A few weeks ago, I caught up with an emerging Asian-Australian advocate and champion after meeting her for the first time at the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership’s International Women’s Day roundtable. During our lengthy conversation, she shared with me never before has she thought of herself as an Asian-Australian. Like so many of our peers, she sought to suppress her Asian heritage as she was growing up in Australia with the aim of ‘fitting in’ and appearing ‘normal’.
It wasn’t until she faced unconscious bias within the workplace and reading about the rise and return of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment resulting from the coronavirus outbreak she realised no matter how hard she tries to fit in, she will always be different in the eyes of many. Based on recent events, we have found out such a difference couldn’t be starker, especially during times of crisis.
Ever since I could remember, my Chinese-Australian identity, and to a certain extent, Asian-Australian identity, have been questioned and challenged. From racism in the school playgrounds, dealing with the bamboo ceiling during early parts of my professional career to having my loyalty and allegiance to Australia questioned due to my writing and public commentary, every challenge has strengthened my identity and confidence to help others find and embrace theirs. The coronavirus outbreak and the negativity experienced by my fellow Asian-Australians is a reminder why I must continue on my mission to push for greater representation of Asian-Australians in senior leadership positions within Australia’s public and private institutions.
The spread of COVID-19, and the subsequent rise of xenophobia, racism, hate and bigotry that comes with it, have become an awakening and call to arms for many Asian-Australians to speak up and embrace their identities. Notwithstanding the negativity we have all experienced from judgemental and distrustful glances, online trolling, and verbal abuse to physical assaults, I am proud to see so many Asian-Australians calling this type of behaviour out with confidence and conviction.
Besides speaking out publicly against racism and xenophobia, I have noticed a new phenomenon during the coronavirus outbreak – Asian-Australians proudly labelling themselves as Asian-Australians. What may be natural to my Asian American counterparts is not the case in Australia as we have always had difficulty grasping with such a terminology. Every time I call myself a Chinese-Australian critics have accused me of playing identity politics and worse, attempting to divide Australia by undermining our values and national identity. Truth be told, Asian-Australian stories and history have been part of Australia’s foundation but it has long been excluded in the Australian identity debate. Despite Asian-Australians comprising 12 to 13% of the Australian population, Asian-Australian role models rarely get a mention in our media, nor do they feature heavily in our storytelling about nationhood.
Unlike the Asian-Australian identity, the Asian American identity is more clearly defined. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the Asian American Movement and its motivation was for racial justice and equality. It protested against conflicts, racism and US neo-imperialism, advocated for the interests of those from Asian heritage in institutions such as colleges and universities and the provision of social sciences to vulnerable communities. The legacy of the movement, as historian and activist Yuji Ichioka rightly pointed out, led to the birth of the “Asian American” identity and from that, a series of organisations and institutions such as the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Asian American Journalists Association, and the National Association of Asian American Professionals to name a few advocating for Asian American interests.
Coming back to Australia, the Asian-Australian movement is still in its early stages led by entities such as the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, the Asian Australian Foundation, Asian Australian Alliance and now the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership (CAAL), established after the inaugural Asian-Australian Leadership Summit in September last year of which the ANU was a co-convenor alongside PwC and Asialink/University of Melbourne. The establishment of CAAL after the Summit represents ANU’s ongoing commitment to breaking the bamboo ceiling for Asian-Australians in senior leadership positions in public institutions and major businesses, an issue the ANU believes is of real importance to Australia’s national identity and prosperity. The existence of CAAL and our objective to increase Asian-Australian representation in senior leadership helps facilitate the development and definition of the Asian-Australian identity.
We have seen during the coronavirus outbreak and other crises in recent years how Asian-Australians are labelled as outsiders. For Asian-Australians and other ethnic groups, we can never fully shed this label until we mainstream ourselves by sharing the leadership stage with Anglo and European-Australians to set the direction, inspire vision and contribute to nation building. Ignorance and stereotypes can be erased within society when our community can see people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in public and leadership roles – not to mention better ideas and decision making.
While we are still lagging behind our Asian American counterparts, I am discovering each and every day through my role at CAAL the emergence of the Asian-Australian identity where Australians of Asian descent and heritage can celebrate their Asian ethnic and cultural heritage in an Australian setting without prejudice and judgement. The experiences Asian-Australians, especially Chinese-Australians have had to endure will shape and add further clarity to the Asian-Australian identity. Asian-Australians have stayed silent for far too long, it is time to play our part in redefining Australia’s national identity by first embracing our own.
Jieh-Yung Lo is the inaugural Director of the ANU Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership