Silence and Violence Against Women of Colour: Remembering Eunji Ban and Renea Lau

By Grace Yee

A vigil for Eurydice Dixon, left; memorial flowers for Renea Lau, right. Source: AAP

There are two stories that have been haunting me a great deal lately. The first concerns Eunji Ban, who was murdered in Brisbane on 24 November 2013. The 22-year-old student was walking to her cleaning job at a hotel in the CBD when she was beaten unconscious, dragged face down up a flight of concrete steps to Wickham Park, dumped beneath a tree and left to drown in her own blood. The killer, who broke virtually every bone in her face, admitted to ‘bashing the shit out of her’. The second story concerns Renea Lau, who was murdered seven months later, on 28 June 2014, in Melbourne. The 32-year-old pastry chef was walking to Flinders Street Station on her way to work at a South Yarra patisserie, when she was dragged across St Kilda Road into the King’s Domain, beaten unconscious and raped twice over the course of more than an hour. The crown prosecutor described this murder as belonging to a ‘worst case’ category of offending, due to the brutality, duration and randomness of the attack.  What I find unsettling about these stories, apart from their extreme violence, is the muted public response to them.

Amongst my own family, friends and acquaintances, some have vague recollections of these women’s stories, but not one can recall their names.

There is a stark contrast to the public responses to Jill Meagher (September 2012) and Eurydice Dixon (June 2018), who died in very similar circumstances. The absence of public mourning for Eunji Ban and Renea Lau is remarkable, for the lives – and deaths – of all of these women share significant common ground. All four were young and middle-class. All were well-loved members of their respective communities. All had been going about their normal everyday lives just before they died – walking to or from work and work-related activities – in the early hours of the morning. Each came face to face with their killers – men unknown to them – in a public place in a capital city. Three of them were sexually assaulted, all of them brutally beaten to death.

Yet the level of interest for Jill Meagher and Eurydice Dixon has been, and continues to be, far greater than for Eunji Ban and Renea Lau. This is evident not only in the sheer number of media stories which, for the former, number in the thousands, but in public outpourings of grief. Jill Meagher’s death drew more than 30,000 in a march down Brunswick’s Sydney Road, and on the first anniversary of her death, a ‘peace’ march was held in her name. Six years on, almost everyone remembers Jill Meagher. And if the tens of thousands who attended nationwide vigils following Eurydice Dixon’s death are any indication, she too will be remembered years from now.

But how many Australians will remember Eunji Ban and Renea Lau? How many are familiar with their names now? In a recent search on Google News, I could find only 675 stories about Eunji Ban, and a mere 40 about Renea Lau. In Brisbane, the Korean Society of Queensland invited residents to attend a memorial service for Eunji Ban, and this was reported to have been attended by ‘hundreds’. There was no known public memorial service for Renea Lau in Melbourne; a few bunches of flowers were left by friends and strangers beneath the tree where her body was found. There is now a memorial plaque for Renea Lau in the King’s Domain, and one in Wickham Park in Brisbane for Eunji Ban, to mark the places they were slain.  But their names are otherwise insignificant in the broader Australian community. Amongst my own family, friends and acquaintances, some have vague recollections of these women’s stories, but not one can recall their names.

While I do feel a sense of ‘cultural affinity’ with Eunji Ban and Renea Lau, this is not based on any ethnic or national alliance – our respective backgrounds are very different. Rather, what is shared is a bestowed identity: ‘Asian woman’, which in mainstream Australia entails a range of subordinating experiences.

These are the kinds of narratives that Asian women in white settler colonies have long been subjected to.

In Renea Lau’s case, I cannot help but wonder whether her status as a Chinese national at least partly explains the muted response to her death. In recent years, sinophobic sentiment appears to have risen in correlation with China’s increasing involvement in Australia. This has manifested in media stories that characterise the Chinese presence as a perilous invasion: one that manipulates unwitting politicians, prices ‘ordinary’ Australians out of the property market, and deprives Aussie children of baby formula. These stories have proliferated alongside enduring stereotypes of Asian women, which characterise us as dragon-lady dangerous or lotus-blossom meek – and always, sexually available. These are the kinds of narratives that Asian women in white settler colonies have long been subjected to, and which render us doubly marginalised: perceived by the mainstream as ‘less than’ by virtue of our ‘oriental’ origins, and ‘less than’ by virtue of our femininity.

Such stories have certainly had an impact on my own life in the 27 years I have lived in Australia. I suspect that they lie behind the eggs and open cans of soda thrown at us from passing vehicles; the men in utes who have tried to run us down; the random street assault that resulted in head injuries and hospitalisation; the lack of police concern. And then there are the everyday indignities that all people of colour are familiar with: being attended to last, or not at all, in service situations; racist slurs on the street; racist jokes at work; strategically loud xenophobic conversations on public transport, in cafes, and in supermarket queues. In almost all of these situations, bystanders have remained silent and walked on by.

Over time, these kinds of aggressions have undermined my capacity to feel safe in the world. When I observe what happens – or rather, what doesn’t happen – when women ‘like me’ are murdered, my very existence feels precarious. I am not insinuating that the men who killed Eunji Ban and Renea Lau were motivated by racism. I am making an observation: the public indifference to the shockingly violent deaths of Eunji Ban and Renea Lau – to the plight of two women who ‘look like me’ – reflects the public indifference to my own lesser injuries. This apparent lack of empathy, or apathy, further undermines my capacity to feel safe – in light of such pervasive and ominous silence, murder seems not so improbably situated on a spectrum of possible injuries for women like me. Because who is looking out for us?

Affinities rest on inclusions and exclusions, and undergird a hierarchy of who is more worthy of empathy – as if there is only so much compassion to go around.

Up until now I have held on to the rather tenuous hope that my experiences have not been due to this ugly unspeakable thing called ‘racism’, but instead, a long series of unfortunate encounters, accidents, sheer bad luck, and/or virulent karmic consequences. Indeed, over the years, my capacity to recover has been contingent upon this hope. But it is difficult to deny that what we look like determines, to at least some extent, how we are treated. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have a greater affinity for those we perceive to be most like ourselves. Perhaps we are wired to feel more compassion for people who look like us. I can’t help but wonder whether the proclivity for such affinities goes some way toward explaining the similarly muted responses to the fates of other women of colour: women like Laa Chol, who died after being stabbed at a party in Melbourne in July 2018, and Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in Western Australia in 2014.  Because affinities rest on inclusions and exclusions, and undergird a hierarchy of who is more worthy of empathy – as if there is only so much compassion to go around.

In the aftermath of Eurydice Dixon’s death, I noticed an alarming absence of compassion in some online ‘feminist’ forums, which manifest a disturbing dismissiveness toward women of colour who expressed concerns about their unique vulnerabilities. Amid the usual accusations of ‘divisiveness’, some commentators seemed affronted that women of colour had the gall to do what I am doing here, which is to put up a hand and say, ‘What about me too?’ Some were angry that the vigils for Eurydice Dixon were renamed in recognition of all victims of gendered violence (and for Sydney woman Qi Yu, who had gone missing, presumed dead, in the same week). Some were of the view that if women of colour could just forget about their own issues – that is, racism, marginalisation, being silenced –  and focus on the real problem, which is violence against all women, then ‘progress’ might actually be possible. What these threads have in common is a strong belief that the concerns of women of colour are less important and/or irrelevant to feminist concerns about gendered violence, and that therefore we should not speak of them.

It has been pointed out that there are white feminist ‘allies’ who have spoken for women of colour, who have gone to the trouble of pointing out the moral deficiencies of mourning only for your own kind, and that for this, we should be grateful. But while shows of support are appreciated, speaking for us without listening to us renders what is said little more than a show. It is not credibly ‘intersectional’ to argue for the importance of mourning for ‘all women’ victims of violence, if one insists in the same breath that it is simply not possible to ‘march for every woman’. Not only is there an implicit hierarchy here of whose lives are more worthy of public grief, but the very act of speaking for us – rather than with us – makes it clear where we are positioned.

We can see that our lives are considered not worthy of public grief or outrage, and at the same time, we can see how being spoken for subordinates and subsumes the very concerns we hold about our ‘less than’ status. In this onerous silence, there linger questions I’m afraid to know the answers to: If my daughter were to die in circumstances similar to Eunji Ban or Renea Lau, would the public response be one of widespread indifference? And would I be told not to speak of it?

Grace Yee is a Melbourne writer and academic. Her work has recently appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Westerly, Women’s Museum of California and Hecate.

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