Naming the racism that spreads along with Coronavirus

Over the past week, Chinese people have reported an increase in racism and xenophobia as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. Beyond individual incidents and examples such as the Sydney restaurant that displayed a sign saying ‘the corona virus won’t last long because it was made in China’, the response from the Australian government has left many of us with the suspicion that we are being treated like second-class citizens. The announcement that those being evacuated from Wuhan – predominantly Australian citizens of Chinese descent – would be quarantined on Christmas Island struck an uncomfortable chord for many who felt the resonances of our brutal offshore detention regime. We’re asking, would this be the treatment reserved to repatriated people had the virus broken out in the UK?

The response to the rise in racist rhetoric is too often an attempt to disprove the underlying ‘facts’, instead of critiquing how these examples operate in a broader social and historical context where Chinese people in Australia have long been marginalised.

For instance, following Chinese social media influencer Wang Mengyun being used an example of the ‘dirty Chinese eating habits’ blamed for the outbreak, several articles have been written to debunk the ‘bat soup’ story. As the mythbusters explained, the soup was actually consumed in the Pacific Island nation of Palau. Along similar lines, I have seen a number of Facebook posts describing how beautiful, cultured and historic Wuhan is. ‘Did you know Wuhan is the home of tennis player Li Na and many nobel prize winning scientists?An op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald explained earnestly that consumption of wildlife is banned in China.

These are all important facts, but they fail to pinpoint and unpack the real reason for the racism we are witnessing. The cause isn’t simply misinformation or misunderstanding – though it is fuelled by it. Instead, racism is symptomatic of the deliberate and anxious need to justify the existence of Australia as a colonial state and the dominance of an Anglo-European Australian identity, which is achieved through differentiation from the ‘Other’. We need to step back and recognise the anti-Chinese sentiments emerging now as the inevitable product of a country and society built on colonisation justified through white supremacy.

Whiteness doesn’t inherently exist but was constructed to justify Western European economic exploitation, slavery, colonisation and control. The image of the Other, the Orient, and the East as an exotic, alluring but dangerous place has long filled European imaginations. Because if the ‘Other’ is dangerous and exotic then ‘we’ are the civilised norm. Take for example Dracula, a novel about a barbaric disease or contagion from the East that threatens Western society but is defeated by harnessing technology and rationality.

Since Chinese immigrants first came to work in Australia’s goldfields, we’ve been the subject of racism and persecution on the basis that we’re dirty and uncivilised. In the Lambing flat riots of 1860-1861, over 2,000 Chinese men were violently attacked partly due to perceptions that they were dirty and spread disease. Propaganda from Australia’s ‘yellow peril’ days also shows Chinese people being associated with the spread of smallpox, an excuse used to justify Australia’s exclusionary immigration policies.

Today, we don’t recoil at bat soup because it’s ‘barbaric’: it is barbaric because we choose to recoil at it. This isn’t about whether it’s okay or not to eat bat soup, but about recognising the response to the Coronavirus is an expression of a need to feel disgusted by the dirty barbaric Other in order to enable the Anglo-European Australian state to identify itself as civilised and pure to legitimise its sovereignty.

The fact that we treat the Coronavirus as a failure moral character falls directly in that narrative (and is also reminiscent of the homophobia during the AIDS epidemic). In the post-colonial, post-Enlightenment Western world, white supremacy is a silent but pervasive premise. Today, because that logic is increasingly challenged and this sentiment cannot openly be expressed, it seeks reasons to manifest in a way that seems grounded in science, reason, morality – and a virus is the perfect excuse. Another relevant contemporary example is the justification of offshore detention by arguing that people imprisoned there aren’t genuine refugees but queue jumpers rorting the system. This exertion of control grounded in ‘immoral’ behaviour evokes an idea that it is crucial to the sustenance of the nation state – that there is an ‘us’ and a bad, dangerous ‘them’ that we need to be protected from. Because who is ‘us’ if there is no ‘them’?

The public response to the Biloela family being detained on Christmas Island with those being evacuated demonstrates how the boundaries of inclusion shift within the public imagination when a new need for asserting power and control calls for it. Perceiving their detention as wrong or more wrong as a result of this development shows how the interests of marginalised groups in Australia are pitted against one another. Acceptance within the white Australia paradigm always comes at the cost of someone else.

East Asian people occupy a liminal space where we experience racism but also have a ‘model minority’ status that means we’re usually elevated above other people of colour as more hard working, assimilated and deserving. The tone of the responses from many Chinese people now – asking people to not be racist and trying to explain that we are in fact ‘clean’ and ‘civilised’ –stems, I think, from shock at the sudden realisation that we can still be the targets of older forms of racism in Australia today. The reactions to the Coronavirus shatter our sense of safety as model minorities, and shows just how precarious our acceptance within the dominant structure is.

What we’re experiencing now is what other people of colour experience daily. A Chinese friend shared an upsetting experience after someone stood up and moved away from her on public transport. Though this is distressing, it is an experience that is likely familiar to visibly Muslim people since 9/11 or to black youths during the racialised furore about ‘African gang violence’. As part of our response, we shouldn’t just be arguing that we ourselves shouldn’t be the targets of discrimination, but that no one should. After all, would it be okay to direct racist scorn towards those from Palau where the bat soup was consumed, if a virus were to break out there?

We shouldn’t need to prove to the colonial state that we’re ‘civilised’ or that Wuhan is a beautiful, vibrant ,cultured city. Instead, we should become stauncher allies to First Nations people and other people of colour who face damaging stereotypes and harassment every day. When the Coronavirus outbreak is over, racism won’t go away. It will seek a different target and will always be ready to rear its head unless we dismantle the structures that perpetuate it.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ella Shi is a Melbourne-based community organiser and campaigner with a background in art history.

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  1. Thank you Ella for such a well articulated piece. I feel better having read it. The structural racism may be Anglo-European in its design and origins but the contemporary prejudice can proceed from persons of any background. Being silently grateful that the group being ‘othered’ is not yours is to misunderstand the fluid nature of racism and its relationship to power.

    “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

    ― Angela Y. Davis

  2. Great piece. I think also the racism comes down to the kinds of animals that have been involved in these virus outbreaks. I can’t remember sars, Mers or h1n1 having as pronounced responses because racists couldn’t say ‘we don’t eat those animals’.

  3. Very well written and presented argument. The more people that can embody this perspective the faster we will evolve positively as a unified civilization in my belief.
    “unless we dismantle the structures that perpetuate it (racism)” you are quite right, there will always be another ‘target’.

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