When non-racist language is not enough

Participants at a COVID health information session in Vietnamese.

At MCWH, we’ve always believed that language matters. Language has the power to connect communities, shape stories and uncover ‘forgotten’ histories. Language helps us make sense of our lives. Yet, as we have witnessed time and time again, language also has the power to hurt people and communities in real and sometimes brutal ways.

Language has been used to foster anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in the US. Within a two-week period in March 2020, former US president Donald Trump, when referring to COVID-19, said “Chinese virus” more than twenty times, and on many occasions called it the “kung flu”. This language, which has been taken up by other members of the community, has had terrible consequences. Last year in the US, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by nearly 150% and 68% of the nearly 3,800 recorded incidences against Asian-Americans were reported by women.

Two weeks ago, on March 17, we learnt of the devastating news that eight people were murdered by a white man in Atlanta. Six of the people killed were women of Asian descent.

Sadly, the increase in racially motivated violence against people of Asian descent in Western countries has not been confined to the US. The UK recorded a 300% increase in hate crimes towards people of East and Southeast Asian appearance since the start of the pandemic. Closer to home, a recent study found that 84.5% of Asian-Australians experienced at least one instance of discrimination over 2020. Another report shows that in 2020, Australia recorded a surge in racism directed at Asian people in 2020, with 377 reports of racism in a two month period. Again, most of the attacks were directed at women.

Asian women in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere are hurting and grieving. While it feels impossible to make sense of such violence, now more than ever, we need to be asking ourselves the question: If language matters, what conversations should we be having about racism in Australia?

We should be openly talking about the roots of racism in Australia. Racism did not just emerge with COVID-19. The roots of racism run deep, beginning with British invasion and the dispossession and attempted eradication of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, and the White Australia Policy followed. We need to centre Aboriginal voices and listen to what they are telling us about the legacies and ongoing project of colonialism.

Racism is almost never only about race. It is also about, but not limited to, gender and class. Any framework that addresses structural and interpersonal racism, such as the National Anti-Racism Framework, must have a gendered intersectional lens. It needs to include the women made most vulnerable by oppressive systems: temporary visa holders, women with disabilities, queer and transgender women, and working-class and low-wage migrant women who are trying to make a liveable wage.

Structural, institutional and interpersonal racism are interconnected. For example, discriminatory immigration policies shape the landscape of our everyday lives and can reinforce and perpetuate attitudes about who belongs and who does not belong, and vice versa.

From “being swamped by Asians” to “African gangs”, language has been used as a tool to vilify migrant and refugee communities in Australia for decades. Yet, in this moment, when many of our families, friends and communities are hurting, we cannot give up the fight against racism and sexism in all domains of our lives. As the great Angela Davis reminds us, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

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