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Human Rights Commission launches new campaign after Asian discrimination reports during Covid-19 pandemic

Liang Cui says when the first Covid-19 case was reported in New Zealand in February, she started to worry. 

Liang Cui. Source: Supplied

Ms Cui, who came to New Zealand from China in 2016 and is completing a fine arts PhD at Massey University in Wellington, told 1 NEWS she feared she’d get unwanted attention because she was of Asian descent. 

She alleged that during a walk with her Kiwi-Japanese partner during the Alert Level 4 lockdown, a stranger shouted “Wuhan” at them.

“I experienced a lot of change during my research, and I met my partner in New Zealand, so it kind of led me to feel at home here,” Ms Cui said.

“But after that moment, when the guy shouted ‘Wuhan’ at me, it did make me feel less at home.”

About a week after the first incident, Ms Cui alleged another stranger told her partner to “f**k off” while he was on his way to the supermarket.

“I felt pretty bad for my partner because he’s not even Chinese. It’s just because of his Asian looks.”

Ms Cui said it wasn’t the first time she felt “anti-Asian sentiment” in New Zealand, at least from her perspective. She said this was what led to her to worry about Covid-19.

She said she had experienced physical attacks before — she alleged a person shoulder charged at her, which nearly knocked her over, soon after she arrived in the country. She alleged another person had spat on her arm.

“There were several other situations in the past. I witnessed some men shouting at two young men ‘you f**king Asian, go back to your country’ on Cuba Street.”

Ms Cui is one of a number of people who’ve reported they experienced racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On Thursday, the Human Rights Commission launched a new campaign to respond to these reports from the Asian community. The Commission chose to feature comedian and Filipino-New Zealander James Roque in a video series titled ‘Racism is No Joke’ as part of its ‘Give Nothing to Racism’ campaign.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said the campaign aimed to target what people saw as “jokes” in online anti-Asian memes and mean-spirited comments.

Mr Foon pointed to other reports of discrimination he’d heard about through the pandemic, including an instance where parents of Asian descent took their child out of school because of bullying related to Covid-19 and instances of “Chinese coronavirus” name-calling.

Mr Foon said the Human Rights Commission was trying a different approach by pairing up with a comedian.

The Human Rights Commission's Racism is no Joke campaign featuring comedian James Roque. Source: Human Rights Commission

“We’ve got to try all the different angles. Sometimes, hard is not the way to work as it actually turns people off.”

Mr Foon said, instead, Give Nothing to Racism aimed to approach racism by giving those who experienced it “a voice” so others could empathise with them. 

He said building empathy was important as it was hard for people to know what racism felt like unless they experienced it themselves.

“A lot of people that dish out racism, they don’t actually know that they’re dishing out harm.”

He said the campaign came as the Commission’s staff reported a 30 per cent increase in calls to its information line, a place where people could report cases of discrimination and racism, during the start of lockdown.

Mr Foon said the increase in calls led the Commission to establish a dedicated line for Covid-19-related complaints, although this was being wound down as the number of complaints started to decrease after the initial spike.

Between January and May 6, the Commission said it received 320 enquiries or complaints related to the pandemic. Of these, 95 (29.6 per cent) appeared to be “race-related”, with many relating to people of Asian descent.

These enquiries included allegations about anti-Chinese racism and harassment, including from other people of Asian descent who thought they were mistaken for being Chinese, and complaints about racial harassment on social media.

Netsafe said it saw a 213 per cent increase of reports with “a hate speech element” between January and May 28, but noted this was only “a small percentage” of the total reports it received during the timeframe.

Meanwhile, a survey by Trace Research commissioned by migrant support charity Asian Family Services found 16 per cent of respondents reported experiencing racial discrimination during the pandemic.

While relatively small, Trace Research director Dr Andrew Zhu told RNZ that when put to the adult population who identified as Asian in the 2018 census, it would still account for more than 80,000 people.

Thirty per cent of Korean survey participants and 22 per cent of Chinese survey participants reported facing discrimination. The survey was done online between May 22 and June 3 using quota sampling based on the 2018 census.

In a Massey University study which examined people’s prejudice and beliefs when it came to Covid-19, New Zealand was found to have lower levels of racism directed at Asians when compared to other parts of the world.

The study, led by Professor Stephen Croucher, also found New Zealanders tended to attribute blame for the spread of Covid-19 to tourists, the late closure of borders and “the Chinese”.

Mr Foon said any instance of racism, whether before, during or after lockdown, was concerning. But, he also saw Covid-19 as an opportunity to continue the conversation about racism in New Zealand.

Meng Foon. Source: 1 NEWS

“Everything is an opportunity — from Covid to the debate on statues to the history of New Zealand to place names,” he said.

“I think it’s on the tip of our lips and off the top of our minds that racism is an issue in New Zealand.

“We’re going to be hopefully dealing with it with the whole team of five million.”

He said the Human Rights Commission was also planning its own survey later in the year to quantify the anecdotes of Covid-19-related racism.

“The important thing about it is actually getting data so we know why it happens and where it happens.

“At the present time, it's only anecdotal and it's sort of like a shotgun approach. We don’t really know where the nub of the issues are.”

According to Mr Foon, part of the challenge in understanding the issue was that some people of colour felt unsafe reporting discrimination. He said this could be for a number of reasons, including their distrust for authorities because of where they grew up.

“If you don't complain, those people are still going to get away with assault with racial abuse,” he said.

“Until people actually take it seriously, and the victims take it seriously and feel safe to actually complain, it’ll continue.”

Asking what it means to be Asian in New Zealand post-Covid-19

University of Auckland sociology lecturer Dr David Tokiharu Mayeda said the instances of racism in New Zealand during Covid-19 had roots in history, dating back to the mid-1800s when Chinese labourers mined gold, then faced discrimination, immigration restrictions and poll taxes as work dwindled.

He pointed to the term “forever foreigner”, coined by University of Washington dean Mia Tuan, which described how Asian communities were often categorised in settler societies no matter how long they’d been there.

“We come here to enhance our children’s education or to find better job opportunities. For the most part, it kind of fits that so-called ‘model minority’ bill,” he said.

“No matter how well you do, no matter how kind of a so-called ‘good minority’ you are in the dominant culture, you still get labelled with this foreigner identity under times of national stress.

“Anytime a country is under deep levels of stress, then there’s going to be some people from the majority group who look for a scapegoat because we have these visual cultural differences.

“There are times when people get scapegoated and the application of that foreign identity intensifies and is thrust upon them.”

Like accusations of foreigners taking jobs or driving up house prices, Dr Mayeda said Covid-19 was an example of “national stress”.

He said because the virus was reported to have come from China, “all of a sudden, Asians as a whole got associated with the virus” when some couldn’t differentiate between East Asians from different countries.

“Covid-19, yeah, it’s a new phenomenon. But the fact that Asians get associated with disease, or with bringing in foreign problems, that's not new.”

He said it was important to note New Zealand was also exposed to rhetoric from overseas, such as the labelling of the virus as the “kung flu”.

Addressing the Human Rights Commission’s campaign targeting “jokes” against people of Asian descent, Dr Mayeda said jokes could still be a “very intense” and a “very overt” form of racism.

“There are some jokes or other comments that are a bit more subtle and ambiguous … the so-called subtle racism, the reason it’s so powerful is because it’s repetitive and chronic,” he said.

He said the more “subtle” forms didn’t happen in isolation.

“It’s really frustrating for those of us who receive this so-called subtle racism because we connect it with more overt forms of racism that our families and friends experience. 

“But then, we also get re-victimised by other people telling us it’s not a big deal or we’re overreacting.”

Dr Mayeda said while some of the prejudice was somewhat assuaged because the country wasn’t seeing Covid-19 in the community anymore, the expected economic fallout from the pandemic could heighten national stress and resurface some discrimination.

Despite this, he said he was “cautiously hopeful” that the world was at a “potential turning point” as more people started to talk about the issue.

“Globally, it’s important for us to have this kind of dialogue where people of colour are at the forefront and people believe their experiences with racism.”

Dr Mayeda said the Asian community needed to examine itself too within the nuanced debate about racism. 

“One, it’s to acknowledge that we [Asians], like the British, we’re settlers.

“We have an obligation to the tangata whenua. As we talk about racism in its complex forms, we have to see where we sit alongside the indigenous population.

“We experience racism, but it is in different ways from Māori and from others from different migrant backgrounds, including Pacific people.

People of Asian descent in New Zealand could also think about how it asserted its identity “in terms of the cultural tools and richness that we bring”, Dr Mayeda said.

He said while Asian communities’ contributions to aspects like food or the economy were widely known, there were other assets the community brought that weren’t as obvious.

“We bring a lot more than just ethnic restaurants.”

The challenges of speaking up

For Ms Cui, in her view, the first step to tackling the complexities of racism was to speak up. She said this was true for both those experiencing discrimination and those in the majority group.

However, she recognised she was in a position that allowed her to do that because of her academic background and the support she received from her academic advisors. 

Other people may face some barriers to speaking out, such as language differences or not knowing where to go for support, Ms Cui said.

She said she also received both “very supportive” and “nasty” comments and personal messages when she posted about her experiences on the Facebook community group Vic Deals and the Spinoff

“It costs time and energy [to speak out], and I can understand why people are more likely to keep silent and just bear with it,” she said.

“I’m not the first person to try and speak out and try to fight against it. I’m just trying to encourage some other people because that’s what’s realistic. 

"I’m not trying to change the world. I think it’s just trying to do what you can do. This fight against racism is a long-term job.”

Part of the equation of tackling racism was for migrant communities to also look at how they regard other cultures when they move overseas and examine their own prejudices, she said.

Speaking from her own observations and personal experiences, Ms Cui said the conversation about one’s identity and what it meant to be Chinese was tangled up in the political environment of Mainland China, where she grew up.

“I’m not trying to pigeonhole immigrants from China, but from what I’ve read … some may try very hard to keep their traditions and their identity when overseas, others just open up to the new culture and embrace the new culture,” she said.

“It’s a both sides thing [for migrants and the dominant culture] to try and understand each others’ cultures and to regard it as equal with your own.

“Try not to be so eager to judge.”