The summit that was

Photo by Stephanie (@yiduiqie)
Photo by Stephanie (@yiduiqie)

I attended the second day of the Asian Australian Leadership Summit recently. It was a 2-day event, with a ‘next gen’ focus on the first day (that I unfortunately couldn’t attend – it looked fab and listed some excellent speakers).

The event on the second day that I attended, held in the SLV’s Roadshow theatrette, drew a big crowd. I was appreciative of the invitation, and the opportunity to be part of such an ambitious project. I am glad I attended and (re)met some fabulous people; people I probably wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for this kind of gathering. It was a huge undertaking and I’m thankful to the organisers for creating a space for these conversations and cross-sector perspectives.

This post is a reflection on my experiences and the conversations that took place through the day. The intention is to examine the way issues and tropes manifested during the event, and is in no way intended to diminish the achievement of staging this important, complex, milestone summit. I am speaking from the position of an academic and long-time activist in Asian Australian Studies.

I was a little wary of attending as I am not a fan of corporatised Asian Australian networking and individual hero narratives. I have had variable experiences with badged ‘leadership’ events, verging from relatively tedious to actively negative. Ditto Asian Australian events that were all about checking out everyone’s titles and whether they were ‘useful’ to know – an introvert’s ultimate networking nightmare. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen at academic conferences a lot, too, but I’ve been part of fantastic Asian Australian community projects and events that have spoilt me for anything less than.

The day’s hashtag was #asianausleadership and, while I didn’t set out to livetweet the day, I ended up commenting on quite a few things. I thought about keeping quiet about my frustrations and criticisms, then figured that everyone’s a grown-up and we need to really talk about hard things rather than pretend that everything’s going fine and we’re on an ever-inspiring upward trajectory.

To give some background on why the summit was held at all, take a look at the stats around Asian Australian representation (and cultural diversity in general) across various sectors in Australia:

There is a lot of work to do on many fronts to address these issues. The foundation of these problems is quite clear and not a mystery: racism and discrimination. So, any attempt to increase representation is basically also about reducing the levels of racism and discrimination in that particular sector. The attempts to find leverage for ‘more’ cultural diversity, a core theme throughout the summit, are understandable. They come, however, without the context of how endemic racism is in Australian society and culture; indeed, in its very founding as a colonial nation that usurped unceded Indigenous Australian lands. This is not history – this is still the case today. The acknowledgement of country that preceded the day should have cast a much larger influence across all that followed (see Nakkiah Lui’s thread on how “most racial commentary from People of Colour in Australia leaves out any mention of Aboriginal people”). I know the event can’t be all things to all people, and it was aimed at a very particular slice of the Asian Australian community. A more thorough, historically informed view of Australian racism as point of common departure may have taken us further down the track of what holistically needs to be done.

Things that I found challenging through the day:

  • Discussion about strategies that focused on replicating the power structures and dynamics that are the status quo, as if diversifying representation while keeping discriminatory mechanisms will offer a way forward. No. This just diversifies the exclusionary system that will keep on excluding. Is this what we want? I know it’s not what I want, and it’s certainly not the way to effect sustained change for those with little voice to gain more voice. Is this the only way that ‘inclusion’ can happen for Asian Australians?
  • Conceptualising Asian Australian groups as ‘assets’ and resources for the nation that are underutilised. If we keep going down that road, it requires us to be constantly overachieving and justifying our usefulness. It invites an only ever contingent acceptance in society (where certain groups get to call the shots when judging who gets to be deemed useful). We need to know – and be sceptical – about the Model Minority dynamics around this.
    >> See Yen Rong Wong’s article in Meanjin: “The very model of a model ethnic minority” (2018), or this primer on the Model Minority myth (US context).
  • While I understand the framing of the event was around Asian Australian groups and the catchy #bambooceiling issue, the intersectionality that was mentioned a few times is not a side issue. It is core. Asian Australians can’t really ‘get ahead’ unless discrimination and racism goes away. Anti-discrimination work must span all communities – all. Not just Asian Australians. Not just Muslim Australians. Not just Indigenous Australians. Not just African Australians. Not just communities of colour. We need to invest our energies in building networks of allyship. Who is not at the table? If we want an inclusive society, our work is in getting as many to the table as we can. Not just getting ourselves to the table. We also need to make that table as big as we can.
  • There was a very strong assumption from quite a few speakers about the ability of Asian Australians to be highly mobile, educated, and well resourced. This definitely needs some reflection. See point about Model Minority above.

The summit offered an excellent networking opportunity for those who wanted to connect with Asian Australians in senior / executive levels across many areas. What I would’ve loved to see was allyship with other marginalised communities – in conversation as well as in presence. Despite my reservations and critique around some of the things said, the break-out groups at the end of the day showed me that mobilising alongside those with aligned philosophies, across different organisations, may offer momentum, profile, and possible real action on sector-specific issues.

A key thing I took away from the summit was that Asian Australian scholarship and its findings need to circulate much more broadly and accessibly among the various groups and sectors. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to getting more people switched on to the elements and effects of racism, how it manifests, and what kinds of antiracist initiatives may be effective. In addition, there’s so much fantastic Asian Australian history out there – the Asian Australian community today must know its history, and that of the nation and other marginalised groups in this country. Doing so will bring more complexity and wisdom to future initiatives.

For me, leadership is not about mimicking or pandering to the status quo. It’s not about occupying a particular role. It’s about having a transformative vision – social, cultural, political, educational, whatever – and working to create an empowered, ethical, more inclusive, and generous community.

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