British Asians battle ‘privilege’ stigma amid three fold increase in racist abuse

By Mason Quah


CORONAVIRUS has seen anti-Asian abuse on the rise across the UK, in the midst of a second wave anti-racism campaigners are pushing back.

At a Chinese for Labour Webinar Hau-Yu Tam, a campaigner for End the Virus of Racism, says we must challenge the prevailing views of what it means to be Asian in Britain.

The relevance of this message during the current year is highlighted by the massive spike in racism directed towards British East and Southeast Asians (BESEA), a three-fold increase on the previous year.

The internet has seen a 900% spike in the global use of hashtags encouraging violence against China and the Chinese. Despite this, there is still a strong cultural perception of East Asians in the West as a privileged group.

The stereotypes around highly educated and wealthy Chinese families act to overshadow the myriad of underprivileged groups in the Chinese and East Asian diaspora that aren’t covered by this narrative.

Hau-Yu points to the UK census categories meant to include the entirety of East Asia: One is Chinese, the second is Other.

Large portions of the BESEA community do not come from financial privilege and higher education. Many are employed in the small businesses of the catering sector, rife with exploitative business practises and weak on unionisation.

This is worsened by the defunding of ESEA communities across Britain. Without public funding it is difficulty for these communities to develop economic resilience against shocks to the market.

This has been seen in 2020 when early fears around Covid-19 discouraged people from using Asian restaurants and stores.

Similarly, a disproportionate number of Filipino nurses have died on the front lines of combating the pandemic. The scale at which Filipino health workers have been impacted was significant enough for Phillipines Nursing Leaders to reach out internationally and raise their concerns about the wellbeing of their citizens.

An estimated 40,000 Filipino Health Workers are employed by the NHS. Their representatives have raised questions over whether they are being allocated to higher risk environments or provided inadequate PPE.

As foreign-born workers there is also concern over their ability to speak out if encountering these issues. Francis Fernando of the Filipino Nurses UK Association says that Filipino nurses often feel their immigrant status obligates them to obey instructions that might endanger them.

The misconceptions of the Asian community in Britain can be largely attributed to lack of representation. Civic education doesn’t provide basic information about how different generations of Asians migrated to the UK, leaving people with the conception of Asians as homogenous and foreign.

Asian activism is a highly charged issue in the current political climate. Hau-Yu recounts stories of being asked if she is a Chinese spy, as if her anti-racism campaigning is incompatible with a British identity.

“We have to become our own lobbyists, not only for ourselves and ESEA communities and issues, but for domestic and global affairs. You don’t have to stand with either Washington or Beijing. This is something that the left has to dismantle and confront,” explains Hau-Yu.

This shouldn’t be taken as the Asian community distancing itself from other forms of antiracist activism, or ignoring conditional privileges that some Asians can hold.

Hau-Yu herself is a settled UK citizen but recognises that the movement for anti-racism needs to spring from broader organising for migrant refugees, undocumented immigrants and trafficking victims.

She argues: “You cannot say you stand fully for antiracist justice if you do not stand with BLM, stand with the Muslim and Jewish communities and many other groups and movements. A lot of my process came from early foundations in being engaged in intersectional black and anti-racist politics. Going to protests, not just signing petitions. I think you’ve got to be able to see ESEA in solidarity with all underrepresented communities, tackle anti-blackness, come to terms with your or your family’s own lived experiences as migrants and refugees.

“People without these relationships – which is why more middle and upper class folks, including aspiring ones – will be in environments deprioritising these stories and even contributing to their marginalisation and stigmatisation – such folks are living in relative privilege and have to educate themselves. Otherwise they may contribute to this marginalisation themselves.”

Hau-Yu has ambitious plans for the future of anti-racist activism, wanting to provide better language and tools for people to communicate their experiences of discrimination.

Discussions are underway with Chinese Welfare and Anti-Racism groups to work towards this, although funding is a concern for any large attempt at detailed research and tool development.

Groups currently working on anti-racism tools and research include Protection Approaches, the Chinese Welfare Trust and Newham Chinese Association.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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