Here’s a modern riddle for you.
Sometimes, in the headlines, it sounds like “I don’t know what it is, I just don’t like her” – when ‘her’ just happens to be the country’s first mixed-race princess.
Sometimes, it’s in picking up a gun and shooting down eight people – six of whom just happen to be Asian women.
This week, it’s in the lack of media outrage over a pregnant woman being attacked by a man as she walks home – a woman who just happens to be Jewish.
Often, it’s in the apparently random stopping and searching and sometimes shooting of young men – most of whom just happen to be black.
What is it?
You just know
How do you know, you might ask? It’s hard to believe the words ‘you just know’, but often, it’s all we have. Every person of colour has at least one ‘you just know’ story, where we were clearly victimised because of our race, but don’t have evidence that holds up in court.
But why is it that, even in social settings, it’s down to people of colour to prove these attacks were racially motivated? Even over the past year, whenever I’ve brought up the recent rise of anti-Asian attacks, it’s been met with cries of ‘but how do you know it’s racism?’
“Because a lot of racism is so subtle, there’s a lot of gaslighting that goes on [to deny racism],” explains Hau-Yu Tam, the interim chair of End the Virus of Racism. “You can internalise the gaslighting to such a degree that you even start to believe it yourself.”
The recent horrific shootings in Atlanta, where six out of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent, have sadly brought this issue to the fore. The shooter, according to the police, was just “having a bad day”. They’re still trying to work out if the attacks were racially motivated.
It doesn’t stop there though. You only have to witness the recent fallout from Meghan Markle’s Oprah interview to see that when a person of colour, especially a woman, speaks their truth – in this case about attacks on her character and family due to race – it’s swiftly dismissed. In fact, much of the UK media chose to paint her as the villain of the piece for insinuating racist treatment from members of the Royal Family – more so, alarmingly, than they did when Prince Andrew was accused of raping a teenage girl.
“The problem with the media, for example, is they’re meant to have freedom of speech,” says lawyer and stand-up comic Sikisa. “So as long as they’re saying something that isn’t seen to be discriminatory, they can get away with it.”
In law, the burden of proof lies with the party bringing the charge, not the party denying it – and that’s no different for racist attacks or hate crimes. Essentially, if you’re going to accuse somebody – or some institution – of racism, you better have cast iron proof. Unfortunately, explains international lawyer Tilottama Puri, “the burden of proof is extremely high – and it’s generally difficult to prove discrimination on any grounds, whether that’s gender, race or religion, for example, unless it’s explicit.”
Of course, even when it’s explicit, there are often still doubts. Last year, a Chinese man was arrested in Liverpool after defending himself against perpetrators who shouted “Ch*nk, you got coronavirus, get out the country” before punching him in the face. Despite protests from Chinese community associations and intervention from the Chinese Consulate to the police, the case still went to prosecution. Thankfully, he was found not guilty, but it begs the question – how can racial motive be any more explicit than that?
The hard facts
If you’re looking at particular cases in isolation, it’s perhaps more difficult to prove racial motivation behind an attack, explains Tam. “We tend to focus on individual and interpersonal attacks and aggressions, but when you start looking at how racism works structurally and do the hard work of connecting all these individual incidents, you could start to see racism is everywhere, in everything,” she says. Indeed, End the Virus of Racism reports that UK police data illustrates a shocking 300 per cent rise in crimes towards Chinese, East and South East Asians in the first quarter of 2020. Despite this, there remain questions as to whether these attacks are racially motivated.
Frankly, there’s proof everywhere, in everything. But after centuries of systemic racism, leading to 2020’s unprecedented social justice movements in the wake of the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it often still hasn’t been proof enough. The fact that BAME communities are experiencing more COVID deaths due to structural racism is met with disbelief. Black women are four times more likely, and Asian women twice as likely, to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women – yet systemic racism in the healthcare system has been continuously denied. I could go on, and on, and on.
How can anyone argue against hard numbers? Tam believes that “Fundamentally, people want to live in a world that’s comforting to them. Rather than feeling the horror and the terror that we feel as racialised minorities, many white people – and also those with privilege who are removed from these realities – will see themselves under attack, and might burrow down and shut themselves off.”
The white male police officer who concluded that the Atlanta shooter was just “having a bad day”, for example, had previously promoted a racist COVID-19 themed T-shirt on Facebook. “He sided with the white male perpetrator over the victims of colour because he felt more identification to the attacker than to these women who were killed,” Tam suggests.
What can change?
“The problem with trying to change laws regarding racism is the wording, as it always generates debate as to what counts as racism,” Sikisa explains. “This is why so much has been gotten away with within the law – because it’s so hard to define acts of racism. The law doesn’t even really have any statutes in it that uphold current situations. Look at the sportsmen who are being racially discriminated against on Twitter. There’s no law telling Twitter it has to take that stuff down – it comes from pressure from society.”
Many activists and lawyers of colour are rallying for progress around adapting the burden of proof for racist attacks, but “it would take a lot of change in attitudes,” Puri explains. “In terms of the law, it might be possible to ask a question like ‘if all else was equal, would that person have done the same thing to a person of their own race?’ I would love for there to be some change, but I don’t think that would be anytime soon – definitely not in the US or the UK.”
But while the law is unlikely to be revised, there are other ways for governments to validate communities that suffer from racist attacks. “The government has a role to play in denouncing racism in the strongest possible terms, which it hasn’t done yet,” Tam says, simply. “The minimum our government can do is to say that this is unacceptable, and ministers already have a model for this,” she says, pointing to the US President Joe Biden’s Executive Order condemning anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 as a step in the right direction.
I can’t help but think though – if all the resources that have historically been put into denying racism were instead put into education and eradication, how much further ahead would we be in ending the virus of racism for good?
So, what can we do?
The good news is there are British MPs, like Sarah Owen, who are calling for the government to do more to prevent racism. However, Tam stresses the importance of not thinking it’s always someone else’s responsibility to change the narrative. Indeed, there’s a role for all of us to play within society – and at the very least, to take responsibility for validating the experiences of those who suffer from racism.
Myself, and many of my Asian friends, have been so grateful to everyone who’s checked in on how we feel following the news of the Atlanta attacks this week. As a partner, a friend or a colleague, reaching out to support those who are suffering emotionally due to racially-tinged events, even when racism has not yet been legally proven – especially when it’s not yet been legally proven – is something we can all look to do.
Even people of colour must work on being more mindful and compassionate allies. “It’s important we don’t exempt ourselves from unlearning and showing solidarity with other communities,” points out Tam. “East and Southeast Asians must play their part here to collectively do the work of dismantling racism in all its forms. We owe so much to Black communities and to Black Lives Matter, to South Asian communities who have fought back, to many more groups who have struggled and resisted. We are making social movement history and, at the same time, we have to recover our own stories, which are intrinsically part of the story of the UK.”
I’m galvanised to learn from Tam how the community has stepped up over the past year, with a rise in grassroots movements helping to influence national policy. For East and South East Asians alone, we have End the Virus of Racism, Kanlungan, Hackney Chinese Community Services, SEEAC, besea.n and ESAS in Scotland to name but a few. Many more exist across the United Kingdom’s four nations, working and fighting every day to put pressure on the right forces to combat the issues people of colour face.
Underneath it all though, it’s time for social norms to change. We need to stop asking ‘how do you know it’s because of racism?’, and instead, focus on supporting those who have been victims. Demand proof that it wasn’t because of racism that a victim of colour suffered unnecessarily.
Because most of the time, the proof is in the tone of voice. It’s in the way they stare. It’s in the ‘I don’t know what it is about you, I just don’t like you.’ Now, it’s time to prove that the ‘what’ isn’t our skin colour.