Elle has regularly faced racism since she moved to Aotearoa 17 years ago. She sees racism as a frequent and distressing part of her life.
“I encounter subtle types of racism every day,” she says.
“I feel like it can happen at any time or place.”
Elle works at a university in Auckland, and has experienced both racist discrimination and bullying in Aotearoa. It started when she moved from South Korea when she was 16 and enrolled in a high school. She remembers people calling her names and talking about her as if she wasn’t there.
“They would stretch their eyes and say ‘ching chong’, or greet me using ‘ni hao’ or ‘konichiwa’ because they thought it was funny.
“One day when I was walking up a crammed staircase in-between classes, a girl behind me called me a ‘f****** Asian’. I still vividly remember feeling upset and threatened.”
Elle kept safe at high school by sticking with a small group of Korean students, and didn’t speak much English during her three years there.
She didn’t know it then but her mum, a seamstress, was also facing racist bullying at work at the same time and “cried almost every day in the bathroom at work”. She moved back to South Korea as soon as Elle finished high school.
Elle hoped things would get better at university, but that wasn’t to be. She felt invisible for more than a year until her Pākehā boyfriend, who was also studying for his master’s degree, accompanied her one day to the post-graduate computer lab. A group of students started to bully her afterwards.
“They all gave me the cold shoulder and loudly gossiped about me within my earshot.
“The bullying badly impacted my thesis and mental health, but I had to keep going back as I needed the study space and computers to write my thesis.
“I got a low grade and received counselling for a year. I had a terrible time.”
Elle has also noticed racist discrimination increasing towards her this year. In February before the COVID-19 alert levels began, she found people suddenly walked a notable distance further away from her than others.
“I usually walk around other people on a footpath, but all of a sudden people were parting like the Red Sea in front of me.”
During alert level three, a cashier at her local hardware store refused to serve her when she went to collect a pick-up order.
“The cashier was fine with the other customers but when the queue line got to me, she covered her mouth over her mask and stepped back. She wrote the store’s phone number on a piece of paper and threw it at me, saying ‘just ring this number’.
“She wouldn’t serve me so I had to ring the customer number standing right in front of the store.”
Elle has challenged racism in Aotearoa by being part of an anti-racism, discrimination and bullying working group at her university, as well as writing her thesis on postcolonialism theories on racism to examine how Asian subjects are perceived. She also advocates for multicultural voices to be heard in labour union spaces.
“My way to deal with racism is to study and better understand it. I would rather be alert and engaged with the social problems that racism presents than be submissive and blind to them.”
She lives with mild depression and says that everyday racist encounters have impacted her mental health and self-confidence.
“I am perceived either as an incapable Asian girl who can be constantly dismissed, explained to and excluded, or treated as some kind of a threat that brings viruses, takes jobs and houses and so forth.
“Of course, my mental health is going to be affected when I am treated this way.”
Elle urges New Zealanders to give nothing to racism. If someone is being left out or treated differently because of their race, she’d like us to stand up and speak out against the bullying behaviour rather than staying silent or subtly showing approval towards it by nodding or giggling.
Together, she says we can show that racism is unacceptable and has no place in Aotearoa.