Global rise in anti-Asian racism
Between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) reported nearly 3,800 hate incidents to Stop AAPI Hate, an organisation formed to prevent discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic. Most were incidents of verbal harassment, but 11 per cent involved physical assault.
It’s not just a problem in the US. In the UK, there’s been a 300 per cent increase in hate crimes against the country’s East and Southeast Asian communities, according to End the Virus of Racism, a UK-based advocacy group.
And a recent survey by the Australian National University found that 84.5 per cent of Asian-Australians experienced at least one instance of discrimination between January and October 2020, up from 82 per cent who said the same in August 2019.
“Anti-Asian discrimination has always been there, but during Covid, it’s been magnified and brought to light,” Isabel Zhang, head of Cross Cultural Insights at Bastion Insights and the goodwill ambassador for the Museum of Chinese Australian History, told Inside Retail.
Covid-19 rhetoric to blame
Tim Lo Surdo, founder and national director of Democracy in Colour, attributes the increase in anti-Asian racism to misguided views about the origins of the coronavirus, fuelled by politicians and public figures referring to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’.
“It’s really important to recognise that this abuse isn’t random or accidental, it is the direct result of the racialised narrative surrounding the coronavirus,” he told Inside Retail.
According to a survey conducted last August, nearly a third of Australians believe Chinese people were primarily responsible for bringing Covid-19 to Australia.
However, both Zhang and Lo Surdo say it’s impossible to disentangle the racism Asian-Australians have been experiencing during the pandemic from Australia’s history of anti-Asian immigration, going back to the White Australia policy of 1901.
“It’s a very systemic issue,” Zhang said
Businesses have a responsibility
While retailers including Nike, Starbucks, Tommy Hilfiger and Amazon have rightly condemned anti-Asian racism on social media, the issue is much bigger than a hashtag, Lo Surdo said.
“Businesses can’t see this as a branding exercise or an exercise to capture a new segment of the market,” he said. “They need to see it as a safety issue for their workers and customers.”
With over a third of racial abuse incidents occurring in a place of business, such as a shopping centre or supermarket, according to the Asian Australian Alliance’s racism tracker, retailers can’t afford to ignore the issue.
“Businesses generally have a legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe environment for their workers and their customers,” Lo Surdo said. “These statistics should be incredibly alarming and a call to action.”
Providing anti-racism training and bystander intervention training to equip staff with the skills they need to defuse tense situations are some concrete steps businesses can take, according Lo Surdo.
Authentic engagement is key
Zhang agreed that retailers have a “social responsibility” to combat anti-Asian racism.
“If a company’s values, mission and vision are aligned with equality and anti-racism, then [they should] stand up and say something about it,” she said.
Based on her experience as a cross-cultural consultant, however, retailers don’t have a strong track record of engaging with Asian communities in an authentic way.
“For most retailers and commercial brands, it’s very tokenistic and very transactional,” Zhang said. “They don’t see the Asian community as a community, they treat them more like – I’m sorry – cash cows, or another revenue stream for their business.”
Many retailers are all too eager to launch Lunar New Year campaigns, but then don’t make the effort to truly understand Asian consumers and their culture. This leads to – at best – ineffective campaigns, or – at worst – offensive ones.
“Taking a stand is important, but businesses also need to take action to understand Asian communities better,” Zhang said.
“Include them. Change the transactional relationship to one of engagement. Retail is all about engagement. It’s not just about selling.”