Having worked in the multicultural sector for 20 years, I'm no stranger to anti-racism campaigns and challenging people on cultural biases. However, in my own experience, being asked to "unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party" by a sitting Senator at a public Senate hearing is probably the worse direct racism I have experienced.
The incident highlighted the fundamental bias and the assumption can be made by, not just a troll on the internet, but a sitting senator, and the assumption is – if you look Chinese, then you are not Australian and therefore must pledge loyalty to Australia publicly. The unfortunate exchange happened late last year and it sent shock waves into Asian-Australian communities.
Since COVID-19, Asian-Australian communities have been under pressure and experiencing an increased racism towards them. Whilst the government has made public statements and consultations in support of the Asian-Australian communities, there had been no substantial support pledged to the community. Ever since the incident has happened, all senior government ministers have been silent and have never publicly called out the appalling behaviour by a government Senator. For many Asian-Australians, 2020 was the first time they experienced racism and to see these public incidents creates division and fear amongst the community.
As I reflected on these incidents, it appeared Australia was going backwards on race-relations. It inspired me to organise an online event with the Hon Andrew Giles MP, Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, to gather insights from the Labor membership and think through how we can better protect communities against racism and what a National Anti-Racism Strategy might look like.
Every person we heard from that night talked about the lack of reporting mechanisms that enable people to feel heard and that authorities are not taking racism seriously. One particular story stuck with me, that Australia has better reporting processes for reporting animal cruelty than racism. Every reported animal cruelty case is investigated, yet not every racism case is investigated. The glaring question that arises from looking at the discrepancy is, do we treat animals better than people of different cultural backgrounds in Australia?
Racism of course extends far beyond Asian-Australian communities. I remember hearing from Muslim-Australians who talked about how racism suddenly increased for them after 9-11 and that discussing the issue of terrorism publicly is often a double-edge sword. They were placed in situations where they felt pressured to speak up against their religion in order to be "accepted" in this country. I intellectually understood at the time, but it wasn't until my own community, the Chinese-Australian community, was placed in a similar situation that I felt the real challenge. For us, unless you constantly and vocally oppose the Chinese Government, you must demonstrate loyalty to Australia, and the media can misconstrue any public comments. Nuanced debates are often not welcome in public because either journalists themselves do not understand the complexity or clickbait journalism ensures that sensationalist stories are preferred.
Then of course let's not forget First Nations people. It is difficult to claim Australia is progressing on race relations when Australia Day is celebrated on Invasion Day, a day people of First Nations cannot celebrate with the rest of the country. I am an Australia Day Ambassador and have been for 10 years. I truly believe we need a day celebrate our achievements, however, there is no need to have it on a day where a section of the Australian community cannot feel proud. It does not promote inclusion.
As Australia Day has just passed, our challenge as a nation is to reflect on what brings our nation together, the mechanisms we need to protect people against racism and ensure race equality in order to move forward as a strong nation.
Wesa Chau was Labor's Deputy Lord Mayor candidate at the recent Melbourne City Council election