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Speaking up about racism: Do you feel welcome in Australia?

Jing Wei Lee

Thu Apr 25 2013

Do you feel welcome in Australia?

MELD reporter Nkandu Mwenge’s personal brush with racism has reignited debate in our newsroom. Do international students feel welcome in Australia? Jingwei Lee goes in search for some answers. 

Do you feel welcome in Australia?

Student stories 

Taiwanese student Jennifer Lu was at Boxhill late one night with her friends when three Caucasian girls walked towards them.

Pulling at their eyes till they became mere slits, they shouted, “Oh I can’t see! I can’t see!” – before knocking into them roughly.

“We were so furious. And, of all places to be racist, they chose Boxhill,” Jennifer recounts.

Jacalyn Kow from Malaysia says she has never felt physically threatened in her three years in Melbourne, but racial slurs were not unusual.

“Nothing drastic such as people throwing eggs or shouting profanities, but more like local Australians shouting from the windows of their moving vehicles – things like ‘Go back to China’ or ‘Go back to your country where you belong’,” says Jacalyn.

“My immediate response was one of exasperation and disgust. I did not do anything remarkably obvious, but was upset for a few minutes.”

Speaking up 

Jennifer says because racism is a sensitive topic, people tend to not want to talk about it.

Samantha Sun from China who has lived in Australia for seven years, says culture-specific upbringing also hinders students from vocalising.

“Asians were brought up to listen to others, to follow our parents. When things like racial slurs happen, we tend not to voice out,” she says.

Many Chinese students only feel comfortable discussing their experiences on Chinese language websites, she says.

For Samantha, it’s not a good thing.

“They don’t get their stories out, and retreat into their circle of comfort. They need to speak out on this issue,” she says.

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Dealing with racism

Principal research fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Associate Professor Dr Yin Paradies encourages students to speak out on racism.

Dr Paradies, who studies the health, social and economic effects of racism, says while it’s understandable that students tend to “get angry and freeze out”, the best thing to do is to try and remain calm and “engage on a diplomatic level.”

However, he cautions that safety should come first.

“If you’re faced with a group of ten drunken guys, it’s best to leave in a hurry,” he says.

He suggests probing the reasons behind the racism, which he says is largely driven by emotions.

“People are frightened and anxious about differences due to their tendency to generalise indirect and direct experiences with ethnic groups,” Dr Paradies says.

“You can ask, ‘Why do you say that?’ or ‘I’ve come here to get an education and that’s good for Australia’. You can engage in a discussion.”

Dr Paradies also recommends getting help from witnesses.

“It can be useful to ask if they agree with the person’s racist remarks,” he says.

It seeks to address the problem of false consensus – that is, when a person with racist views believes that the majority agrees with them.

“The only way to counter that is to have people make it clear that they don’t agree…it’s very useful to respond and challenge their views,” Dr Paradies says.

Is Australia racist?

For the most part, students Meld spoke to believe their brush with racism isn’t representative of the majority of the Australian public, and that Melbourne is generally welcoming towards international students.

“There’s always good people and bad people, welcoming and non-welcoming ones who exist in every community,” says Samantha.

For Jennifer, she looks back at her experience as the exception rather than the norm.

Jacalyn says students have a role to play in creating awareness among the local community.

“International students should be willing to be open to communicating with the local society and not be intimidated by them if and when racism happens,” she says.

Dr Paradies says most Australians are comfortable with racial diversity.

“It’s about 10 percent who are pretty extreme…most people are very supportive and welcoming,” he says.

Do you agree? Share your experiences and views with us in the comments section below.