In my early 20’s I dyed my black hair blonde and wore blue contact lens. I wanted to look like the women on TV and believed I could move up the ladder if I conformed. I was desperate to fit in.
I often went to Friday night drinks with colleagues – only to be repeatedly sexually harassed and subject to racial micro-aggressions. I would later be gaslighted into thinking I was dramatic, a snowflake or someone who couldn’t take “jokes”.
Growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear “go back to your own country!” as I walked down the street. I’ve been stalked on public transport by masturbating men, and once, I was followed by a guy who kept on asking, “Are you an accountant? Do you work in finance?”
It’s prevalent in the workplace too. Early in my career, I remember one of the company executives picking me up and swinging me around in a pub. He shouted, “I love Asian women”. It was patronising and a degrading experience rooted in misogyny and white supremacy.
Do you see me, or do you see a virus?
The last few weeks have been challenging for me to process.
International Women’s Day was a bittersweet occasion to celebrate against the backdrop of rampant sexual assault allegations flying out of Parliament as well as news of horrific anti-Asian hate crimes.
As an Asian woman who has previously struggled with identity, the latter atrocity caused me significant anguish as I reflected on my own recent experiences of racism since the beginning of the pandemic– a sad reality for thousands of people of Asian heritage right now.
Last year for example, I was waiting to pay for my groceries with my four-year-old, when the woman in front turned around and spat, “maintain social distancing, because you are Asian”.
The incident kept me rattled for weeks. I was anxious to go outside and would ask myself, “Do people see me for me – or do they see an Asian spreading a deadly disease?” The words “because you are Asian” still echo in my mind.
Only a few days ago, on March 16, six Asian women working in three separate spas were murdered. I felt a punch in the guts when I read some of the comments online.
The sameness of the replies was infuriating. A tsunami of tasteless jokes made at the expense of Asians which dehumanised the tragedy at hand.
“Not quite the happy ending they were expecting,” said one.
“No happy ending then?” asked another.
“Definitely not a happy ending,” declared yet another.
There were many other tweets with the same twisted vibe as people responded to Asian women dying.
Refusing to indulge in racist jokes isn’t suppressing free speech. It just points out hate. In challenging times, yes, we need a bit of humour and laughter — but terrible moments like these prove just how damaging it can be against the vulnerable. A cheap attempt at a cheaper joke is not worth it.
The hypersexualisation and the Dragon Lady
Asian women are sexualised and have been for centuries. We are not oriental ornaments, submissive China-dolls or souvenirs from the latest trip to Asia. I know I’m not alone.
Masterchef judge Melissa Leong says she’s often approached by men telling her they have ‘yellow fever’, something she is not afraid to call out.
She says, “Being Asian and female and being quite a confident person who’s out there all the time, I hear this a lot. When you’re outgoing and an Asian woman, people go, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, I’ve totally got ‘yellow fever’. Well, that’s really disgusting.”
Melissa further adds, “When you fetishise a type or race of the person, and when you say you’re attracted to Asian chicks, you’re not attracted to the person – you’re attracted to the idea of a type of person.”
The other end of the stereotype spectrum is the Dragon Lady. She is sexual, deceptive and cunning. She’s a villain that was personalised in Terry and the Pirates comic in the 1930s. People were fearful of her because of the ‘yellow peril’ fear, painting Asians as an existential danger to the Western world. It’s 2021; not much has changed.
Anti-Asian racism dates back centuries to the gold rush days and now manifested in very specific similar ways during the Covid-19 pandemic. We don’t have stats for Australia, but in America, there have been 3,795 self-reports of anti-Asian hate incidents between March 2020 and February 2021. Women are more likely to be targeted and account for 68% of these incidents versus 29% for men.
What happened to a fair go?
Australia’s previous race discrimination commissioner, Professor Tim Soutphommasane and the author of On hate, says that while we see a global anti-racism moment, with people across the world talking and thinking about racism with a new level of consciousness, racism is still very much alive here in Australia.
Australia is meant to be the land of mateship and a fair go, but Australian academics have documented some disturbing facts in minority groups. The University of Western Sydney’s Challenging Racism Project report says that one in three people experienced racism in the workplace in 2015-16. I wonder what the stats are now…
This is a country filled with people who think it’s harmless to say, “Oh, you speak really good English” or “Where are you really from?” Or how about “I don’t normally like Asians, but you’re rather nice”, and then laughing it off as some joke or compliment.
How to be part of the solution
I know we are better than this. I know deep down inside we mean no harm. As an optimist, one day, this will be a conversation of the past. BIPOC are psychologically safe in our workplaces. There will be balanced representation in parliament. Women can walk down the street safely without carrying keys in their hands.
In the meantime, if you want to be a force for change, here are three things you can do to help (but note: this is just the beginning and by no means an exhaustive list):
1. Make a long-term commitment to being anti-racist
Just because you don’t see or experience racism first-hand doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The ‘model minority myth’ says that Asians are doing well. There is a perception of economic overperformance from a business or income standpoint and, therefore, don’t encounter racism — which we know is not the case. There’s a continual investment in our institutions for upholding this myth, and we need to question who benefits from it — because it’s definitely not Asians or other marginalised people.
Anti-Asian racism in Australia dates even before the gold rush. There was a European belief in superiority over other races and a fear that cheap Chinese labourers were taking away European jobs.
2. Check-in with your Asian colleagues and friends
Show your care by checking in on your Asian peers and friends. Show you are aware of the news and demonstrating care for their wellbeing.
But note, open-ended questions like “how are you feeling?” or “is there anything I can do for you?” puts the onus on the person and can create an emotional burden. Instead, offer your time to listen if they want to talk.
Leaders can use their privilege to acknowledge the recent news of anti-Asian violence and sentiments and give space for affected colleagues to process and heal. Leaders should reach out to all employees — not just members of certain racial groups following a traumatic event.
Corporate diversity, equity and inclusion training often leave out issues that impact Asians in the workplace. Organisations need to invest in nuanced training that goes beyond seeing race as just ‘black and white’.
Workplaces can use this time to look at how they perpetuate anti-Asian discrimination in the workforce. For example, it’s noted that Asians have high pay inequities. Do your talent and leadership programs favour only one group? How are you promoting people in your organisation — is it really based on merit?
3. Think global. Act local
Support BIPOC businesses, especially those who have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic.
We saw a dramatic reduction in foot traffic in Asian restaurants and rising anti-Asian xenophobia. The silver lining was that it was so humbling to see community action organisation GetUp! asked its supporters: “Can you pledge #IWillEatWithYou & eat at an Asian restaurant to show your support?” But a year on, this pledge is still needed.