At the end of February, I caught up with two journalists in Sydney. The coronavirus had been circulating around the world for about four weeks at the time and Australia was feeling quite lucky it was “safe”. The three of us, two white Australians and me, an Asian-Australian, met at a pub for a beer. On arrival, one of them expressed concerns about the worsening outbreak in China before turning to me and asking, “do you have the coronavirus?” By that time, I had grown weary of the multitude of reports of Asian-Australians – including many I knew personally – being assaulted, abused and racially attacked in ways more horrific than I can remember over the course of my 30-year experience of racism in Australia. ‘You Chinese virus spreader’: after Covid, Australia has racism outbreak to deal with No one was spared. Asian international students, business contacts, newly arrived migrants and long-term residents living in Australia all copped it. Phrases like “bat eaters”, “dog eaters” and “you’re a traitor for buying masks” were bandied around. My sense was that the comments sought to point out that Asians were somehow “uncivilised”, backward or servants or maybe worse, just cash machines, owing to the rise of China. I couldn’t help but wonder if colonial bullying remains a living memory for some Australians. The comment from my white Australian journalist “friend” also seemed to confirm that racism didn’t just come from the “ignorant and uneducated”. “Why did you say that?” I asked with a serious look on my face. She knew I hadn’t been to China and she had known me personally for quite a number of years. There was a pause, then a chuckle and then she said “oh, it’s just a joke”. “It’s not though,” I said in a serious tone. “You shouldn’t say that.” She started to get angry and berated me for having a “go” at her. I explained there were many people being racially abused, wrongly bullied and blamed for the coronavirus and it was wrong to suggest that people of Asian descent had the disease. These were dangerous things to say in dangerous times, I said. The other journalist – who didn’t get asked if she had the coronavirus – tried to explain she too had seen non-Asians who had just returned from parts of Asia getting ostracised. My “racist friend” then stormed off saying she was no longer in the mood for drinks. I haven’t heard from her since and I suspect I never will. I had half hoped that she would have the grace to approach me, not to apologise, but to ask me why and how the question was offensive. Inquiry and curiosity are the best ways to surmount racism, as well-known racism academic and author of US bestseller White Fragility Robin DiAngelo tells me. Sadly, this journalist wasn’t the only one who got angry when I raised the issue of racism and the lack of hard action – not just words – on racism by the Australian government. One journalist from News Limited called me a Chinese journalist and said my “country’s” poor human rights record was worse than Australia’s small smattering of racism and another one said Australia wasn’t all that bad compared to other countries. Not to mention the racism I get outside of Covid-19. These are journalists – educated, knowledgeable people whose jobs are to educate, guide and inform the Australian people. They are the same people who have the power of the pen in their hands and who could with several quick strokes either help create a very tolerant racially sophisticated society or whittle it down to the stone-age era of the White Australia policy. Victims of racism I have interviewed have said over and over again that the media was a major contributor to racism and I agree. Headlines like “Billions of face masks sent to China during Australian bushfire crisis” or “Chinese Virus Pandamonium” in Australia incite hate, fear and anger, that feed on primal instincts of people and tear apart civilised society. Those in journalism know when it comes to headlines, there’s always a choice. I asked the Australian Press Council – a watchdog for the media industry – for its thoughts on whether the media had been culpable in stirring up racism in Australia during Covid-19 and pointed out several baseless news stories that could have used alternative headlines. Unfortunately, I got a bureaucratic “we-would-like-to-bury-our-head-in-the-sand” answer. “The Press Council sets standards for its publisher members and receives and handles complaints it receives about published material. The concerns you raise about racist reporting might be relevant to a number of General Principles including 1, 3 and 6,” a spokeswoman said. For Asians in Australia, a collective memory of racial trauma “The Press Council considers all complaints made to it about material published by its publisher members on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they comply with the Press Council’s Standards of Practice.” “In order to protect the integrity of its complaints handling process it is the Press Council’s policy not to make general public comment about complaints received in particular subject areas.” I am not even sure what all that means but I am having a guess the Press Council, like our government, will not be taking fast steps towards a proactive preventive approach against racism, that is to try and stop racism before it happens through education or a more responsible media rather than simply paying off victims after it has occurred. By then it is too late. The impact of racism is long lasting. It is traumatic. It creates internalised worthlessness among those of colour to somehow believe they are not good enough. It makes many of us question our identity as Australians and whether we are part of the team. The Australian government has the obligation as a country that stands by its own human rights commitment to look after its people first and foremost. Sure, no racism campaign can change every person’s core beliefs or how they choose to behave but we must at least have a go. For me, trauma and triggers are things I understand very well. Shortly after the incident with the journalists, I went with my partner – a British-Australian – to the local hardware store to buy some facemasks. I picked out a few masks and headed to the checkout counter. Anti-Chinese social media ‘more scary than Covid-19’ in Indonesia Before I got to the till, I turned to my partner and said, “do you mind doing the paying?” He looked at me and said, baffled, “you’re not going to let them reduce you to that level, are you?”. I nodded and paid. As DiAngelo says to me: “The default of society is the reproduction of racial inequality, it is the norm. It is not an aberration. It is the default that all our institutions have set up, intentionally, to reproduce racial inequality for the benefit of white people. It was literally coded in law in both our [US and Australia] countries”. I just hope DiAngelo will be completely wrong one day.