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Remedy  •  21 February 2021  •  Non-Fiction

Misplaced Optimisms

By Anna Xu
Content Warning: Racism, Injury
Misplaced Optimisms

It is October, 2020. I am walking down my street with my little brother, barely twelve years old, and our dog, George. My friends often mistake George for one of my siblings because he has a human name. I don’t remember exactly what my brother and I are talking about, but these days I like to hear his stories about the new friends he is making in high school. We are almost back at our house when a car drives past us, just a little too fast. George is alert, as he always is when a loud noise erupts from nowhere. I hear a teenage boy shout something from the car, his voice being carried as he drives by. The first part I don’t quite catch, but I hear the second shout clearly: is that your dinner, mate.

There is something so crude and juvenile about this that it wakes me up instantly, like somebody pinching my arm while I was dozing off. It is something I haven’t heard in maybe ten or so years, not since I first heard it in primary school. I almost wish I could’ve told them: is that all you have? But instead, I find myself yelling back, my face red and hot, not from anger but from shame, because I should know better than to respond, which is exactly what they wanted from me. I know because it is all they ever want from you, and in my head I am saying, do better, do better. I do not know if I am saying it to them, or to myself.

It comes as no personal surprise to see that anti-Chinese sentiment has surged in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic. A racism incident report conducted by the Asian Australian Alliance (AAA) shows 377 incidents of COVID-19-related racism were reported in the span of only two months (April to June 2020). This equates to roughly six isolated incidents of racism per day. A survey conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) found that 84.5% of Asian-Australians reported at least one instance of discrimination between January and October in 2020, meaning that eight in ten Asian-Australians had faced COVID-19 racism in that period. These figures, of course, could also mean nothing; it is much more common for these incidents to go entirely unreported, such as my own.

In truth, I suspect much of this can be attributed to once-dormant racists finally out in public view, now that anti-Chinese rhetoric has been revived by those in power, both in Australia and abroad. The history of Sinophobia in Australia did not start with the pandemic, but with the arrival of Chinese coolies, or indentured servants, in the 1840s, according to UTS Professor of Sociology Andrew Jakubowicz. Despite Chinese migrants forming the integral building blocks of our economy and community so early in colonial history, the Sinophobic sentiment still persists today. It echoes — and perhaps even surpasses— the yellow peril rhetoric of the 1950s which perpetuated the idea that Chinese people were disease-ridden and dirty. I can only imagine that the pandemic came as a welcome surprise to racists, if only to affirm what they had already believed to be true in the first place.

Though this is not how I explain it to my little brother. How do you begin to explain racism to a child? Do you tell them that there are, and always will be, bad people? Or is it best not to say anything at all? I find myself fumbling for the words to explain what has just happened to my little brother, whose face is slowly dropping as I can see him beginning to understand. So rarely when we talk about violence do we also acknowledge the aftermath, it seems. The scratches on your arm left to fester, the feeling of your nervous system still burning long after the fire has been extinguished. After I am done, my brother finally says: I try really hard to be nice, but stuff like this makes me really angry. I want to tell him: hold onto that anger, it will help.

But there is only so much anger one person can hold or sustain alone. We cannot expect monumental change in the way we approach racism if we do not apply a monumental perspective on the issue itself. While the easiest instances of racism we spot are public outbursts and mutterings under the breath as you pass someone in the supermarket, more invisible — and perhaps more insidious for it — are the racial prejudices ingrained in the very cell structures of our institutions. Or more succinctly: systemic racism.

If we deem it inadequate to paint racism as the sole misdeeds of a few isolated individuals, then it is a similar misjudgement to view racism as a problem solvable on the individual scale. Meaningful and sustainable change is structural, systemic, belief-centric change; for too long we have demanded that the victims explain why they might have deserved to be targeted.

It has been a great privilege for me to have been able to stay home to conduct my studies at UTS during 2020. A privilege because I can afford to stay home and live comfortably during a pandemic. But another privilege springs to mind only in retrospect: I do not have to face the prospect of being a walking target for Sinophobia on the university campus. If I cannot feel safe in my own neighbourhood, much less in public, then surely it would be misinformed of me to not expect racism, even within the confines of the educational institution I am supposed to trust.

Yet I am aware that the educational institution has a distinct spatial politics, separate from and much unlike the public sphere. Walking down the street feels incomparably different from walking inside the campus. Upon entering a university building and seeing rows of other students seated at tables with their laptops or notebooks, I feel the tangible weight of academic endeavour and studious focus in the air. As I walk through the university library, I am aware for the first time during the day that my breathing and footsteps exude noise. And during a studio critique, an offhand comment on Chinese culture by another student prompts my tutor to turn the class’ attention to me, as they ask: and what are your thoughts on that? This gesture is unexpected. Unsurprisingly, I have never been prompted to share my thoughts and feelings in public after I have experienced a racially-charged attack.

So much of the aggression we experience in the public sphere is one-sided. It is often not so much about the (usually unoriginal) comment itself as it is about someone exerting power over somebody else. The power of our institutions, then, is being able to take this aggression and transform it into a conversation. However grateful I am for that, we shouldn’t stop here — we are still relying on individuals to tackle a problem much larger than themselves.

A course of action that will never fail us is simply continuing to ask questions. Architect and researcher, Marina Otero Verzier, plants the seeds for us to begin interrogating the social codes enacted by our cultural institutions when she asks, “How does it feel to be there? What does it do to bodies? What and how does it urge them to perform?”5 These are vital questions to ask because they allow us to grapple with the potential ways in which our educational institutions can change, as well as envision different models of what our institutions can be, do and represent.

Some will say there is merit in our institutions preserving traditional ways of operating, but is it not also exciting to wonder how else they could be? What better way to affirm the cultural influence of our educational institutions than by testing its limits and watching it emerge more powerful than before? For our universities signify to me a space of ideas and ideals, of respectful intellectual collaboration, of potential futures — the futures we want, and the ones we reject. If we are to continue entrusting universities with our own futures and livelihoods, then it is a social imperative that our educational institutions take a firm stance against enabling discrimination. This is not new, nor is it excessively radical by any means: again, Otero Verzier has rightly pointed out that too many institutions are still rooted in principles targeted against certain bodies and practices.

There is always work to be done, but I am far from renouncing the redemptive capacity of our educational institutions and those who operate within them. After all, what is left of an institution without someone to believe in it? I confess that I still believe in our institutions to lead conversations and enact broader structural change, leading by experience and adjusting themselves to better prepare us for new and better futures. We are never so susceptible to changing our ways of thinking as when we are inside a space for the singular purpose of learning. This feeling is maybe what Otero Verzier calls ‘authoritarian-induced stomach-pain.’6 But perhaps it is also a growing pain, in which case,I want to embrace it fully, hoping it will bring me and others relief.

Faced with the tangible possibility of returning to campus this year, then, I find that it is not only paranoia I feel, regardless of if that paranoia is justified. There something else as well, unexpected and cautiously welcomed: optimism.

Some may say my optimism is misplaced, naive, ill-informed, even. Blame it on the cult of optimism that seems to affect designers (and to-be-designers) disproportionately — after all, what is creativity but the ability to see alternative solutions? Still, I cannot help being a realist, and so I admit my optimism is only half-hearted; it does not, for example, lie in a future where racists cease to exist entirely. Instead, it lies in our institutions to do better.

Truly meaningful progress does not advance down one trajectory. Rather, it opens itself up to multiple trajectories, branching limitlessly across an ever-expanding three-dimensional space. Respectfully asking our institutions to actively commit to dismantling the racism that still runs deep in Australian history and society is a step towards a future that mutually benefits everyone. Concurrently, I am aware that this future I speak of is not something we can visualise in its entirety, at least not yet. But I am talking, always, of course, of something much more misshapen and amorphous, something I am afraid to name in fear of it escaping me altogether if I do, but I grab onto it like it is something I can hold on to: hope.

At the time I am writing this, it is barely January in 2021. Only when I started to write this did I discover that I had so much to say. This, more than anything, illustrates precisely what it feels like to live in embodied fear, the shrinking of a body constantly short of air, a lump of rock readily absorbing tectonic shocks within its dense carbonate mass, withholding itself perpetually lest its entire structure crumble away entirely.

At the time of the incident last year, I told myself not to give those strangers power over me, to forget what happened and to move on. This is as deceitful as waking up from a bad dream and telling yourself to forget it. The only way to release myself from it is to give honour to what had happened. I forget that the simple act of transcription is therapeutic in and of itself as well.

Soon, my misplaced optimisms will be put to the test. As I am writing, the Australian economy is struggling to imagine itself without the plentiful reliability of Chinese consumers to accept its exports. My family and I celebrate by eating twenty-dollar lobster three nights in a row. We are seeing China-Australia relations at a record low, with Scott Morrison and Xi Jinping yet to even meet face-to-face. A pamphlet I have fished out from my mailbox sits right next to me on the desk. The CCP is a real demon and the most bloodthirsty terrorist organisation in the world, it reads. It is our responsibility as human beings to help eliminate it. There is actually a QR code on the back of this pamphlet, which I scan out of curiosity, though I know I won’t like the result. My phone directs me to a webpage petitioning to somehow ‘end’ the CCP with over 400,000 signatures.

Sometimes it can be too much. My optimism becomes tired. I walk outside my room, emotionally exhausted, and I ask my little brother if he still remembers the day we were yelled at while walking George. Of course, he says. I tell him I am talking about it in this piece, and in it I am talking about him as well, as well as other things. I tell him I can’t believe I am still so angry about it. He gives me an inscrutable smile, not quite a smile I have ever seen him make before. His mouth is stretched wide, his cheeks bulging so much I can’t help but laugh. He is thirteen now. I ask: why are you smiling so much? To which he replies: no reason.

Soon, my misplaced optimisms will be put to the test. As I am writing, the Australian economy is struggling to imagine itself without the plentiful reliability of Chinese consumers to accept its exports. My family and I celebrate by eating twenty-dollar lobster three nights in a row. We are seeing China-Australia relations at a record low, with Scott Morrison and Xi Jinping yet to even meet face-to-face. A pamphlet I have fished out from my mailbox sits right next to me on the desk. The CCP is a real demon and the most bloodthirsty terrorist organisation in the world, it reads. It is our responsibility as human beings to help eliminate it. There is actually a QR code on the back of this pamphlet, which I scan out of curiosity, though I know I won’t like the result. My phone directs me to a webpage petitioning to somehow ‘end’ the CCP with over 400,000 signatures.

Sometimes it can be too much. My optimism becomes tired. I walk outside my room, emotionally exhausted, and I ask my little brother if he still remembers the day we were yelled at while walking George. Of course, he says. I tell him I am talking about it in this piece, and in it I am talking about him as well, as well as other things. I tell him I can’t believe I am still so angry about it. He gives me an inscrutable smile, not quite a smile I have ever seen him make before. His mouth is stretched wide, his cheeks bulging so much I can’t help but laugh. He is thirteen now. I ask: why are you smiling so much? To which he replies: no reason.

1. Asian Australian Alliance, 2020. Covid-19 Coronavirus Racism Incident Report: 5.

2. Zhou, Naaman, 2020. Survey of Covid-19 racism against Asian Australians records 178 incidents in two weeks. The Guardian.

3. Jakubowicz, Andrew. How Sinophobia goes viral: Building resilience against Australia’s latest anti-Chinese contagion. ABC.

5. Otero Verzier, Marina. Masquerade: On the success and failure of institutions. The Russian Federation Pavilion of the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale.

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