There’s Nothing “Casual” About Racism Against Asian People

Racism against Asian people in Australia is both common and persistent, and we need to talk about it more.

racism against Asian people

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On 17 March 2021, my worst fear about the most recent rise of anti-Asian sentiment became a reality. A white gunman, went on a shooting spree, specifically targeting Asian owned businesses in the American city of Atlanta. Eight people were killed. Six of them were Asian women.

Following the perpetrator’s arrest, I watched on as the police and media quickly humanised the killer — without offering the same service to the victims. The police and mainstream news refused to seriously consider the idea that race was part of the motive. In fact, most were hesitant to even label it as a hate crime. Why? Because the white gunman said it wasn’t.

Another tragic part is the fact that I, a female member of the Asian community, was not surprised by any of this. I was horrified, disgusted, angry and anxious. But I was not surprised. I know how this story goes. We all know how this story goes.

Throughout my life as an Asian Australian woman, I’ve received one persistent message from western media. One that says Asian voices don’t matter. And the events surrounding the recent tragedy in Atlanta, only reaffirmed that message for me.

Since 19 March 2020, Asian people living in the US have reported almost 3,800 racist incidents to Stop AAPI Hate.

Anyone who tunes into mainstream news can tell you that this was influenced by Donald Trump’s repeated description of COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “kung-flu”. However, he is only part of the problem.

The anger and frustration that so many of the Asian community are feeling right now, stem from the fact that the racism we experience is commonly dismissed. All too often, Asians are told “relax, it was just a joke” or “it’s basically a compliment”. I’ve even had people tell me “Asians don’t experience racism that much.”

And it is absolutely gut wrenching to see people expressing the same attitude when talking about the death of multiple Asian people at the hands of one white man.

Nothing Casual About Racism

The term casual racism describes everyday racism that’s often unnoticed by those who are not the target.

Everyday racism usually disguises itself as an off-the-cuff remark or  a ‘harmless’ joke that plays on existing stereotypes about a minority group, at the expense of the minority group.

And you don’t have to search far and wide to find examples.

In February 2016, comedian Chris Rock made a racist joke that perpetuated a tired old stereotype about Asian and Jewish people being good with maths and money. At the time of delivery, the audience laughed and applauded his ‘joke’. Chris Rock didn’t say or do anything explicitly racist, and so most of the audience didn’t seem to have a problem — except those from the Asian community.

In January 2020, a Thai restaurant called Ping Pong opened in Queensland. Their staff uniform consists of a t-shirt with the phrase “love you long time” printed on the back. The phrase is also written on a wall, in bright pink neon lights. Some might see this as a simple pop culture reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the phrase was first used. However, for Asian women who have been hyper-sexualised, demeaned and objectified by men in a variety of settings, the phrase hits different.

I like to think that neither Chris Rock nor the owners of Ping Pong had malicious intent. However, words do not have to be intentionally hurtful in order to be racist. Racism is a complex issue with multiple layers. It’s not always loud and physically violent. Most of the time, it’s quiet and invisible.

When we dismiss the people who call out casual racism, we are normalising racism. We are perpetuating the idea that “Asians don’t experience racism”. And as a consequence, when a horrific hate crime like the Atlanta shootings occur, it makes it easier to deny the fact that it was a heinous hate crime against Asian people.

Australia Is Not An Exception

Some Australians might think of the Atlanta shootings as an American problem. They might even see the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes as an external problem. But that’s not the case.

Anti-Asian sentiment exists in Australia. It’s a continuous undercurrent that periodically comes to the surface when met with the right catalyst.

In the late ‘90s Pauline Hanson pushed the “swamped by Asians” rhetoric. Throughout the 2010s, a baseless and sensationalist rhetoric blamed Asians for soaring house prices.  This was followed by news hysteria over Chinese people buying baby formula. And at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, news outlets and Australian public figures vilified Chinese people.   All of this adds up to pose Chinese people, and anybody else who “looks Chinese”, as a threat to the Australian people. It sows the seeds of racial hate that will grow, if left unchecked.

A recent survey of more than 3,000 people revealed that almost 85% of the Asian Australian respondents have reported at least one incident of discrimination between January and October 2020.

Furthermore, since April 2020, the Asian Australian Alliance have received over 500 individual reports of racism related to COVID-19. Almost 65% of the respondents identified as an Asian woman.

Silence Is Complicity

Events like the recent shootings in Atlanta don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a tragic example of what happens when you add a catalyst to an ever-growing pile of casual racism.

For perpetrators and onlookers, racism is easy to forget. For the victim, racism is unforgettable. Even if you don’t remember the exact words or actions, you remember how you felt physically and emotionally. And, in my lived experience, you will always remember that feeling.

So the next time you see someone of Asian descent being harassed because of their ethnicity, call it out. If you see news publications vilifying the Asian community, call it out.

Most importantly, if an Asian person has the confidence to stand up and call out racism, do not dismiss them. No matter how insignificant the incident may seem to you. Let them know you hear them.

Hate and racism fester in silence. The less we talk about it, the more dangerous it becomes. So talk about it.

Zaya Altangerel is a freelance journalist who writes about science, social issues, and pop culture. She occasionally expresses some hot takes on Twitter @ZayawithaY.