Today may be the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but racism is on the rise, aided and abetted by COVID-19. But change is possible.



Last week, a shooter travelled to three separate Atlanta-area massage parlours, killing eight people, many of them Asian-Americans. The violence stirred a visceral reaction from the Asian-American community, who rightly claimed that the mass shooting was motivated by racism, especially after it was discovered that the shooter promoted shirts that claimed COVID-19 was an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”

The anger was quickly magnified by the words of Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker, who said that the shooter was merely having “a bad day.”

In the days since, users on social media have articulated the institutionalised racism they’ve faced, with CNN publishing a handful of the thoughts of Asian-Americans in the wake of the shooting.

“It’s very difficult to describe this feeling of just like grieving, even if it’s people you never knew or never heard of or never had contact with,” the 24-year-old writer Ian said to CNN. “Psychologically, it does a lot to your head to just hear about people being shot and killed because of how they look, because they look like my grandma, because they look like my mom (sic).”



The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate noted that there were 3,800 racist incidents in 2020, with Asian-American women experiencing the vast majority of them. Speaking to NBC, group founder and professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, Russell Jeung said that the pandemic has provided another “excuse” for people to target Asian women. “We’ve noticed that from the very beginning, it’s been a real consistent pattern…bullies attack who they think are vulnerable, and we see this in our elderly and youth populations,” he said.

However, this problem is not strictly an American one, as we’re experiencing the same here at home. As academic Susan Carland noted early last year, “The coronavirus has lead to disturbing reports of racism in Australia, including accounts of Asian Australians being spat on, verbally abused and bashed. The Australian Human Rights Commission says it recorded more complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act in February than at any time over the previous 12 months. While complaints have remained within the high end of the normal range, since the start of February, one-third of all racism complaints made to the commission have been COVID-related.”

Chinese Australians were perceived as a threat to Australia before COVID-19, and are already reporting an increase in racist abuse during the pandemic. Most importantly, they are stereotyped as “competent but cold ” – a characterisation that makes them likely to be targeted in times of economic downturn. We are in a moment of collective pause and planning. But in amongst the thinking about economic recovery, school openings and international travel, we need to be planning for a likely upswing in bigotry against ethnic minorities.


We need more than slogans. We need a coordinated approach based on the evidence that brings Australians of different backgrounds together, developing empathy and greater understanding. It is not enough to pass each other in supermarket aisles or play against each other in sport.


So, how do we reverse a climate that the world has done so much to engender? With today being the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, The Big Smoke spoke to Rabbi Zalman Kastel, director of the not-for-profit Together For Humanity, a multicultural organisation that fights racism in our schools.

Rabbi Kastel said “the research is clear – we need more than slogans. We need a coordinated approach based on the evidence that brings Australians of different backgrounds together, developing empathy and greater understanding. It is not enough to pass each other in supermarket aisles or play against each other in sport. 

“Diverse societies are wonderful almost all of the time, especially if you work at it. And many of us do,  but sometimes we fail to get a good enough result. Many Australians pulled together during COVID, but the treatment of many Chinese Australians demonstrates that our approach is not robust enough to prevent bigotry from some who are out-of-step with community standards,” he said.


On March 17, the Australian Human Rights Commission called on the federal government to implement its new plan for a national anti-racism framework. “A national framework should also acknowledge Australia’s geopolitical location in the Asia-Pacific region in the ‘Asian century’ as well as being capable of embracing the history and circumstances of Australia’s diverse diaspora communities,” the paper said. Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan noted that we’re facing a resurgence in racism.

Tan’s comments were endorsed by Kastel, who said “Mr Tan is correct in saying measures to address racism will be more effective when accompanied by measures to promote social cohesion, inclusion and equal opportunity and participation.”


Rabbi Kastel, what should this national framework include?

A national strategy must include high levels of empathy and acceptance between Australians of different backgrounds, confidence to interact with each other and an absence of fear of others, a strong sense of belonging together among all Australians, and a willingness to challenge prejudice if it occurs.

We would like to see a more active commitment to embracing diversity involving stories, empathy and contact. This involves facilitating interaction between people from different backgrounds, fostering empathy by hearing more stories from members of communities subjected to prejudice, and engaging people in uncovering assumptions based on stereotypes.


Together for Humanity has worked in schools for the last twenty years. What changes have you witnessed? Are we trending in the right direction?

Hard to say. One change has been the degree to which students from Arabic Muslim backgrounds feel comfortable with Australian identity. It used to be an issue for some young people we worked with, but now we find that students are comfortable with their Australian identity as well as other identities such as religious or ethnic.

Going back to the time of the Cronulla riots, we heard echoes of media reports in young peoples’ attitudes towards people of Lebanese heritage. When there was reporting about Islam and terrorism in the media, we found that young Muslims felt that they were being described as terrorists, and felt subjected to hostility.

One concerning factor is the low levels of media literacy on the part of some young people. Some young people do not filter such reports critically and take what is being reported as the whole truth, not understanding the story is sensationalised and hardly representative of the broad truth. 

What exactly does Together for Humanity in schools, and what is next for the organisation?

We facilitate a series of small group sessions with young people from communities that are often subjected to prejudice. We do this to help them feel a sense of belonging, and to build resilience so they can respond appropriately when they hear things about their groups. We also help these students develop confidence in their ability to connect beyond their own ethnic or religious groups.

We also work with teachers and schools to skill them up/build their capacity so they can do this work themselves. Our Teacher Professional Development courses (offered in-person and online) equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to allow students to embrace difference and reject prejudice and bigotry. We also partner with schools to develop their strategies and programs relating to diversity.

Recently, we have decided that we should draw more attention to the need for understanding, acceptance and the embracing of cultural differences. However, our experience tells us that the basic problems of prejudice continue in the Australian community. We are aiming to broaden our reach to more school communities, particularly in regional Australia.














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