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Coronavirus Or Racism: Which Is Spreading Faster?

by Asanga Seneviratne for The Foundation of Young Australians

Since the outbreak of coronavirus in China, anti-Chinese attitudes have pervaded our policies and affecting our communities, students and beyond, writes Asanga. Here’s how Asanga sees racism playing out and what you can do to stop it.

You might have heard it dropped casually in a conversation: “Asians should stay at home”; seen people shoot disapproving looks at passengers of Asian ethnicity on the train; or spotted one of Melbourne’s largest newspapers running the headline: “China virus pandamonium”.

A fake Queensland Health press release requested people stay away from suburbs with high Chinese populations. A night club hosted a “Corona Chinese New Year Special” event. There are insensitive ‘It’s Corona Time’ memes, jokes being thrown at medical staff with an East Asian background. The list goes on.

These aren’t isolated examples but a rampant uptake in sinophobia or anti-Chinese sentiment in response to the global spread of coronavirus.

What’s coronavirus?

Coronavirus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. It’s actually a group of viruses that can cause respiratory diseases ranging from the common cold to pneumonia and can be fatal. Australia is yet to have any fatalities from the virus and the fatality rate of 2% globally remains significantly lower to other major outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS or MERS. Despite these facts, it seems sinophobia and casual racism have spread more quickly than the virus itself.

Is racism the most dangerous disease of all?

These microaggressions we’re seeing aren’t just comments and memes that can be brushed off with nonchalance or a need to get thicker skin. They form the links in repeated chains of discrimination that make young people, in particular, feel as though they don’t belong in this country or lesser merely for the colour of their skin.

It’s playing out in a range of policies around the ability to travel and participate in Australian education institutions. Some exams and classes are being postponed at universities and many international students aren’t able to enter the country to attend school. Considering education is Australia’s third-largest export it’s worth noting that these bans are coming at an enormous economic loss.

How to stand up to racism and discrimination

In public situations, online settings or in our own family homes, it can be easy to settle for inaction because we think someone else will jump in instead. This is called the bystander effect; a social psychological phenomenon where people fail to offer the help needed, especially when other people are present in the same setting.

In waiting for someone else to step in, often no intervention occurs at all. It’s on all of us to take a stand to call out racism. Here are some tips for doing it effectively.

  1. Redirect the conversation

    Racism is often born of stereotypes and ignorance that’s often shaped by factors outside of an individual’s control including exaggerated media narratives, immediate family views or blatant misinformation. However angry we may be, shifting someone else’s perspective requires constructive conversations and gentle temperament.

    Combative or aggressive language can lead to the offender shutting off completely and not taking in a word of what you say. No one wants to be called a racist regardless of their actions so a good first step is to explain the impact it can have.

    You can use a phrase such as “I know you’re just having fun but what you just said/did is offensive to some people, including me”. Making the statement personal is incredibly powerful in communicating to the offender they are not simply attacking a distant group but someone who is close to them.

    Appealing to someone’s better instincts can also prompt self-reflection by using a phrase such as “I’m surprised to hear you say that because I’ve always thought of you as someone who’s very open-minded”.

  2. Clarify reasoning or ask questions

    Trying to delve into the reasoning behind a comment is another way to get an offender thinking about what they just said or did. Ask simple ‘why’ questions such as, “Why is that so funny? Why do you think that?” or explicitly express your discomfort through a question such as “It makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear that, what did you really mean?”

    However abhorrent you may think someone’s views are, let them have some space to share their perspective. There’s nothing to be achieved in a one-sided argument where one person feels that they are not being heard.

  3. Make it universal or make it personal

    Instead of focusing on generalisations of a particular group bring it back to a common human characteristic, for example; “I think anyone can catch the virus, no matter their background”.

    Avoid using broad, dehumanising terms that might already be highly stigmatised such as immigrants or refugees, and instead, ones that help put someone in the shoes of the people you are describing, such as, ‘people who’ve had to leave their homes’.

    Focusing on individual stories is often more powerful than attempting to rationalise an argument with a swathe of statistics. You can also try something along the lines of “Are you sure that’s something all Chinese people do or are you just talking about one or two people you know?”

  4. Check-in with those affected

    Regardless of whether you or someone else intervened in the incident, checking in with the person or people affected by racism or discrimination is a powerful step in showing they are valued despite what happened. Ask them if they’re okay and tell them you’re sorry about what has happened to them.

    Check if there’s any way you can support them. Maybe you can accompany them to their destination or simply sit with them for a while. Share any resources that may be of assistance and offer to assist in making a report if they wish to.

This is an extract from the article ‘Coronavirus Or Racism: Which Is Spreading Faster?’