Asian Aversion


According to studies conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2011-2013, the proportion of East Asian and South Asian immigration is rising while the proportion of British and European immigration declines. With Asian immigration set to increase, the discourse around Asians takes on a new meaning, literally.

There is this game I’ve played at the bar when you either drink or flip your cup over if you look affronted by any flagrantly sexist, racist, dead-baby or otherwise offensive jokes. I’ve played this game a few times, and it’s as cringe-worthy as it sounds. If you will excuse the glaringly obviously problem of deriving humour from real-life issues if you can excuse it at all, I want to discuss one of the most commonly repeated comments I hear outside the context of the game: “But you’re not Asian. Well, not ‘not-Asian’, you know what I mean.”

As I recount in about fifty percent of introductions (and the opening of another Woroni article), my mum is Chinese-Malaysian, my dad is a Chinese-Indonesian, and I was born in Perth. No I don’t speak Bahasa or Mandarin, yes I can use chopsticks, etc etc. I am Asian-Australian and apparently this means racial slurs don’t apply to me.

Denying some individuals of their Asian heritage in order to make a joke does two things. First, it provides a faux license to make fun of Asians. Because the individual is not seen as part of the targeted group, the rationale seems to be that the individual should not take offence to the joke, thus allowing the comment to happen. Think of it as the popular kids in high school including you in their friendship group so they can pay out your less cool, handball-playing friends; including you in their group somehow makes it okay to slander your former friends.  While there should undeniably be an onus on an individual to call out discrimination, the idea that one can get away with discrimination by excluding or including an individual needs to be proven false. It’s a myth that must be dispelled.

The second point the “not-Asian” phrase brings to light is simple: many Australians just do not seem to like Asians. Although in-group inclusion and out-group exclusion may be used to justify discrimination against other minority groups, new evidence shows increasing discrimination against Asians in particular. The Scanlon Foundation’s recent report Mapping Social Cohesion 2013 states that experiences of discrimination based on skin colour, ethnic origins and religion was the highest level recorded since the survey began in 2007. This was 19% as compared to 12% in 2012. Breaking this down, it was found that East, South East and South Asians experienced the highest levels of discrimination (39-45% experienced discrimination), compared to 24.5% for New Zealanders and 12.5% for those from the United Kingdom and Ireland. Australians were also least likely to be described as “kind, caring and friendly people” by recent migrants despite the friendly, out-going and willing to give others a fair go Australian archetype.

From the other side of the fence, Australians expressed the highest negative feelings towards Asian and Middle Eastern immigration: 14% and 25% of the 2500 surveyed expressed negative over neutral and positive feelings towards the sub-groups of immigrants respectively. The numbers themselves do not represent much on their own with feelings towards specific sub-groups being mainly neutral and positive. However, when compared to 3% negative feelings towards Europeans and other English-speaking countries, the difference in racial preferences is stark. To throw in one more statistic, 42% of people think the number of immigrants is too high in general. In light of this report and recent discussions surrounding the revision of the Racial Discrimination Act, perhaps it is not so inappropriate to assume Australians are at least a little bit racist towards Asians.

What is more, perhaps as a reflection of a dislike for Asians, it seems that the word “Asian” itself is making people uncomfortable. In the last month, I have been pointed out as a girl with dark hair and glasses to avoid the more identifiable “Asian”. In the last two months, one of my politically correct friends asked whether it was okay to refer to me as her Asian friend. What is this reluctance to saying “Asian” about?

The unease about the word reminds me of an interaction between Australian- Asian journalist Benjamin Law and Pauline Hanson (and thank goodness because no discussion of Asian discrimination is complete without her). Speaking at the Woodford Folk Festival earlier this year, Law recounted an interview with Hanson in which she refused to call Law “Asian”. It is clear Hanson wanted to portray a positive image of herself to Law, one of the first journalists granted an in-depth interview during the 2013 election, especially after she asked Law if he wanted to work for her on the campaign. According to Law, Hanson seemed hesitant using the word “Asian” instead referring to “them” or Law’s “type” for the entire conversation. Hanson’s aversion to saying “Asian” highlights how it has become uncomfortable to use “Asian” as a descriptor because it contains negative undertones. Describing someone as “Asian” associates one with a group Australians do not seem to share positive feelings towards. It is disturbing to think that we may be approaching a point where the illocutionary act of describing someone as “Asian” is offensive.

“But you’re not Asian. Well, not ‘not-Asian’, you know what I mean.”

I’m starting to think I do know. I’m starting to think that “Asian” has the potential to take on a derogatory meaning with current attitudes towards Asians. I’m starting to think that if we do not address Australian racism, we may see racism bourgeon through discursive means or in-group inclusion and out-group exclusion. I’m starting to think that if we do not include all Australians including those born here, new immigrants and those from a different cultural heritage into the Australian stereotype, we may never be described as “kind, caring and friendly people” again.

As an Asian-Australian, that concerns me.