How a racial reckoning and a pandemic opened the door for some Asian Canadians to talk about racism like never before

Of note:

Born and raised in a small Ontario community, Cindy Tran says she learned racism was something Asians endured.

Then, her beloved grandmother was assaulted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So Tran, a Carleton University student, unleashed her long bottled-up anger and frustration with a blog post, which became the talk of Pembroke, her small city of 15,000 northwest of Ottawa.

“It’s shocking that a town that marches for Black Lives Matter still breeds hate toward people of colour,” she wrote back in August, before describing the attack by a group of young teenagers on her 80-year-old grandmother, Thi Nga Doan.

“I grew up in this town, but I have never truly called it home.”

The journalism student’s decision to speak out and the ensuing reaction prompted the mayor to form a diversity committee to tackle racism.

It’s a situation, Tran acknowledges, that might not have unfolded without the collison of the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread protests against systemic racism sparked by the death of George Floyd in the United States.

“Race was not something that was discussed in Pembroke. My story and opinion piece got so much interaction and interest from people,” said Tran. “So much was happening with Black Lives Matter. In the midst of that, you see an 80-year-old elderly woman attacked in her own home. That’s what’s bringing everything together, unfortunately.”

It’s been widely observed that twin epidemics have dominated North American news in 2020 — the scourge of COVID-19 and that of racism.

The pandemic has found society’s weak points and exacerbated its fissures. The crisis had had a disproportionate impact on the working poor, often racialized people, bringing society’s existing systemic racism, whether anti-Black or anti-Asian or other, to the fore.

Against the backdrop of the health crisis, the killing of Floyd by police gave people stuck in lockdown fresh reason to reflect on systemic injustices, triggering an awareness that advocates hope will lead to long-lasting change. For many, the moment has stirred memories of the discrimination they faced early in their lives — and which they continue to see today.

“People’s consciousness was raised. If you can shift one’s consciousness, everything else will flow,” said Kiké Roach, lawyer, community activist and the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.

“The two pandemics — COVID-19 and racism — touch all different people. We are in this moment together.”

‘They would interrogate us’

Canada has seen before the racism that can emerge amid a public health crisis.

But there’s been a progression in how political leaders and the media have responded to anti-East Asian incidents since the SARS epidemic in 2003, says Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice.

As early as January, Toronto Mayor John Tory and medical officer Dr. Eileen De Villa stood side-by-side with Chinese community members to condemn emerging racism directed at Chinese Canadians and decry boycotts of Chinese businesses.

In May, government funding was quickly made available to support a community website, Fight COVID Racism, for alleged hate crime victims to file incident reports, trace documented cases through an interactive timeline and map in its response to the wave of hate crimes.

So far, more than 600 alleged incidents have been reported.

“During SARS, very few mainstream media would listen to our stories or they would interrogate us and ask, ‘How do you know it’s racially motivated?’” said Go. “With COVID, we didn’t have to justify we had been victimized due to our race.”

‘I was born and raised here’

Connie Lee was 14 during that SARS pandemic in Toronto. In school, a fellow student came up to her and said, in front of the whole class, that all Chinese people had SARS so she couldn’t hang out with her anymore.

Now 31, Lee was recently at a No Frills store in North York when she was yelled at by a white man, who not only cut in front of her in the checkout line but called her a “stupid b—–” for wearing a medical mask, then told her to go back to where she came from.

“SARS was severe, but it was short-lived. COVID’s scope is different in terms of how far it’s spread and its long time span. Anti-masking and anti-Asian sentiments are going together now,” said Lee, a municipal government administrator.

“I was born and raised here, but people don’t see me that way. Even though I identify as Canadian on paper, the way other people see me is different.”

Like Tran, who felt she had no outlets to talk about racism in school or at home, Lee said Asians are often caught in the middle between Blacks and whites.

“We’re a group used as model minorities. People think we can’t experience racism because some of us can be very successful, but we are used as a pawn, seen as good and bad, depending on how the politics go. We are not white enough and we are not black enough,” said Lee, who grew up in Toronto.

“This puts things into perspectives about Asians not having a voice.”

However, the current pandemic, she said, has given some Asians a framework to tell their stories.

“Before, if you wanted to talk about it, you didn’t have the context to talk about it. You’re seen as a troublemaker by saying anything,” said Lee, who has spent a lot of her time during the lockdown on virtual workshops about anti-Asian racism to “unlearn” some of the white supremacist views she said she internalized while growing up.

“Now you can see (racism) confidently because there’s a larger conversation about it. Previously you could talk about it, but you’d get dismissed as a one-off experience. Systemic racism has always been there but the pandemic has brought it to the forefront.”

‘Mutual friends do nothing’

Toronto’s Ian Hood, who is half Japanese and half Scottish, was taunted during his school days with racial slurs. As a young person, his coping mechanism was to toss slurs back at his classmates based on their European heritage.

Now an adult, he’s seen fresh racism related to COVID-19, which he says has brought out the worst even from a friend he grew up with in Aurora.

Since February, the friend has started posting anti-Chinese and anti-Asian Japanese comments on Facebook directed at him, with stories about how the Chinese and Asians brought the disease to Canada and why they should all go back where they came from. The worst part, Hood said, was how everyone in this friends’ group kept silent about it.

“He kept using the term ‘deal with it.’ In private messages, he called me (slurs) and went on with his tirades. At first, he thought they’re funny. When I spoke against it, he became angry. His humour seemed to be hiding his violent attitude and anger at Asian people,” said Hood, 42. “Mutual friends do nothing. They let him.”

The experience reminds him of his upbringing in Aurora, especially one incident in elementary school during a class about geography and heritage. His teacher repeatedly asked him where he was from, even though he was born and raised in Canada, until he responded that his mother was Japanese and father was Scottish.

“It was the recognition that I wasn’t like the others. She was trying to teach me that I wasn’t like the others. It’s a constant reminder that you don’t quite fit in like others,” said Hood, who is a program evaluation analyst with the Canadian Red Cross. “It hurt.”

During the pandemic, given the confluence of all the forces that have created an openness to discuss racism, Hood said he has felt encouraged to speak up and confront it.

“The experience during COVID motivated you to be more active in fighting racism and engage in conversations. The experiences we’ve had since this pandemic has motivated all of us to have these conversations,” he said.

“Personally, it has made me far more willing to talk about this. The ability to have a conversation about racism empowers me to stand up against it.”

Hood said the global BLM protests stemming from Floyd’s death helped open up people to look at systemic racism that cuts across ethnic boundaries affecting all visible minority groups.

“If we look after the most marginalized people in our society, we can only make the society better for everybody,” said Hood, who has since joined the new diversity and inclusion task force established at his workplace.

“COVID shows us that a lot of the inequity we are seeing has to do with socio-economic status, which in turn is related to race and ethnicity. They are intertwined.”

‘Black Lives Matter has triggered all these conversations’

Although South Asians, visibly appearing different from their East Asian counterparts, are not targeted in COVID-19-related racism, activist Shalini Konanur said their own experiences during the pandemic, such as job losses, have also served as a reminder of the systemic racism to which they’re not immune.

Some people in the community started to look at the role they themselves play in perpetuating racial stereotypes, biases and discrimination within the bigger system.

“They look at the disconnect and where the South Asians are in this,” said Konanur, executive director and a lawyer at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, who is also part of a new online group called South Asian Allyship to build partnerships with other communities to address these issues.

“Black Lives Matter has triggered all these conversations. It has addressed the apathy piece in the community.”

The underlying thread of the pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism is the breakdown of the system and the collective urge for people to confront the lack of accountability and transparency, said Ryerson’s Roach.

In both pandemics, she says, some people are bearing the brunt more than others and the crisis has prompted the much-needed public discussion around different ideas that had not been widely talked about, such as abolitionism and defunding police.

“You must understand it’s not a mater of a few bad apples and someone is being mean to another person. It is about understanding the way the system perpetuates the unequal distribution of power, inequitable representation of ideas, views and experiences from a cross section of diverse people. We need to look at the system and have hard conversations.”

‘You can’t be afraid’

Back in Pembroke, where her grandmother’s alleged assailants were arrested and charged, Tran says she has been flooded with emails and messages from people who didn’t feel they could speak up about their own experiences of racism.

“A lot of people who see my blog say, ‘You are so creative in writing this.’ They say, ‘You’re courageous.’ What makes a good advocate is you abandon your fear. You can’t be afraid of people calling you a liar or saying your issues don’t matter,” Tran said.

“It’s weird that there had never been a reckoning like this before but now there is. It’s an encouraging sign.”

Source: How a racial reckoning and a pandemic opened the door for some Asian Canadians to talk about racism like never before

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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