"Go back to your country." Racism in Australia hasn't changed. But how I respond to it has.

"Go back to your country," said a man driving past as I was walking near the Immigration Museum, of all places.

For those from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds, experiences like this are all too familiar. Racist incidents, especially verbal abuse, takes a split second and by the time I realised what the driver had said, the car was gone.

And for the victim, the response mechanism always freezes due to shock hindering our ability to defend ourselves. I didn’t provoke it, I felt powerless, angry and disappointed knowing a fellow Australian would challenge my sense of belonging based on the colour of my skin.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, incidents of racism towards those of Asian ethnicity and appearance increased – with Australia being no exception. A survey compiled by the Asian Australian Alliance and researcher Osmond Chiu found nearly 400 people with Asian backgrounds reported experiencing racist incidents.

It seems a lot of these incidents have been driven by paranoia, which in turn has led to prejudice. In one online Zoom community consultation forum I participated in, organised by a government department, one representative spoke up and said how China needed to take responsibility for the spread of COVID-19 and that if people mention this it should not be classified as racism


While this individual attempted to support his stance by saying it is a geopolitical matter, views like this spark prejudice and leave people of Chinese, and to a certain extent, Asian appearance open to further attack.

Based on conversations within my personal and professional networks, anecdotal evidence has told me a large number of COVID-19 inspired racist incidents around the country are not captured in surveys or reported to the relevant authorities due to fear and anxiety. 

After hearing the stories and experiences of my Asian-Australian friends, I for the first time in my life had to think twice before putting my mask on before going out shopping (before it became mandatory) and wondered if I would be abused in the lift or at the shops. And for the first time in my life, I felt unsafe and unwelcome in my own country.

To regain my confidence and composure, I contacted my social circle to let go of these negative emotions. Fortunately, I have great friends like Christine Yeung, whose professional background as a psychologist helped me to turn my negative emotions to positivity and productivity.

It was these conversations that got us thinking - I am lucky to have good friends, but what about people who don’t have such friends? Who can help them through this?

Racism incidents are often not serious enough for people to visit a psychologist or counsellor because it may not be directly associated with mental illness. Even if it is, people of Asian-Australian backgrounds often want to avoid mental health professionals due to cultural stigma. 

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An analogy is that pain from racism is similar to hurting an ankle – whilst it is okay to not do anything about it, it is advisable to see a doctor in case it might be worse than it looks. 


Therefore, why don’t we have direct support services that are culturally appropriate for people experiencing racism to help them understand how it is impacting them and move through some of the negative emotions in a culturally appropriate way?  

Since the spread of COVID-19 in Australia, we have seen petitions such as #UnityOverFear initiated by Jason Yat-sen Li and the Chinese Australian Forum, government and community consultation sessions, surveys and stories in the media. Solutions we have seen thus far include the call for a new national anti-racism strategy, the availability of more translated materials, better data collection and making it easier to report incidents with the Australian Human Rights Commission and the police. 

While all of these are important initiatives to address racism as a whole, gaps remain in helping individuals currently coping with the after-effects of racism on a case by case basis.

My conversations with Christine Yeung led to the development of Resilience Against Racism (RAR), an initiative to help people heal from experiences of racism and use their strength to perform an act of kindness to spread community resilience. We want to compliment current anti-racism initiatives by filling a much-needed service gap in the support system.

We need to start addressing racism in a different way. It is about how we can build a more resilient community to respond and call out racism and at the same time support people who have experienced it first-hand to tackle it head on. When the naysayers tell us to “go back to your country”, we will know how to respond with confidence and positivity.

Feature image: Supplied.