For Mai-Anh Peterson, hearing the news from Atlanta, Ga., that eight people, six of them Asian-American women, were killed at three spas on March 16 was the latest painful incident in an unrelenting timeline of global anti-Asian violence. “We’re all feeling a collective trauma,” says Peterson, who is a co-founder of besea.n, Britain’s East and South East Asian Network. “It also has a wider ripple impact on the Asian diaspora worldwide, because of course, we know that this isn’t just a problem for North America.”
On Wednesday, four of the victims were identified: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. A white man was charged with eight counts of murder the same day, and assertions from police that the shooter was “not racially motivated” were met with widespread criticism and disdain. The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives.
The killings have sent waves of grief through the Asian-American community, amid a rising spate of attacks against Asian Americans in recent months and a broader increase in anti-Asian hate in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic. The situation in the U.S. is one facet of a global increase in anti-Asian attacks, and for East and South East Asian (ESEA) communities around the world, the events from Atlanta are a painful reminder of the ongoing anti-Asian violence that’s been on the increase over the past year.
In May 2020, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.” Nearly one year on, communities worldwide say the situation hasn’t improved, with many countries reporting spikes in hate crimes. For many, the pandemic has only amplified longstanding and violent racism toward Asian people.
“Racism was always there,” says Meng Foon, race relations commissioner at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. “We’re not surprised by continuous racism that rears its ugly head.”
Fears of anti-Asian hate crimes across the world
The rise in hate crimes targeting Asian communities is global, with increased reports coming from Canada, and a number of cases involving anti-Asian discrimination and xenophobia reported by Human Rights Watch in Italy, Russia and Brazil last summer. In New Zealand, research by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission released last month found that 54% of Chinese respondents had experienced discrimination since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 55% of Māori respondents had also faced discrimination since the start of the pandemic.
U.K. police data suggests a rise of 300% in hate crimes toward Chinese, East and South East Asians in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019. Over the past year in the U.K., Chinese takeaway owners have reported being spat at and attacked, nurses of ESEA heritage working in the National Health Services have reported incidents of racial abuse from patients, and people of ESEA descent have been victims of violent and racially aggravated street attacks.
Many fear what will happen when the U.K. emerges out of lockdown later in the spring, with restrictions enabling more public interactions. As the U.K. eased out of its first lockdown in May 2020, data from London’s Metropolitan Police indicated an increase in attacks on people of ESEA descent, with figures significantly higher than in previous years. Even though London-based Amy Phung, a graphic designer and a besea.n co-founder, has been committed to staying at home during the pandemic, she has felt anxious and has suffered three separate racial incidents during the times she has ventured out. “It’s rarely happened to me before, I would say never, and every single time, I’ve been the only one to speak up for myself,” she says, adding that she hopes more people will become aware of the role that active bystanders can play in such incidents.
The Asian Australian Alliance received 377 reports of COVID-19-related racism between April and June last year. Its founder, Erin Wen Ai Chew, says that the organization has now recorded more than 500 incidences of COVID-19-related racism since April 2020, with about 40% of those being casual racist slurs and around 11-12% involving physical intimidation. There is pressure on the Australian government by the country’s race discrimination commissioner to adopt a new national anti-racism framework to address prejudice against the Asian community due to COVID-19.
And some feel that the violence in Atlanta may be a sign of things to come for the community worldwide. Although Australia and New Zealand have strict gun laws, advocates say that some perpetrators may now feel more emboldened to carry out physically violent, copycat attacks.
“What happens in America tends to replicate itself in its own way in Australia,” Chew says. “We will see more racial and possibly quite violent attacks against Asian Australians, and that is a major concern for sure.”
‘A problem well before the pandemic’
Rhetoric from former President Donald Trump deeming the coronavirus “the China virus” made international headlines, and experts say the inflammatory comments helped fuel hate on social media and in real life. As TIME reported in March 2020, people deemed as “other” or “foreign” and of ESEA descent more broadly, including those who are not first-generation immigrants, have been targeted, blamed and associated with the coronavirus.
“History shows us that minorities don’t tend to fare well during pandemics,” says Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner and now a sociology and political theory professor at the University of Sydney. “Minorities can be made easy scapegoats. And pandemics can unleash underlying hostility that exists towards some groups.”
And although the pandemic has highlighted the prevalence of anti-Asian racism, it’s part of a long history of exclusion, mistrust and stereotyping of the community. “It is relentless and has been particularly relentless this year, but we shouldn’t discount the fact that this was a problem well before the pandemic,” says Sarah Owen MP, who is the first female member of parliament of Chinese descent and the first of South East Asian descent in the U.K.
In the U.K., people of ESEA descent have faced decades of structural discrimination and racism, including racial profiling, discrimination in the workplace, and poorer health outcomes than their white counterparts. ESEA people in Britain are one of the fastest-growing groups, with a high percentage of international students. But a lack of in-depth data collection and understanding of the diversity and differences within the community, as well as a lack of representation in politics, leadership institutions and media, means anti-ESEA racism is less understood and often minimized. “I think we have in the past lacked voices to speak out about the hatred and the division that we experience, the racism that we experience,” says Owen, who has also experienced online attacks targeting her heritage.
In the Australian and New Zealand contexts too, anti-Asian racism has a long history. A series of laws directly aimed at restricting Chinese migration to Australia were passed starting in the late 19th century, morphing into a “White Australia” policy at the beginning of the 20th, leaving a painful legacy still felt today. A similar story of struggle, rejection and discrimination has played out in New Zealand. “Asian people are unfairly picked on for over 150 years in New Zealand by governments, as well as the community,” says race relations commissioner Foon. “Quite often, I think in New Zealand, it’s a very quiet type of racism, more institutionalized,”
Besea.n co-founders Peterson and Phung point to the constant association in the U.K. news media of images of people of ESEA descent paired with articles about the coronavirus, thus reinforcing a false narrative around a broad and diverse community. They have been campaigning against the use of such imagery in the media, saying it’s part of a long history of damaging representation that helps fuel stereotypes with real world consequences. “What we see is this invisibility of our community as a whole within the media, but then we have a hyper visibility when it comes to negative portrayals,” says Phung.
Community organizers and experts also say that geopolitical tensions have had a role to play in heightening stigma and anti-Asian racism. “In Australia, there seems to be a blurring of lines between criticizing the Chinese Community Party, and criticizing Chinese people,” says Chew.
‘Felt by the whole of the East and South East Asian community’
There’s a feeling of frustration combined with the horror and grief at what has happened in Atlanta, Peterson says, because ESEA communities have been warning about racist attacks, yet they don’t seem to have gained widespread attention among the public. “I think the frustration is, does it really take a mass shooting to bring this into people’s consciousness?” she says. “Not many people believe anti-Asian racism even exists,” agrees Phung. “So it’s hard to try and bring our causes to greater visibility, because it’s sort of dismissed, and it’s easily disregarded.”
But there have been some signs of positive change and intergenerational work at the grassroots level, through campaigns, advocacy and actions on social media to highlight these issues. Last month, a group of men verbally abused university lecturer Peng Wang, who is a Chinese national, with racist slurs and physically attacked him while he was out jogging in Southampton, in the south of England. His story inspired solidarity walks and actions on social media from the British ESEA community.
Groups like besea.n, Racism Unmasked Edinburgh and End the Virus of Racism in the U.K. have organized and mobilized, and more established groups, like the Asian Australian Alliance, have channeled efforts into reporting mechanisms. Chew says that the ongoing situation in the Australian context “has actually pushed a lot of Asian Australians to start going public with incidents of racism,” although one of the organization’s biggest concerns remains that many more incidents happen than are reported.
Ultimately, a violent attack in the U.S. brings home the realities of painful racism that ESEA communities face worldwide, despite the geographical distance. “It doesn’t matter where it’s happening and it doesn’t matter who it’s happening to,” says British lawmaker Owen. “It’s felt by the whole of the East and South East Asian community.”
—With reporting by Amy Gunia/Hong Kong