The Invisible Burden of Asian Women’s Experiences of Racism

Atlantic Center for the Arts

The recent attack by The Daily Telegraph on female academics at the University of Sydney highlights a misogynistic culture in which women’s academic work is devalued, and, in the case of the attack on Dr Jane Park, a form of bullying that targets already stigmatised women of colour who talk openly about race and racism in this country. I want to draw attention to the position that people of Asian descent, and women in particular, are placed in when they speak truth to racism in Australia. I write this reflection as an Asian Australian man who draws on the writing of women of Asian descent.

‘Asian’ and people with hyphenated Asian identities are often seen as model minorities in this country. They are often accorded the status of ‘honorary whiteness’ when they conform to capitalist productivity and do not challenge the status quo. Orientalism is the way in which the West imagines the East through fantasies of exoticism and domination. These fantasies involve the West inhabiting a masculine position in relation to a feminised East. Because Orientalist ideologies feminise Asian people,  Asian women inhabit a doubly feminised position in which they are expected to remain docile, compliant, and quiet. The lack of legitimacy given to Asian voices, opinions, and authorities is evident in the stark lack of Asian presence in leadership positions in Australian institutions.

As a result of these ingrained biases, Asian women’s authority on matters of race is often treated as suspect or illegitimate. They straddle the line between being invisible and, when they talk back to power, being hyper-visible–as Dr Park became through the article in question.  I am not suggesting that Asian people face a rarefied and especially oppressive stigma when talking about race, but simply that their position is a unique one that needs to be acknowledged.

This acknowledgement is important because if we can not acknowledge the position that people of colour find themselves in when talking about race, then we can not provide adequate support when those people face bullying that is motivated by racism and sexism. While no racist and sexist slurs were used, the article exploited Dr Park’s vulnerable position as a woman of colour teaching students about race and racism. Women academics of colour such as Dr Park perform additional emotional labour while teaching. Emotional labour is the work of managing feelings and emotions in one’s job, while not being paid to do so. Women academics of colour are under attack on the basis of both gender and race when teaching sensitive topics such as white privilege.  Attacks of this kind can of course be extremely distressing. If we can’t recognise the emotional burden of this kind of work for people of colour, then those forced to carry this burden go unappreciated, unseen, with potentially oppressive results for the individual.

This is why the institutional support afforded to Dr Park is wholly inadequate. It does not acknowledge her particular gendered and racialised position as an educator. Thus, it does not adequately defend her from the racist attitudes that continue to constrain and hinder women of colour in this country. The Daily Telegraph’s attack is about keeping people of colour in a position of marginality in relation to the white majority. People of colour are not perceived to belong or have a valid place within white dominated space, and this is part of why people of Asian descent in Australia who challenge this norm continue to be made hyper-visible and targets of intimidation. Racism is not reducible to racial slurs. It is also in all the under-hand ways of wearing down people of colour and challenging their authority in the spaces they have created. As long we fail to see how this racism functions, racism wins.

See also:

Between Boredom and Terror


Timothy Kazuo Steains is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. His PhD thesis explored intercultural engagement with Japan in contemporary Australian literature, cinema, and theatre. His primary research areas are mixed race studies and Asian Australian Studies.

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