racism and promote social cohesion into the future.

However, while Associate Professor Gale agrees more needs to be done, he says nothing superficial will address these issues. “The calls to have a campaign against racism really only addresses the majority of Australia and it doesn’t touch so much that group of society that is going to spit at someone, rip someone’s hijab off or abuse someone on the street,” he says. 

“Symbolic acts that express your level of support for an inclusive society are still tangible, but we have to get to a level of substance … When are these Asian communities going to be accepted like the Greeks and Italians where they are just seen as part of the patchwork of Australian society?”

“It’s moving towards that, but we’ve still got a long way to go.” 

Part of the solution, he says, is engaging more in multiculturalism. In this, we can again draw parallels to current questions of how we socially transition Black Lives Matter into a sustained, long-term movement. It can be as simple as indulging in different cuisines, expanding your literature to include more diverse authors or enrolling in language classes. All of these examples can challenge our collective memories which are informed by xenophobic media and political discourses.

In recent months the Chinese Tourism Ministry, as well as the Chinese Education Bureau, have issued alerts warning against travel to Australia citing a significant increase in racist attacks against Asian people. The Australian Government has in turn categorically denied these allegations which form part of increasingly sour diplomatic tensions between the two countries.  

Despite this, Choi remains hopelessly optimistic about forging the rest of his life in Australia. “If anything, challenge me … I’m not going to be some quiet easy target,” he tells me.

“It’s not as often as Asians eating rice. It’s not on a daily basis. But it never not happens … There are good days and bad days. But it’s the good days that keep me moving forward.”

“They’re not that creative with words. It’s always ‘Ching Chong Chinese’, rice eaters, yellow skins, maggots, pests, rats – that kind of thing,” Choi says. (Image source: Mark Choi)

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