Helena Wadia: Did you know that in the UK, anti-Asian hate speech increased by 1,662% in 2020, compared to 2019.
Mathilda Mallinson: 1,662%? I misread it in the brief you sent me I thought it was 162%. And I was shocked by that.
Helena Wadia: So those stats came from the youth charity Ditch The Label. And the study that they carried out found that many of the racist slurs now levied at Asian people, both online and in person, didn’t actually exist two years ago prior to the COVID pandemic.
Mathilda Mallinson: So there’s a whole new vocabulary that’s developed as a result? I did see some coverage of the abuse that East Asian people in particular were receiving at the height of the pandemic. And – I’m sure we’ll talk about this plenty later – there also seemed to be a fair amount of coverage that actively exacerbated that abuse.
Helena Wadia: Definitely. And there were so many shocking statistics that came out. But I also think that the rise in anti Asian sentiment in the UK or indeed the US or any other countries in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic didn’t happen in a historical vacuum. Maybe people just weren’t really listening before. The anti Asian sentiment we’re seeing is worse now for sure. But it has never been non-existent. I know I’ve lived my life as a South Asian women here in the UK, relatively free from major discrimination, save for maybe some taunting at school or some choice comments in the workplace or men on Twitter telling me to go home whenever I speak about racism. But I do remember immediately after the Brexit vote was the first time I experienced a direct slur being shouted at me from an adult from a stranger.
Mathilda Mallinson: Really? How did you feel when that happened?
Helena Wadia: I felt a multitude of things. I felt really, really surprised and shocked. And I remember thinking, oh, gosh, here we go. I also thought there wasn’t much point reporting it because we were in a place where there was no CCTV, maybe a couple of witnesses. But I thought, how you ever gonna find a random person that just shouted at me? Is there a point putting myself through that?
Mathilda Mallinson: If there were a couple of witnesses, did you see shock expressed on anyone else’s face? Or did anyone else do anything to intervene?
Helena Wadia: No one, no one did anything.
Mathilda Mallinson: I wish I was shocked by that. And actually, that makes a point in itself that you didn’t even think it was worth reporting. If you say that hate speech increased by over 1000% – nearly 2,000% – how many more people didn’t report their experiences than dead? And what does that mean the real trend might be?
Helena Wadia: Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been finding out. I’m heading around the UK to talk to people about the racism they encountered both during the pandemic, and before, plus to find out if we’re even getting the full story when it comes to Asian hate.
Mathilda Mallinson: And I’ll see you back in the studio with some very special guests to discuss everything around this media storm.
[MONTAGE OF NEWS REPORTS OF COVID AND PANDEMIC RELATED NEWS]
Mathilda Mallinson: Welcome to Media Storm, the news podcast that starts with the people who are usually asked last.
Helena Wadia: I’m Helena Wadia
Mathilda Mallinson: and I’m Mathilda Mallinson
Helena Wadia: This week’s investigation – Pandemic of Hate: We need to talk about anti Asian abuse.
Helena Wadia: I’m sitting here scrolling through statistic after statistic about how the fear surrounding coronavirus inflamed xenaphobic attitudes around the world. And I’m also seeing how easy it is to find conspiracy theories online about China and about the origins of COVID-19. And I’m reading a lot about how the rhetoric of some world leaders at the time caused enduring harm to the East Asian community
[Donald Trump: “COVID-19… That name gets further and further away from China, as opposed to calling it the Chinese virus.”]
Helena Wadia: So how much did the pandemic expose the anti Asian sentiment that was bubbling below the surface?
[MONTAGE OF MICHELLE ELMAN’S TIKTOKS]
Helena Wadia: Michelle Elman is a life coach and author with a huge social media following. Her following was amassed when she started talking about body confidence and embracing body scars under the username @scarrednotscared. Her TikToks have amassed over 7 million likes, but at the height of the pandemic, she felt pushed off the platform due to the racist abuse she was receiving. Michelle lives in London and I’m on my way to talk to her now to find out more about her experiences online during the pandemic.
Helena Wadia: So just run me through what happened online to you on your social media platforms when the pandemic started.
Michelle Elman: I just started noticing a number of comments that were race related on TikTok. And hate comments on TikTok are quite normal. And I kind of approach TikTok with the point of view, they’re young people, don’t react to it, they’re children who are saying stupid things like you would say in a playground. And it was only when it started becoming so overwhelming, I wasn’t seeing any other comments on there that I really was like, this is different and so different that videos of mine were actually going viral simply for the fact that every comment section was being filled with racist comments.
Helena Wadia: And can you tell me what were the sort of most common kind of comments you were getting?
Michelle Elman: Off the top of my head? It was things like “ching chong Chinese man”, “you’re the reason I can’t see my family”, “you cause Coronavirus”, “your family want to eat bats and that’s why I can’t see my family”, “Your culture is disgusting”, “Your culture is gross” calling it “Kung Flu” and all of these things that were going around at the time or even just “China virus” – like that perpetuates so much racism and puts it on a certain group and because everyone sees Asians as the same, it wasn’t just affecting Chinese people, although of course, I am Chinese.
Helena Wadia: You mentioned “Kung Flu” and the “China virus”. And those were both things that Donald Trump said. How much do you think that affected the way that people viewed Chinese people during the pandemic?
Michelle Elman: Huge amounts. And I also think it was a knock on effect, because he starts using it, other politicians start using it, it becomes normalised. Some people are using it naively because they just thought that’s what it’s called, in the same way that we called it Spanish flu. So it becomes this commonly used term, but then you have a target for blame. And when there’s so much fear running around, people want someone to blame. And so it became a thing of, if you’re Chinese, you’re part of the problem.
Helena Wadia: Social media is completely vital to your job and your industry. What was the impact? Did you did you use it less?
Michelle Elman: Yeah, I stopped posting for about three months. There was just a point where like, I had to come offline completely. I remember at least two or three phone calls to friends crying about it. And many phone calls to my agent being like, I need I need someone to do something about this. And my agent reaching out to people and nothing was done.
Helena Wadia: TikTok itself says that attacks on the basis of protected attributes such as race go against its own community guidelines. Michelle reported the racist abuse she was receiving to two people who worked at TikTok. One apologised, but no action was taken.
Helena Wadia: Let me ask you, did you experience any specific online anti-Asian abuse pre-pandemic?
Michelle Elman: I think I’ve always had more comments surrounding my weight and my scars. So I can’t say if it was there, I noticed it as much. But I think there is racism in the fact that especially before the pandemic, before the #StopAsianHate movement, I had been in rooms of influencers when I talked about racism and talked about the lack of representation and how there are next to no Asian creators, especially in the plus size community, I would be told things like, “Oh, well, you’re just playing the race card”.
Helena Wadia: You mentioned earlier that you were getting these comments from quite a young audience. How young are we talking?
Michelle Elman: I don’t know, it’s always hard to tell because they’re more anonymous. But there were definitely times I would click over and they had videos on there. And the youngest I probably saw, I would guess would be about five years old.
Helena Wadia: Five years old?!
Michelle Elman: Yeah, that young.
Helena Wadia: What would you say to, sort of, the parents of these children that were posting such horrible things on your TikTok?
Michelle Elman: I think you can’t assume your kids know to be anti-racist. So your avoidance of the conversation is part of the silence. And so you actually need to have an active conversation about racism, even if your child is white. And the reason why I say even if your child is white is because if your child is a person of colour, the likelihood is they’re having that conversation because they have to. Chinese kids come home crying about different comments. And so we have that conversation already. Whereas if you’re white, you might not have to have that conversation but actually realising no, you do have to have that conversation and being really aware of your own biases, and it might not be explicit racism, but we all have our own biases. And a lot of the things around Asian racism specifically, haven’t been discussed. I’ve been standing up for Asiansf or years. I think the first article I wrote about Asian discrimination was in 2016, for The Metro. But the appetite for having these articles written or even posting on my page, for the engagement and my audience actually responding to it – if you compare it to my normal engagement was nothing. Every time I wanted to talk about racism, no one was hearing it, whether it was me wanting to write an article about it, or whether it was me actually in a room with a fashion company saying, “Hey, you don’t have a single Asian on your entire newsfeed, you need to change that”. So its parents, its brands, its companies, its PR agencies who become gatekeepers for these events, it’s all of it – but we haven’t had a conversation about it because it’s not been seen as a legitimate enough issue, until, unfortunately, a number of people had to die this summer.
Helena Wadia: While hate comments and conspiracy theories were affecting East Asian people like Michelle online, hate crimes were happening offline too, some with devastating effects. In February 2021, Dr Peng Wang, a lecturer at the University of Southampton, and originally from China, was out jogging when a group of four men drove past in a car shouting abuse at him. They circled around him in the car several times. When confronted by Dr. Wang, the man got out of the car and proceeded to punch and kick him to the ground. It has been confirmed the incident was racially aggravated.
Peng Wang: There was a car on the other side of the road, there was a man who sat behind the driver, you know, who opened the window and shouted at me by using racist words, you know, “Chinese”, you know, “fuck you”, you know, “Chinese virus”, so I noticed it was a you know, racist attack. So I shouted back, and they stopped the car, then I went to the car you know, I touch the window of the car, then the driver, gets out of the car and they attack me on the on the street on the ground.
Helena Wadia: I’m looking at a photo of the aftermath of the attack now. And it’s horrible to see, there’s blood across your nose and your mouth, and it’s so upsetting. Um, what was the physical trauma that you needed treatment for?
Peng Wang: You know, it’s mainly you know, about my nose. Yeah, even now that I touch it it’s still not as, well, as perfect as it used to be. So fortunately, the bone was intact. Yeah. So so it’s mainly about bruise and also my elbow. But you know, after two months, I will say I was almost healed.
Helena Wadia: We’ve spoken about the physical effects of the attack. But what has been the effect on your mental health? Have you felt safe in Southampton in your community since the attack?
Peng Wang: Yeah, obviously, no. I can remember, you know, after the attack, I took my son out, you know, I felt nervous to be honest. If they attacked me, how can I protect my son?
Helena Wadia: Before the pandemic, had you experienced racism in the same way?
Peng Wang: Yeah, I will say yeah. I can recall, you know, there was once I went to the Burger King in the city centre, you know, some teenagers around 12/13 years old, they said, “Ching Chong” to me. Yeah, but obviously after the pandemic, you know, so it’s, it’s more frequent. So I had a feeling that things were getting worse after the referendum. People, you know, they were not as tolerated to other people as they used to. Yeah so I had a feeling.
Helena Wadia: Do you in any way regret your actions of that day?
Peng Wang: Oh, no, no. I believe you know, if you don’t fight back, theN things will get worse. This time they shout at you, maybe next time they attacked you. So you have to stop them. The police have identified all of them. So yeah, in total, they’re facing eight charges. Yeah, so I believe that if they know the consequence, they won’t do that again.
Helena Wadia: Hate Crimes against Asian people will also rising quickly and more violently across the pond in the US.
[MONTAGE OF ASSAULTS ON ASIAN PEOPLE IN THE US]
Helena Wadia: A Filipino American man was slashed in the face with a box cutter on the New York City subway. An elderly Thai immigrant died after being shoved to the ground in San Francisco. An 89 year old woman was slapped in the face and then set on fire in Brooklyn. The Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism says anti Asian hate crimes increased by nearly 150% in 2020. But this statistic is likely to be an underestimate – we’ll get on to why in a minute. The US Congress responded to the increase in anti Asian abuse by enacting the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act signed by President Joe Biden on May 20 2021.
[Joe Biden: We heard how too many Asian Americans have been waking up each morning this past year genuinely, genuinely fearing for their safety. It’s simply, to use the phrase, it’s simply un-American. My message to all of those who are hurting is we see you. The Congress said, we see you.]
Helena Wadia: The law focuses on reviewing hate crime instances and provides grants to police departments so they can establish hotlines for people to report hate crimes. But do these kinds of laws actually address the root issue? And is more police funding ever the answer? California State University Professor Phyllis Gerstenfeld is a criminal justice expert who studies hate crimes.
Phyllis Gerstenfeld: In general, I don’t think that hate crime laws deter anyone, at least not directly. So the general answer is no. And I don’t think that a lot of people are necessarily very aware of it. That doesn’t mean that the law is not useful though, it can have the more sort of effect of making people aware that this is a problem, of sending a message that this is an issue that we need to deal with and need to be aware of. So, it can have an indirect effect. But I don’t think it will directly result in deterring anyone,
Helena Wadia: I suppose a good thing about hate crime acts is data collection, right? But a lot of people think that more data just means more of the same. And the same hasn’t always been that great for people of colour, right?
Phyllis Gerstenfeld: Agreed. I mean, part of the problem is that the data we do have are unreliable and inconsistent. When it comes to immigrants, for example, a lot of immigrants may feel uncomfortable reporting hate crimes or crimes against them, they may go unrecognised for a variety of reasons, especially when they’re undocumented. So one solution is to be more thoughtful about how data are collected, and the data that we get at are more representative of what’s really happening in the world. But again, having a lot of data doesn’t do us any good if we don’t do useful things with it. There are some people who seem to think that just collecting numbers means we’ve done our job, the problem was solved, we don’t have to worry about it anymore. And that’s only a very beginning step in the process.
Helena Wadia: A really big question is, are hate crimes specifically difficult to prosecute?
Phyllis Gerstenfeld: Hate crimes are extremely difficult to prosecute. They’re just about the only crime that requires a prosecutor to prove motive beyond a reasonable doubt. And it’s really hard to prove motives, even people who are acting maybe unaware of their own motives, all of the people who are involved in a particular event may have very different perspectives of what happened. So a victim may view something one way, or the police may view it another, witnesses another way, lawyers another way. So they’re extremely difficult to prosecute. Very few prosecutors have a lot of experience or training in dealing with hate crimes, and in many cases, they just won’t touch it.
Helena Wadia: I guess a lot of people think that hate crime bills don’t address, as you were saying, the kind of root cause of why crimes happen. But in general, is that something that could be addressed or measured by a government?
Phyllis Gerstenfeld: I think so but in a sort of indirect way. So one way a government can do that is by funding research, you know, putting money where our mouths are, encouraging researchers to really look at what what’s going on. And then drafting policies that’s responsive to that research, things like training, education, rehabilitation programmes , all of those things are things that government can sponsor, but it can’t do those things if it doesn’t know what the real problems are. A lot of attention is paid to sort of organised extremism, because I guess it’s most obvious – we can see them you know, marching in the streets. But the research says that’s not who commits most hate crimes, something like it’s estimated maybe as much as 95% of hate crimes are committed by people who don’t belong to any organised group. So I think if we put more focus on understanding why those other 95% of people are committing these crimes and what we can do to intervene and prevent that, that could be really useful.
Helena Wadia: Lawmakers have perhaps overlooked the most important piece of the puzzle, prevention of racism. But does our media teach us to be actively anti-racist? That takes us back to the studio. Thanks for sticking around.
Mathilda Mallinson: Welcome back to the studio and to Media Storm, a podcast that seeks to provide balance to the mainstream media. Some mainstream media’s often forget to speak to people with lived experience of the issue. So we want to provide a space for those people often found caught in the eye of the media storm.
Helena Wadia: Today we are talking about anti-Asian discrimination and racism. And with us are some very special guests.
Mathilda Mallinson: Our first guest is Editor-in-Chief of Vice UK, the author of the Forgotten Women series, and host of United Zingdom, a podcast about what it means to be British. It’s Zing Tsjeng!
Zing Tsjeng: Thank you so much for having me
Helena Wadia: Our second guest is a journalist and producer, you may know him from the podcasts, Trashfuture, Human Error and Ten Thousand Posts. Or you might have read his book, Follow Me Akhi: The online world of British Muslims. It’s Hussein Kesvani!
Hussein Kesvani: Hi, thanks for having me on.
Mathilda Mallinson: So you just heard the investigation that Helena did for us. Do you have any immediate thoughts?
Zing Tsjeng: It honestly doesn’t surprise me what’s been happening over the last two years now, the rise in pandemic racism, because I’ve experienced it myself.
Mathilda Mallinson: Was it tangibly different from before the pandemic?
Zing Tsjeng: I would say like on a good year, this is going to depress a lot of people, in a good stretch I could go for maybe like a year without someone saying something that I could point to and be like, yeah, that’s racist as hell. Now it was like happening like every few months, every month? It’s happening online, it’s happening offline. Just last week, I was on the street, let out a bit of a cough and a cyclist went past and just shouted Coronavirus at me. People feel more comfortable saying it. And it’s for the reasons that you have political leaders signing off on this kind of language and saying to people essentially, it’s okay if we call it the Chinese flu, it’s okay if you use racist and discriminatory language, because here’s me doing it in a press conference.
Helena Wadia: Hussein, as somebody that is – I’m sure you won’t mind me saying – extremely online – when we heard from the investigation about the comments that Michelle was getting on TikTok from people who were as young as five years old, what’s your reaction to that?
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, it’s really sad. But it’s also like, incredibly common, that especially the most extreme vitriol happens online where people kind of feel like they have much more license to be much more directly frightening to people. There’s also like different axioms of vulnerability as well. It’s a really vulnerable place to be in, right, you’re really like putting yourself out there and for lots of people who want to be abusive – and you know, and this isn’t just about racial abuse, this is all different types of abuse – they know that social media is extremely effective because they can really kind of get into those vulnerabilities and it can really disorientate you.
Mathilda Mallinson: One of the questions we want to ask here is how responsible the mainstream media have been in encouraging this? What role have they played, particularly looking at how the pandemic was reported on. I was working on a video team at the time, and I remember all of the press agency footage we were getting in for any news videos remotely connected to the pandemic were filmed – and this is completely serious – were filmed in Chinatown. It was just general images of British Asians with masks in Chinatown.
Zing Tsjeng: There was a really lazy impulse for mainstream news outlets to just go for the lowest common denominator and think ‘Coronavirus is a story coming out of China, so therefore, we have to somehow illustrate it in the Chinese way’. And the understanding of what Chinese culture is in the UK is so so narrow that the first thing that many people think of is literally just Chinatown, that’s the really, really sad state of affairs. It’s always Gerrad Street, it’s always something to do with lanterns in a breeze. And I think that that just speaks to overall the complete lack of representation of any kind of Chinese culture in the British media – it is literally just seen as women in cheongsam, some floating lanterns, Chinese acrobats and Chinatown. And that it’s so limiting for Chinese people, Chinese journalists, Chinese actors, Chinese creatives – and then something like the pandemic coming along, and all of a sudden, the only image that people think of when they think of anything Chinese is Chinatown.
Hussein Kesvani: I used to, when I worked in media covering like terrorism stories and stuff, I would always be sent to Whitechapel or I’d always be sent to places in East London where it was mostly like, Bengali immigrants who have been here for a really long time to ask them about people that they don’t really know. And who they don’t even share, like an ethnic lineage with. And to me, it always reflected this kind of obsession with simplification and this obsession with superficiality that so much of media has. And that’s partly to do with the kind of demands of the news business, the idea that stuff has to be out and you have to be faster than everyone. But the second is also just like a very ingrained sense of racism and ingrained sense of superiority –
it basically boils down to the fact that not a lot of people bother to understand the differences between these cultures and communities in the UK.
Helena Wadia: Yeah, it’s like “BAME”
Zing Tsjeng: Exactly
Helena Wadia: I’ve always thought how strange to pack an entire continent into one little letter of an acronym of several minority ethnic groups.
Zing Tsjeng: It would basically be like me as someone who comes from Singapore, and an English person coming to Singapore, and, you know, visiting me and me saying “Hi, I’ve made you a really nice meal. I’ve made you some schnitzel. This is your culture, right? It’s kind of the same, right? Fish and chips, schnitzel”
Mathilda Mallinson: You really chose the worst European country for food.
Helena Wadia: Controversial, Mathilda! I definitely think that East and Southeast Asian people bore the brunt of this kind of racism. And then a bit further on into the pandemic, we started getting Coronavirus variants from other places, and genuinely mainstream media outlets were and news anchors were using the words “the Indian variant”, not even the scientific name of it, or “the variant that was first identified in India”, it was genuinely “the Indian variant”. And, you know, I know personally, at least two people who were verbally abused, told to stop bringing Coronavirus over here. And that’s just the people I know about, let alone the amount of people that we’re talking about on social media.
Mathilda Mallinson: I think a lot of people at the time, when we started talking about maybe we should be saying the Delta variant, saw that as “political correctness”. Yeah, as people who actually live the consequences of language, I wonder what you would say to that?
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, the whole obsession of wokeness has also come out in the past, like two years. And like crucially, in the context of the pandemic, now everything that you don’t like is ‘woke’. With “the Indian variant”, I definitely know from like families and friends, especially those who run service businesses, like running short shops and stuff, that they had received a lot of abuse, a lot of racial abuse, as a result of it. And that was on top of like the abuse that came with being an essential worker that like, you know, everyone who worked in a kind of like service economy job faced in some way.
Helena Wadia: Hussein uou mentioned wokeness. And I think, what we’re going to talk about next, I think, so many people, as we talk about it, would probably roll their eyes and be like, oh, you know, “PC brigade can’t say anything these days”. But in December 2020, there was an advert for Domino’s Pizza. And in the advert, a group of friends are sat around, and they were deciding what to order for dinner. And one of them says “anything but Chinese”. Now, I don’t know if people might say that I was being too sensitive, or whatever it is. But I am surprised that of surely so many people that an advert has to go through, that not one person thought, hey, maybe that’s a bit off.
Zing Tsjeng: Yeah. And you know, Chinese takeaways are incredibly racialised sites of identity. So you know, I know so many people whose parents came over to the UK set up Chinese takeaways. And then we’re kind of expected to feed what was in many cases a white majority town or village and then just put up with the racism they experienced as a kind of price of doing business. So many people I know had parents who just kind of swallowed that pain and just never really talked about it and just brushed it off. And to have that be reduced to a punchline… You know, I can only imagine how kind of hurtful that could be. But I’m also really aware of the fact that part of the problem with discussing things like this is that there will be someone out there at home listening to it and saying “the woke mob wanted to cancel Domino’s”. And that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that maybe Domino’s might consider their script a little bit better and maybe hire some more East or Southeast Asian people.
Hussein Kesvani: It’s interesting that you say that because the accusations of the “woke mob” are also really useful and effective ways that are utilised to like shut down any kind of attempt not even to capitulate to even just like meet you halfway.
Mathilda Mallinson: Yeah, I mean, you can be defensive or you can listen and not take it personally. Zing, what you just said about Chinese takeaways and the history of that and the emotion, that is not something I’ve heard before. And that touches me. And I’m glad that I know that now and they will reflect on certain things differently. I do think that our response is often to feel attacked and to become defensive in a way that’s really counterproductive to progress.
Zing Tsjeng: I think there was a debate maybe a few years back about calling Chinese takeaways the C word. And people got really defensive over it.
Mathilda Mallinson: Someone said, “Oh, if it’s racist to call the Chinese takeaway the C word then isn’t it racist to call a fish and chip shop a chippy”
Zing Tsjeng: Yeah, I mean, the logic just doesn’t make any sense at all. That was a real kind of like, brain worms moment from whoever tweeted that.
Hussein Kesvani: It’s also the same thing about like, minor inconveniences, like how these minor inconveniences will end up being framed as these like huge grievances against like, English culture. I went to university in York, and every year, there’d always be the same scandal of “the students are trying to get the shops to stop selling Golliwogs” but the way but it was framed was very much along the lines of, you know, “these kind of lefty students who come from London are trying to prevent local businesses from you know, thriving, and it’s just like when you set that frame as your starting point, then I don’t know where like that productively takes you.
Mathilda Mallinson: I think this is actually something that the media is really culpable in, is these culture wars, because they often dig up these issues, and they make a whole hoo ha about it, because it sells papers. I think that they see culture wars as quite a profitable battleground, and therefore deliberately flare up these things that are basically just distractions.
Zing Tsjeng: Oh, definitely. I think it’s like, the light entertainment version of journalism in that if you actually cornered some of these journalists in a pub and said, do you actually care that Mrs. bloggs down, you know, ye old York traditional souvenir store can no longer sell her racist Golliwogs, all of them will literally hold up their hands up and say, “actually, I don’t care one bit”. It’s just cultural fodder for the grist, you know, it’s not anything that they feel genuinely emotional or engaged about.
Mathilda Mallinson: And just to drill in the seriousness of the consequences on the other side, the very real life responses to racism and to the rhetoric and the culture that becomes normalised. I think we should talk about the Atlanta Spa shootings that happened in March of this year. And for anyone who’s not aware, that was in America when a white gunman went on a shooting spree targeting three spa in Atlanta, killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women. So let’s start with how the shootings were reported. Zing, you wrote a really arresting article, and I just want to read the title, it was: “Asian women’s bodies are not playgrounds for white people”. You touched on how Asian women and East Asian women are represented in pop culture. Do you think that that has an important role in how the media reports on these things?
Zing Tsjeng: When you’re an East or Southeast Asian woman, you get very quickly used to the kind of constant sexualization and justification of fetishisation. And it’s very strange, because you’re simultaneously totally replaceable with another Asian woman. Because, you know, quote, unquote, “we all look the same”. When that’s the only representation you see of Asian women in the media, that has a knock on effect on how you report about real Asian women, and the things that happen to us. And I think you could definitely see that in the way that the shooting was reported, and the way that the police even reported the shooting themselves. So there’s this really infamous press conference, in which an officer in charge of the case kind of says, ‘Well, you know, the shooter, you know, he says he’s got an addiction, it’s a problem, and he was trying to fix the source of his addiction’. It’s just really dehumanising language – and that’s what happens when you just reduce an entire community down to a stereotype, you dehumanise them, and you therefore make it easier to raise them as real human beings.
Mathilda Mallinson: And you compare that to how little sympathy is given to the mental health of non-white terrorists – because he was charged with domestic terrorism.
Helena Wadia: Part of that really infamous press conference you were talking about was when – I think it was the county sheriff – said that he’d ‘had a bad day’. The shooter. The excuses for doing what he did were really plastered everywhere in the mainstream media – that he had a bad day, that he had a sex addiction. The fact that we were even debating whether or not it was a racialised attack was awful to me.
Mathilda Mallinson: But even to say that I have a sex addiction, and I associate these spas with the biggest temptations, is that not in itself racist?
Zing Tsjeng: Oh, yeah. 100%. How could you argue with the fact that shooting is not racially motivated when you look at the breakdown of who was shot, who was targeted and who was killed? If that is not a racially motivated crime I honestly don’t know what would meet that criteria.
Mathilda Mallinson: Hussein, do you have any thoughts about, for example, how South Asian men are represented in the media?
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah, with all these types of events it always starts off with like, ‘oh, this is another Muslim terrorist’, the same kind of rhetoric about immigration and ‘this is what happens when you let refugees come into your country’ and so on. Then when more information comes out, you can see how people are not only trying to go back on their own stories, but they’re still trying to weave their own narrative. The affordance of mental health has been given to certain people but for others, it’s very much like no, you are motivated primarily by theology, you are motivated primarily by race. And so – I think to answer your question about South Asian men, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, and also in other stories, like, you know, grooming gangs, for example, immigrant men, and particularly dark skinned immigrant men, are like ‘threats to your nation’ and like ‘threats to your race’ and ‘threats to the spiritual health of your country’. It’s always largely like fixated on this idea of the ‘immigrant savage’, the foreigner, who just by virtue of doing something morally reprehensible is not subjected to the individualistic moral failings afforded to people who are white, or people who have not come from immigrant backgrounds or who are not Muslim. It’s always sort of framed as culture wars, it’s always framed as like, clash of civilisations. I guess the point that I’m trying to make is like, when it comes to people of colour, very often these people are like commodified, and they’re sort of used to particular ends as objects that are there to tell stories rather than individuals who have agency over their own actions.
Helena Wadia: I think British Asian people are seen as perpetual foreigners. That’s how I feel anyway, you know, if we watch I mean, not so much now, there’s, a lot of new and varied representation, I think, coming up in TV and film but I mean, before it was, what cab driver, newsagent, terrorist. geek. I mean, I had Bend It Like Beckham, and then nothing for 20 years. I think a lot of it has to do with what’s commonly known as the model minority myth, which is basically stereotypes of Asian people such as Asian children being geniuses, or like musical legends at the age of two, those myths kind of portray Asian people as polite and quiet and law abiding in a place that isn’t really their home.
Zing Tsjeng: The whole model minority myth is used as a kind of wedge to drive home the differences between different ethnic communities, you know, the academic achievements of East Asian people are used as a kind of stick to beat other communities with, to say, ‘look at this ethnic minority they’ve done really well, look at their college admissions, you know, their aceing school. So what excuse does your community have? Well, if you only tried harder, if you assimilated better, then you could be just like these guys!’ to basically kind of perpetuate the idea that if some immigrant groups do well and others don’t, then that’s a problem on them, it has nothing to do with their relationship to the state. It has nothing to do with their history. By extension, then there is no obligation for the state to do anything proactive to, like help them in their experience, or to help them in terms of like how they navigate quite a hostile or pretty hostile environment.
Mathilda Mallinson: Time now to look at current headlines, we’re going to be talking about the story of Azeem Rafiq, so just to catch up anyone who doesn’t know, the cricketer Azeem Rafiq has exposed his experiences of racism, harassment, and bullying during his time playing for Yorkshire. One of his many allegations was against the former England captain Michael Vaughan, who he alleges said, “too many of you lot, we need to do something about it” to Rafiq and three other Asian players during a match for Yorkshire in 2009. Vaughn, as a result, will not be part of the BBC coverage of The Ashes in Australia, as the BBC has said that that would be a conflict of interest. We want to talk about an article that was in The Telegraph, the headline, “BBC under pressure to reinstate Michael Vaughn as a Azeem Rafiq says “furore” made bigger than necessary. Hussein, why don’t you lead the charge on this one?
Hussein Kesvani: This type of reaction is very familiar. This idea of like, oh, you know, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill and like, you know, you’re overexaggerating this stuff, it’s in the past and so on. Basically like it’s this kind of really pure example of minimising what is really like horrific problem. I watched Rafiq give evidence at parliamentary hearing, he was very close to breaking down to tears, or he actually did, you could see just how like heartbreaking it all was. So you read this headline, it reminds me a lot of like, how racism was dealt with when I was in primary school and secondary school.
Helena Wadia: The language used throughout this article and in this headline is so interesting. The article referred to it as a “furore” – and Rafiq’s actual comment where he says the quote “made bigger” is actually quite vague to what he’s referring to.
Mathilda Mallinson: I mean, everything in this article, from the language to the emissions to the inclusions is very agenda specific. I think that that’s the dangerous thing. It’s not a piece of reporting. This is a piece of opinion, but it is presented as a piece of reporting. A lot of the packaging of the quotes is very decontextualised and misleading. I think that the final paragraph of the article is…
Helena Wadia: Honestly, I was on the edge throughout this whole article and the final paragraph tipped me over the edge. I’ll just read a few lines from it. “Sky footage also shows Vaughan greeting a smiling Rafiq during the pre-match huddle in which he is alleged to have made the comment.”
Zing Tsjeng: Yeah, like that’s so loaded, right? Because you’re essentially implying that Rafiq has made it up, in the sense that ‘why would you smile at someone who said something racist to you?’ It’s a form of telling people actually, you thought you experienced this, but actually, we don’t think you did. And even if you did, it doesn’t matter to us.
Hussein Kesvani: It’s also kind of absurd, because whenever any of us have really faced any kind of like abuse, or harassment catches you really suddenly, your impulse is really is not to react, especially when you’re sort of, you know, in public, right? I don’t know about everyone else, but I definitely know for me, I kind of learned how to process a lot of that very, very privately, especially when you’re in institutions, whether they’re in like particular schools, universities, newsrooms, and newsrooms in particular I would actually say, when you have to, like navigate that type of abuse, or that type of harassment, your kind of default is to sort of just like, get on with your day, and then really process it afterwards. So the idea of like, oh, how could he have been racist? If like, Rafiq was smiling, like not reacting? How could that be possible? You know, again, I think you’re right about like, this is this is very much a news piece, but it’s like this guy’s opinion, or at least kind of like opinion positioning. I mean, I guess like a base level, yeah, this is like very classic victim blaming. But it’s also you know, and I hate using this word really lightly, it is very clear gaslighting.
Helena Wadia: I think something else interesting about this article was that there are multiple mentions of Rafiq’s old Facebook messages from 2011, in which he used anti-Semitic language, which he has apologised for. On the flip side, they fail to mention Michael Vaughn’s old social media posts – how in 2010 Vaughan tweeted “not many English people live in London, I need to learn a new language” and in 2017, following the Manchester arena bombing, he answered “yes” to a question on Twitter on whether England all rounder Moeen Ali “should ask Muslims if they are terrorists”. Vaughan has said he’s embarrassed by the tweets and he’s a different person now. But it seems a very obvious omission, especially when they are talking about old social media posts.
Zing Tsjeng: Yeah, it’s interesting whose past behaviour is mentioned in order to discredit their version of events.
Hussein Kesvani: You can also like, claim plausible deniability. The fact that we have a news article that is effectively an opinion piece, or at least very close to one, is basically one that says, oh, you know, we’re just reporting the news. And like, we’re just being objective. When you think about news, we should be thinking about what quotes are being selected, what types of positions are being magnified, what ones are being ignored.
Zing Tsjeng: And I think it’s also about who gets given the license in the press and the platform to show that they are fully rounded human being who is capable of making mistakes, and that we should afford them forgiveness and understanding. You can see in the way that Rafiq’s old Facebook posts were used against him, that forgiveness, and that license of understanding and empathy is not extended to people of colour in the same way it’s extended to white people.
Helena Wadia: Please, can we also talk about the fact that Monty Panesar’s views are given two whole paragraphs in this article, and he has nothing to do with the case.
Hussein Kesvani: Yeah from what I understand Panesar’s whole thing is just like, ‘he should just be focusing more on his cricket’ or ‘South Asian players should be focusing less on racism and more on cricket, toughen up’. And again, it’s very much, you’re the type of immigrant that we like because you’re the one who will basically say that the solutions to your problems are just to like, you know, hustle and grind more, and just to prove yourself, and that’s when people will respect you. There’s this really sad element to it, as well, where for so many immigrant communities, who came to Britain and faced all this hardship, the reason why they accepted this was because they knew that they weren’t going to get any support or help anywhere else. With our generation, like, you know, second or third generation immigrant kids who were born in this country, we have these expectations. And I think this is the first time that this media class but could just ignore minorities, because most of them were working class and didn’t really have any kind of opinions that were ‘valuable’ to them. This is the first time that for lots of these institutions, they actually have to listen. And that’s why we have diversity workshops and all that. I think a lot of that is a reaction to having to confront this for the first time.
Zing Tsjeng: In addition to that, that accusation that it’s just online trolls and it’s like a hate mob basically, which I think came across really strongly in the way Sunday Times Prince Philip obituary on their front page, which was written by Christina Lamb, the foreign correspondent. And the Sunday Times eventually apologised for it after she’d written about Prince Philip’s racist jokes that we ‘secretly enjoyed Prince Philip’s gaffes’. This blew up on Twitter, there was a formal complaint filed, people signed a petition to get the Sunday Times to apologise. And then Christina Lamb wrote an editorial saying that she was the target of an online mobsz, quote ‘the jihadists were polite in comparison’. I mean, where do you even go with something like that? Really? Obviously, if you are abused on social media and you’re giving death threats, that’s unacceptable. But she then goes on to talk about completely legitimate criticism that she received from community groups, from Gemma Chan, saying that this kind of language is unacceptable. You know, who’s the ‘we’ here who are laughing at Prince Philip’s racist gaffes? Because it really isn’t Asian people.
Hussein Kesvani: It’s is a really convenient way of like dismissing any structural criticism.
Mathilda Mallinson: And I think it’s just important to say on this point that many Muslims would object to the use of the term ‘jihad’ as a terrorist term – that it’s a spiritual term, that doesn’t mean what it’s often implied to mean in the media. And that in itself is negatively stereotyping one religion as terrorist.
Helena Wadia: I remember thinking in the Christina Lamb article, how many people of colour have been abused for so long, both online and offline, and don’t get a whole newspaper column dedicated to it?