What to expect when you call out racism as an Asian Australian person.

bamboo ceiling Jun 15, 2020

This title seems very prescriptive and click-bait-y however, in my experiences of calling out racism in Australia, I really have found that there is a very predictable response that follows. Despite this, it’s only over the last few weeks that this “formula” has become clear and I wanted to share this with you to help you navigate all the times you may choose to call out unacceptable and racist behaviour. What I have outlined here below is probably what could be expected in the best case scenario.

Obviously, this is not what happens every single time, or with all people but these are the themes that I have noticed in my own experiences, especially in workplace contexts. As I wrote these stages out, I was able to see the many places where we would choose to “drop out” of pushing forward for accountability and I really hope that this list gives you some support and structure to keep going when you’re trying to advocate for anti-racist behaviour. My disclaimer here is that I was not relying on this job/placement for essential income and I also knew that I was physically safe, so I was in a position keep pushing and pushing.

Let me expand on this by telling you a story:

During my third music therapy clinical placement at one of the big hospitals in Melbourne, I had an allocated student desk to write clinical notes and prepare for sessions. This desk sat in amongst a shared office of the social work team, which meant that I could hear all the chit chat going on (the joys of open planned offices!)

On one particular day towards the end of my placement, I heard two senior social workers discussing the social work student candidates that were being interviewed for a future placement. One girl, it seemed, had a “Chinese name” and as the two senior staff members looked over her resume, they had a little chat.

“So, this girl could be good too… her name’s… X.. Sh... Shin?…”

“Oh what’s her name?”

“Oh it’s so hard isn’t it, it’s hard to take on students with these names cos our patients can’t say them!”

“…Yes I agree, we need to really think about that because… we need to make sure our patients feel comfortable you know…if they can’t pronounce the name then they won’t feel comfortable…”

“… Of course, of course…”

Me, with my equally hard to pronounce (for white people only) surname, listened on in shock. But, I didn’t call them out there and then because:

1. I couldn't wait to get out of that hospital and I couldn’t care less about the future of their student placements.

2. I didn’t want to advocate for Ms Chinese Name because why should she have to do her placement with these racists?

But most importantly, 3. I was upset AND I didn’t want to cause any trouble.

As I went home though, I just couldn’t let it slide so I told both my university coordinator as well as my placement supervisor.

And here are the predictable steps that followed:

1.     A good, empathic and apologetic response.

When you disclose or report an experience of racism, any normal person will say something along the lines of, “that’s terrible, I’m sorry that happened.” And this is exactly the response that I first received.

This is great and I was thankful for my supervisor’s concern, however know that this is not enough. Don’t turn around to your confidant and say, “thank you, I just needed to tell someone” and then let the incident go, because this is exactly what everyone, including yourself, wants to hear.

In short, don’t allow such responses to give you a false sense of hope and optimism that people really understand or care and instead, keep pushing for accountability.

2.     Gaslighting time.

I would say that my supervisor handled the situation pretty well. She said, “okay, thank you for telling me. Can I just think about this for a couple of hours and we can touch base again at the end of the day?” This, I felt, was a really good response and demonstrated her considered thoughtfulness.

However, when she returned, things had changed. She had somehow re-aligned herself back with the organisation and had essentially isolated me and “my case” as a one-off.

She did this by first presenting some dialogue about the professionalism and skill of the workers involved, claiming that they had a very good track record of providing equal care to all students and all patients regardless of their ethnicity. She then agreed that what they had said was out of line with the hospital’s values however also emphasised that this was a very rare one-off case.

This response is understandable though, because as a professional, she would have had to present a united and cohesive front for the organisation. What she said to me, an external student, would represent the whole organisation so it made sense that she would reiterate the professional code of conduct of it’s staff. 

However, this kind of thing often leaves us, questioning whether or not we’ve made a mistake;

“Did I hear correctly?”

“Am I just being overly sensitive?”

“If they’re so professional and well regarded, maybe that’s just the way everyone talks?”

And this my friends, is called gaslighting.

What gaslighting does is make you unsure of the way that you feel and so you’ll agree that this is not something worth pursuing. You’ll be made to think, “Oh, that’s good to know that. It must have just been a one-off, I’m okay now.” 

But for some reason, I kept on pushing and said, “yes I respect them as workers (not) but I guess I still feel really affected by it all.”

And, here’s what happens when you continue. 

3.     You have to do more work.

My supervisor then asked me, “okay, I’ve heard you and I want to do what’s right by you. What would feel right for you right now? But also keeping in mind that this is your last week on placement so… you might want to think about what kind of mood you’d like to finish up with here…”

What would feel right for me you ask?

It would “feel right” to able to fall back on the organisation’s tried and tested procedures for dealing with racism in the workplace. But guess what, most organisations don’t have this, and if they do, they’re not well practiced so it’s clunky and tedious for all involved.

It’s not my responsibility to think about the best way to proceed forward both while I’m feeling pretty crappy and while I’m trying to finish up my clinical placement which I need to pass to complete my degree. But, it ends up being my responsibility because structurally and systemically, things aren’t in place for non-white people to feel safe, protected and able to just get on with their jobs.

This step is important to articulate because it seems very well meaning (ie. they gave me freedom and choice to come up with a solution), but actually you end up doing more work. Not only do you have to process anything racist that you might have experienced, but you have to create an action plan for the way forward because no real support exists.

This also means that whatever you put forward, creates more work and thinking for anyone involved. And no one wants to do more work or more uncomfortable thinking. So you’ll end up getting pushback in the form of, “it’s very tricky to get a meeting with x y z present…” and “I’m not sure where that form is… give me a week and I’ll follow up…”

At this point, most of us will be like, “whatever, I just need to get on with my job”, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief because they won’t have to be held accountable. They’ll say,

“oh we did the right thing and it got resolved. We asked them if they wanted to do anything further and they said no, so we “respected their wishes.””

For me, I took this opportunity to keep pushing because it made no sense to me that people in these “helping” professions could be racist (side note- I learnt very quickly that racism is rampant in our helping professions, but more on this another time!)

So, to not ruin the “mood” of my final days of placement, I said that I was not interested in having a mediation session or gaining an apology from the person, I just wanted my supervisor to let them know that I heard what they had said and that I had taken offence.

Which, I was so impressed to know, she did exactly that. 

4.     White fragility appears!

On my last day and about 10 days after I first reported the incident, my supervisor and the wider psychosocial team threw a customary going away afternoon tea. We all had a chat about my next placement and what context I wanted to work in once I graduated etc. and it was all very normal and pleasant.

Then, I noticed that one of the senior social workers who I’d called out was over in the corner with her arms crossed looking… sad. I thought, “haha that's what you get lady.” My supervisor had obviously spoken with her and it had definitely affected her. 

But then I thought about how immature she was. She could have either put on a brave face and just pushed through the afternoon tea demonstrating leadership and dignity to her team, or she could have not shown up if she wasn’t feeling up to it. Instead, she chose to take up space by sulking in the corner. CLASSIC move, white lady.

If she had felt so affected, she could have spoken with me quickly in person or sent me an email. There are so many other ways in which she could have gone about it, and in ways that wouldn’t have required her to make any grand gestures or even touch on any sort of vulnerability.

So, this is what white fragility is. White fragility is defined as “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice” and it’s everywhere. When someone feels confronted by information that they don’t like, they respond in the way a child who’s done something naughty would.

They either lash out, sulk, make it all about themselves or cry. Just like little children.

And we have to put up with it every time we choose to bring anything up because in their minds, they’re thinking,

“how dare they (a coloured person) have the nerve to do this to me (a white person)?” (#amycooper)

Not only do we have to put up with racism, but we have to put up with the pettiness that ensues afterwards. This is what white fragility looks like. And deep down, we all know that we’ll end up in this spot sooner or later so we choose to brush racism under the cover so that we can get on with our lives.

5.     BONUS – “but, is it really that bad?”

A little bonus for my fellow Asian Australians.

For many of us, racism has been directed towards us in passive ways and through consistent micro-aggressions. This is probably because our physiology is often smaller in stature so we don’t incite the same physical and violent fear that perhaps Black bodies bring up in white bodies.

This is a huge privilege. Our lives are not at risk just for looking the way that we do and we must always, always remember this privilege.

However, when racism is directed at us in subtle, hidden ways, it can be easy for others and ourselves to downplay the effect that it has on us.

“You faced racism during covid, but… no one attacked you right?”

“They said something rude but… are they really racist though?” 

“They treated you differently but… are you sure it’s because you’re Asian?”

“But they were having a private conversation… they didn’t say anything about your name right?”

When things are subtle, passive or disguised, we need to be more aware and nuanced in the way that we pick up on things AND we need to be more articulate in how we explain the effect that it has on us. And this is exhausting!

But I hope that this article provides a little road map for you to help you navigate all the equally passive and subtle ways in which people will respond to your call for action. Know that you are not alone in your experiences and also know that you’re not too sensitive, crazy, or “mendokusai” (Japanese word with no translation sorry) by noticing and feeling the way that you do.

It’s not good enough that organisations are choosing student candidates based on the degree in which they can pronounce a non-Anglo-name (but yet they can pronounce Siobhan?!) It’s not good enough that other non-Anglo named people need to hear such racist conversations out in the open. It’s not good enough that racists work in the health, community and “caring” professions. It’s just not good enough but things will change when and as we learn how to call things out.

So what now?

As we wait for the world to catch up and be better, we need to do the work ourselves to be well prepared for these subtle racist attacks that happen all the time. Focusing on self-reflection, attunes us closely to how we’re feeling and helps us to notice when things feel off. And finding communities where we can get used to talking about and verbalising these experiences will train us to be able to articulate the racism we’ve experienced when it presents. It’s not fair that we have to do more work, however there is no harm in being sharper and more confident in our ability to notice unacceptable behaviour.

Now, we want to hear about your experiences of calling out racism. What happened? Did you notice these themes emerging? Are there any themes that we missed?

Keep doing the work because the Shapes and Sounds community is right by you doing the same work too. Be strong banana friends!

Connect with our community.

You're not alone in navigating the intersections of race, culture and mental health. Find out more about our Shapes and Sounds Community, designed for and by Asian Australians.

Learn more