The last few weeks have seen an escalation in racially motivated abuse towards people from Asian backgrounds, both here in Australia and around the world.
Locally, two Asian students were recently assaulted in Melbourne’s CBD as they went to the supermarket. In Sydney, an Asian family’s home was defaced with abusive messages. In Geelong, an Asian doctor was verbally abused while waiting for take away.
In the UK, Asian doctors have been racially abused or rejected by patients. In Israel, a Jewish man of Indian origin was attacked and left hospitalised. In India, people from the northeast of the country who share traits of some East Asian features, have faced discrimination and denial of health services.
But we’re also seeing this racism spark incidents involving people of non-Asian appearance too. In China, black people faced coronavirus-fuelled racism that saw them attacked and evicted from their homes, while Australian tourists in India reported being seen as “virus spreaders” amid community panic.
Why COVID-19 racism?
Social scientists have spent decades researching the roots of racism.
Cognitive, social and evolutionary explanations of racism converged on the idea that there is a natural human tendency to create social categories in our minds and actively form groups.
People form these groups because they think other people in that group share some essential or distinctive features. Often, groups like these can foster cooperation and goodwill among communities.
While group formation is natural, the criteria for group formation is not always rational.
To organise the world, some people develop their own lay theories to provide causal links from deeper properties (like our genes) to superficial properties (the different behaviours between my people and other groups) that can separate one group from the other.
It separates us from them.
Because of the human tendency to see ourselves in a positive way, known in research circles as the better-than-average effect, we are inclined not only to bolster the attributes of the groups we belong to, but to do so in a way that can undermine other groups.
We may say things to ourselves like “we are cleaner”, “we have developed more sophisticated health systems” or “this would have never started here”.
This kind of undermining of others might be harmless or competitive (think sports clubs and fans) but can also escalate to dehumanising people when we think of them as members of other groups.
Whether we like it or not, creating social groups in our minds can reduce the grouped individuals to a set of abstract characteristics. When paired with our tendency to favour our own groups, this process could lead to perceptions of other groups as lacking culture, morality, rationality or self-restraint.
And this prejudice towards others can be exacerbated by uncertainty and fear as we are currently witnessing in the human species as a whole.
The very real concern with our own health, and the need to protect our families and resources to deal with a global pandemic, risks devaluation and rejection of members of different groups who are perceived as a threat or in competition.
In the current pandemic, these feelings of fear and resentment end up as powerful drivers of abuse against ethnic minorities and foreigners.
Malleability of racist attitudes
The pervasiveness of racism, and the way it is often explained, might give the impression that racial prejudice is natural and impossible to prevent or reduce.
But, human thinking has the capacity to form groups based on a wide and disparate range of characteristics that are entirely unrelated to race – like the clothes we wear or the football teams we support.
That is, we can think of members of different ethnic groups as part of our own groups, when we start thinking about what we have in common.
Similarly, environmental cues such as the behaviour of our political leaders and perceived social norms can facilitate (or hinder) racial abuse.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric calling COVID-19 the “China virus” or Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, insisting China provide explanations about the source of the virus all operate as a signal to the community that it is necessary to find a specific group of people to blame.
Our common humanity
Racism is exacerbated in times of competition, fear, and uncertainty. But, equally, inclusiveness and kindness can be enhanced in times of crisis provided we focus on our common humanity and goals, rather than our differences and personal interests.
And there are some very real steps that can be taken to counter toxic attitudes.
Firstly, it’s vitally important to keep the community informed.
When we feel uncertain, we are more likely to start developing simplistic explanations of very complex human processes as a way to manage our anxiety or as an excuse to justify abuse towards other ethnic groups.
Leaders must clearly and regularly inform the community about the current situation, what they are doing about it and why people are asked to make many personal sacrifices as a starting point to build resilience.
And there are examples of this kind of leadership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel won praise recently for her explanation of how the coronavirus spreads and why deciding when to lift a lockdown is such a complex issue.
This kind of leadership behaviour is critical. Politicians must lead by example.
Instead of focusing on China as a scapegoat or foreigners as virus importers/spreaders, leaders should be talking to their people about the importance of respect and solidarity towards all members of the community, regardless of their background.
More importantly, they need to continuously focus on the common threat faced by humanity: COVID-19.
These messages need to be regular, clear and genuine. Obviously, it’s harder to believe conciliatory and inclusive messages from leaders who have spent years engaging in racist dog-whistle, but even those can help reduce racism by delegitimising it.
Beyond politics, racism in the community matters to organisational leaders in all sectors.
The targets and instigators of racist acts can be employees, clients or suppliers; leaders need to take remedial actions to support the targets and address the attackers. Leaders need to check on their people to see how they are going, conveying the values of solidarity, inclusion and kindness in the current situation.
Leaders might want to talk to their employees openly about the racist abuse they have observed in the community, their concern about it, the standard of behaviour they expect and what kind of support is available for people who might be struggling.
This will help organisational leaders build institutional resilience; a capital they can count on to keep people engaged or to help rebuild after this pandemic.
Crucially, we can all play a part in making members of our community feel safe.
If you see a person making a racist comment, and you do not think your own personal safety is at risk, call it out. You can simply ask a question: “Do you think that language is necessary?”.
If you do not feel safe, you can offer support to the person who has been abused. Let them know you think what happened to them is not acceptable and that you are there to provide whatever support you can.
If the abuse you are observing is, or might be turning violent, protect yourself and call the police.
Racism is toxic, destructive and it will not help us get through any crisis.
In the current pandemic, the world needs good science put into practice, sound and level-headed leadership, as well as kindness, solidarity and respect for all members of our community and those beyond our borders.
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