AFL

Experiences of racism are not new to Lin Jong. But after years of trying to shrug them off, the Western Bulldogs midfielder is now determined to call out vilification and see the perpetrators held to account. By Shelley Ware.

Lin Jong’s stand against racism

Lin Jong in action for the Western Bulldogs in June.
Credit: Michael Willson / AFL Photos

When I first messaged Lin Jong on Twitter, I wasn’t sure I’d hear back. I was asking the Western Bulldogs’ midfielder to put his name to a letter calling on Attorney-General Christian Porter to take action on online racial vilification. Over the years, I’ve seen how this kind of relentless harassment on social media affects players. I’ve experienced it myself. For a long time, it was only the odd post here and there, and that was enough. But recently, after making a stand with Chad Wingard, Liam Ryan and Neville Jetta, and calling out racism towards them, I was targeted to the point of having to change my settings on Instagram to keep myself safe.

Something shifted – having watched too many loved ones being targeted, for too long, I was sick of writing “this has to stop” on my social media. When, in round 13, Fremantle’s Michael Frederick was racially attacked online, I was ashamed I hadn’t done enough to stop it. This young man, who was born in South Sudan, should feel safe in his new country. The Black Lives Matter movement has impacted the global community and given me the courage to speak openly about the effects of racism. Professor Kate Seear, my co-host on The Outer Sanctum, took these ideas and turned them into tangible legal outcomes, and soon we had the letter. But then we needed the signatures.

Jong replied to my message almost immediately. Yes, he said, he was happy to sign. He had already spoken to his teammates Jason Johannisen and Buku Khamis, too. The next day, he emailed again – he’d mentioned the letter to another Bulldog, Tom Liberatore, who also wanted to sign. The players were joined by Western Bulldogs board member Belinda Duarte and the club’s former captain Bob Murphy, as well as players from many other teams and codes, broadcasters and even musician Troy Cassar-Daley. The response was clear – racial vilification on social media is a problem for the AFL, and the AFLW, but it’s also everywhere online and needs to be taken seriously.

“I know I could have asked all of the [Bulldogs] players and they would have jumped on,” Jong says. “I have no doubt. I just thought I would ask players who had been affected by racism, who have experienced it firsthand. Players who are passionate about ending and standing against racism.”

We talked a little about how racism has affected his football career. Drafted to the Bulldogs in 2012, he is the first player of East Timorese and of Taiwanese descent in the AFL. His father, Vitor, fled East Timor in the late ’70s, during the violence that followed Indonesia’s 1975 invasion. Vitor’s travels eventually brought him to Taiwan, where he met his wife, Faye, and the couple moved to Australia in 1985.

Jong jokes that his mum would’ve liked him to concentrate on his studies but football was his passion. That didn’t mean it was easy.

“With footy, I always knew I was different,” the 27-year-old says. “I was always hesitant to play football, as I never saw myself in other players. The message I received from others was that Asians don’t play football and I only got drafted because I was Asian. I’d like to think it was because I’m half decent at footy.”

Jong says his memories of racism start as early as primary school, but it became more intense during his high-school years. “Teenagers don’t quite comprehend how much of an impact racism has on a person,” he says. “I would laugh it off as a teenager as it wasn’t easy to call out racism in front of friends.” He also talks about something that feels very familiar: having to hear the apology of the perpetrator and then be the one who provides the training, to help educate the person about their actions.

Last month, Jong shared on his Instagram story a screenshot of a fake Instagram account with a racist title that had started following him. “What is wrong with people?” he asked his followers. On Twitter, the Western Bulldogs reshared his post with a simple message: “There is no place for racism. Not in our game, not anywhere. This needs to stop.” The club had worked closely with Jong to make sure he was supported and comfortable about calling the account out. “It was embarrassing, and it wouldn’t have sat right with me to let it be,” says Jong. “Racism directed at me goes on and it affects other people who know me.”

Normally, for self-preservation, no one should read the comments under such a post. But the comments this time were encouraging. Fans supported Jong in his calling out of the targeted racial attack. “Some people need to have a good hard look [at] themselves,” one person replied. Others called for Instagram accounts to be made identifiable.

“You feel so helpless,” says Jong. “You can call people out but is that really making real change? We have been calling out the online racism for a while now and nothing seems to change. There are no real guidelines to what happens next.

“That’s why I was keen to sign the open letter. I need to see some guidelines about what happens after we call it out.”

The open letter to the attorney-general seeks to answer this question of what happens next: after racism has been called out, what else can be done? We asked that burner accounts, such as the one created to vilify Jong, be made a thing of the past. Social media accounts should be identifiable to the platforms and authorities; the account holder responsible for the consequences of their actions.

Players are often told to block racist accounts, to simply report the comments. But too often when you report racist content online, the response from the platforms is that their racial vilification policy has not been broken. And the volume of hate directed towards some players renders blocking each individual harasser impossible. Online racism has only intensified since the Covid-19 lockdowns began.

The people processing these reported incidents – and they should be people, not simply algorithms – need cultural training; they need to understand the ever-evolving trends of racism on Australian social media. We also believe the eSafety Commissioner should have stronger powers to remove damaging content immediately, to minimise the chance of harm.

Tying accounts to real identities addresses another problem – the fact that even if you’re able to get an account banned, determined harassers can just create a new one. We believe people should be able to rejoin platforms, but only after they have completed some cultural awareness training designed and delivered by the Australian Human Rights Commission or a similar body.

“It will help people who are being racially vilified,” says Jong. “And then it might just make people question themselves, who they are and what they stand for.”

On September 1, we sent the letter to Christian Porter. He told Wendy Tuohy from The Age that there is an online safety act in development and “a growing sense that online behaviour must have the same stringent rules applied to it as exists outside the internet”.

We are still waiting to hear back from Attorney-General Porter officially, but we welcome the opportunity for a meeting.

A few days after the letter was sent, Jong was ruled out for the rest of the season by the Western Bulldogs. In round five, he’d sustained a syndesmosis injury – all too common during the 2020 season – and it was still causing him trouble more than a month later.

I spoke to Jong the day before his ankle operation. “I’m devastated but wanted to leave the hub to get back to Melbourne to have the operation so I could start my recovery for preseason,” he said.

As his teammates head into the finals, Jong’s focus now is on the future, on what comes next on the field and off. Signing the letter was part of that.

“I would like more accountability, instead of asking us to block people that are racially vilifying us or being told ‘just ignore it’ or ‘don’t use social media’,” says Jong. “That’s not the point; we are not the problem.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "Taking a stand".

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Shelley Ware is a proud Yankunytjatjara and Wirangu woman from Adelaide, who currently lives in Melbourne.