“Go back to China.”
These were the words directed at Airtasker CEO Tim Fung last Friday, after his dog flicked sand on a fellow beachgoer. Fung was attempting to relax with his family on a ‘recharge day’ he had granted his entire organisation.
“Whilst we were playing on the beach, [my dog] Harvey’s mucking around flicked some sand on to a nearby beachgoer. Self conscious and a little embarrassed, my wife and I apologised to the woman,” Fung wrote.
“I could see that getting sand flicked on me would have been super annoying and that we’d sort of stuffed up her beach day.
“The woman then started muttering a number of racist remarks and as she packed up her stuff to leave the beach yelled at us: go back to China.”
On the one hand, Fung said, he wanted to avoid escalating the conflict, which would likely be potentially dangerous and ultimately pointless.
On the other hand, he added, levels of racism against Asians have escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic, and pondered that “not calling her out seems somewhat irresponsible”.
“Is there a ‘right’ way to handle situations like this?” he asked.
Fung’s experience isn't uncommon: ANU research found that 84.5 per cent of Asian-Australians experienced at least one instance of discrimination between January and October 2020. Lowy Institute research from earlier this year reveals that 63 per cent of Australians with Chinese heritage had been treated differently after tensions between Canberra and Beijing heightened.
Fung’s post has been interacted with more than 700 times and attracted responses from other chief executives from around Australia, with approaches varying widely from ‘leave it’ to ‘confront, confront and confront’.
Points Consultancy chief Steve Hui said that, much like online ‘trolls’, a conversation was unlikely to make much of a difference.
“You can't control how others act and whether it is fair. Ultimately, what matters is how you react,” said Hui.
But MeStudent.com boss George Lipinski thought otherwise: walk away only if she has a knife.
“Otherwise confront, confront and once more confront. Stand up!” he said.
Many shared their own experiences of racism, including AirTree Ventures head of community Melissa Ran.
“When I've encountered outbursts like these on the street or on public transport I also let it go. I do it because I don't think me confronting them will change their opinion,” she said.
“I also think: this person in front of me is in a lot of pain. I live a wonderfully privileged life surrounded by people who love me, I can be the bigger person here.”
Thinkerbell consumer psychologist and founder Adam Ferrier also weighed in.
“[Say] something like ‘Why are you being a racist f**kwit?’ Ask them to question their own behaviour and call it out for what it is.”
How to handle racism
Online mental health service ReachOut.com said it was normal to not know how to react to racism and suggested engaging with the individual.
“Remain calm … ask them why they have a particular point of view … offer them an alternative perspective,” ReachOut’s website states.
The Australian Human Rights Commission also encourages making a record of the incident if it happens in public.
“Video the incident on your phone if you can. If it happens online, take a screenshot.”
The sites also have a strong call to action to bystanders as well.
“When people who witness racism speak out against it, this makes the person being targeted feel supported, and can make the person being racist reconsider their behaviour,” the Australian Government website states.
“If it is safe to do so, speak up and stand with the victim. Even a simple gesture can be powerful.”