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

Racist stereotyping of Asians as good at math masks inequities and harms students

Some good analysis of the diversity within and between different Asian groups, as is the case with all groups and the risks of all stereotypes, along with the importance of socio-economic status:

Some people stereotype Asian students as the “model minority” in math achievement: they generalize attributes of a so-called “minority” (racialized) community in a way that just perpetuates racism disguised as a compliment.

It is clear, however, that not all students identified as Asian are good at math. The word “Asian” is a category used to represent human beings who are, in fact, diverse and their differences are lost by their inclusion in the term. “Asian” includes 50 or so ethnic groups in a huge diversity of linguistic, socio-economic, political and cultural settings. Making judgments based on categories often leads to faulty or erroneous implications.

Both scholars and cultural commentators have highlighted the problem that the “model minority” label is sometimes used politically to divide those who are held up as so-called “model” groups and those who are not. Reporter Kat Chow notes that some white people have talked about Asians in North America in ways that positions Asians’ so-called “success” as a “racial wedge” that separates Asians from Black people or other racialized groups. Such framing distracts from necessary conversations about racism and structural inequalities.

We are involved in a study launched in 2018, “Behind the Model Minority Mask,” that seeks to understand divergent literacy and academic trajectories of Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking children in Canada. We wanted to explore how early factors such as home and classroom environments and larger cultural myths surrounding “Asian academic achievement” may be affecting children’s academic results.

Our research has found that holding up a “model minority” stereotype leads to destructive emotional stress for students. The “model minority” myth both encourages blaming students for failure, obscures the socio-economic factors that influence student academic achievement and also imposes significant psychosocial pressure on high-achieving students.

Breaking down the meaning of ‘ESL’

Our research into Asian students in Vancouver schools also revealed that there are also problems with the generalized use of terms such as “English as a Second Language” (ESL) learners and “English Language Learners” (ELL).

For example, we learned through a series of studies of about 25,000 immigrant students aged six to 19 who were categorized as “ESL” that a small number were in fact non-ESL. They were raised in families where they learned another language in addition to English from birth.

Of the students who did learn English after another language, there was a wide range of English-language skills, from those who spoke only a little bit of English to those who were fluently bilingual. The group included immigrants and refugees and those who were from low to high socio-economic backgrounds, and included speakers of 150 first languages and dialects.

The “ESL” or “ELL” labels, like the “Asian” label, however, are sometimes also used in ways that can misrepresent achievement, influence or realities of individuals. Some right-wing media commentators use the “ESL” label, for example, to argue that ESL students are responsible for a “strain on the system,” and “lowering” education.

Such reprehensible commentary is facilitated by studies or news reports that rely on generalized categories and pay insufficient attention to variables.

Roots of achievement patterns

In part of our study, Lee Gunderson recorded science, math, English and social studies academic achievement of 5,000 randomly selected students from grades 8 to 12 in 18 Vancouver secondary schools including Asian students. ESL students scored significantly higher than native English speakers in all academic areas except English and social studies in Grade 12. Mandarin speakers’ academic achievement was also significantly higher than that of Cantonese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and other language groups.

While there were high achievers among this diverse group of Asians, many Asian students (even among the Chinese subgroups) also reported struggling academically and socio-emotionally in school.

Socio-economic status was also found to be an important variable: Mandarin-speaking immigrants were from more affluent families than the other ethno-linguistic groups. Mandarin-speaking families employed more tutors to bolster their children’s academic work than other groups. Indeed, among this group, some Mandarin-speaking university students worked as academic tutors.

The sample of native-English speaking students included a wide-range of families from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. By contrast, the Mandarin sample, as a result of immigration patterns, included more high economic status families than other groups.

When high economic status native English speakers were selected they scored significantly higher in all academic areas than Mandarin speakers at all grades. Socio-economic status is related to school success.

Early beginnings

With this same set of students, initial assessment results in the early grades revealed no significant differences in achievement between young Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. However, by Grade 12 there were differences with Mandarin speakers having significantly higher grades.

Mandarin-speaking girls were four times more like to be eligible for university than Cantonese-speaking boys. About two-thirds of the Cantonese boys did not have grades sufficient for admission to university. Cantonese boys were at-risk students. The other Asian groups scored lower than Mandarin speakers in all academic areas.

Understanding differences

The two largest groups of Asian immigrants, the Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, were from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. The language of instruction in their communities was not English, so we expected these children’s English skills would be nascent when they immigrated to Canada.

As researchers, we did not expect that these students’ achievement would differ at the end of their public school careers. We also didn’t expect to see gender differences in academic achievement when this difference wasn’t present when these children first entered Canada. Nor did we expect to see differences among the Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.

As our research continues, we predict the findings will provide critical knowledge that educators need to improve the learning of Cantonese-speaking boys or others who we find to be at risk academically or socio-emotionally in Canadian schools.

We also hope we will identify characteristics of supportive ESL environments and inform early intervention through effective ESL program design and teacher professional development. Our hope is to provide information that informs parents about how to effectively support their children in school and at home in their early years.

Sheema Khan: What Muslim Canadians can teach Asian communities about the discrimination that sadly lies ahead

I suspect the teaching can go both ways, given the historical experience of Asian Canadians with racism (e.g., Chinese head tax and immigration restrictions, Komagatu Maru being sent back to India etc):

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I remember making a frantic call to Dudley Herschbach, a former chemistry professor at Harvard, to make sure no one was on the Boston-based flight that crashed into the World Trade Center. The next day, he called me back to reassure me that everyone was safe. The relief of his words, however, was punctuated by his worry: that hate was about to be unleashed against Muslims, Arabs and people who looked Middle Eastern. I didn’t quite appreciate the gravity of his words – that is, until they were borne out.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic is unfortunately reminiscent of 9/11 – except that it is now Asian-Canadians (and in particular, Chinese-Canadians) who have become prime targets of xenophobia. There has already been an uptick in the number of hate crimes. Many in the Asian-Canadian community feel the spectre of racism while out in public.

I have spent almost two decades fighting xenophobia directed against Muslim communities in Canada, from hate crimes to discriminatory employment practices to state-sanctioned rendition policies. I was the chair of a grassroots advocacy group that worked with civil institutions – such as the media, human-rights commissions, school boards and the courts – to advocate that Canadian Muslims be treated fairly in accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What I’ve learned might be useful for Asian-Canadian advocacy organizations needing to push back on current and future discrimination.

Such organizations should document incidents, no matter how small, because such data is vital for public policy initiatives. As such, there should be ample publicity in community publications about what constitutes an incident, and where individuals can report this information. Currently, the Chinese Canadian National Council has an online reporting form, and there should be open lines of communication with police forces to ensure that any incidents are promptly investigated.

These advocacy organizations should also educate community members about their basic rights as provided by the Charter. For example, no one should face discrimination in housing, education or employment simply due to their cultural heritage or ethnicity. Individuals have the right to be treated fairly at border crossings. Our organization developed a popular pocket “Know Your Rights” guide that is still highly useful today.

With the possibility of a “Cold War” with China, Canadian security agencies might begin interviewing Chinese-Canadians. These interviews can be traumatic, inducing fear. Community members should be educated about their rights prior to such interviews, along with their duty to speak truthfully. Recourse to legal assistance will be necessary. In addition, there should be lines of communication open between advocacy organizations and CSIS.

An important component is the education system. Efforts should be under way to contact school boards to ensure that once students return to the classroom, there will be heightened vigilance of anti-Asian discrimination. In the long-term, Asian Heritage Month in May can be used to educate students about the rich contribution of Asian-Canadians to Canadian society.

All of the above requires human resources and money. As such, members of the business and legal communities need to step up and offer funds and their time. Members of the law profession can provide assistance pro bono, to help community members navigate through the legal system. Many disputes involving discrimination are resolved through human-rights commissions, rather than through the courts. Community members will require assistance to proceed with their complaints.

Chinese-Canadian advocacy organizations should network with anti-discrimination organizations that have a wealth of expertise. Examples of national organizations include the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. A common goal should be the declaration of Jan. 29, the day of the Quebec City mosque massacre, as a National Day of Action against Hate.

However, not all of the burden should be placed on the Asian-Canadian community. Every one of us has a role to play to ensure that ours is a safe, inclusive society. Civic leaders have an added responsibility to speak forcefully in favour of inclusion, and any politicians who scapegoat Asian-Canadians for political gain must be denounced unequivocally.

Finally, the coming period will be another crucible for the continuing project of forging our Canadian identity. Post-9/11, Canadian Muslims asked themselves what it meant to be Muslim and Canadian. Without hesitation, we denounced terrorism repeatedly, along with the ghastly practice of “honour killing.” We became more involved in the fabric of Canadian society. We shared our personal stories with the wider public. We developed resilience along the way and gained strength from the loving support of wider society. Our journey is not over, but we extend a hand to our fellow Canadians who are of Asian heritage: we are with you, on yours.

Source: What Muslim Canadians can teach Asian communities about the discrimination that sadly lies ahead: Sheema Khan

Tung Chan: Recent increase in hate crimes toward Asian-Canadians is a shock and a shame

One of the better opinion pieces on anti-Asian-Canadian hate crimes:

Canada is a multicultural society. The majority of us are welcoming and accepting of new Canadians, no matter where they are from or what race they are. This positive attribute of Canadian society is universally appreciated by new arrivals and admired by people around the world. This is why the recent increase in hate crimes toward Asian-Canadians is a shock to all of us.

Some of my Chinese-Canadian friends are taking extra precautions when they are out in public, looking over their shoulders when they are walking alone on empty streets. Many Chinese-Canadian organizations are banding together to fight the rise in racism.

It is no wonder then that a national survey conducted for the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice found that as many as one in five respondents do not think it is safe to sit on the bus next to an Asian or Chinese person who isn’t wearing a face mask.

The same poll, conducted in the week of April 24 with a sample size of 1,130 adults randomly drawn from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, also found that nearly 13 per cent, or one in eight respondents, were aware of incidents of racial bias in their neighbourhoods since COVID-19.

One member of Parliament, Derek Sloan, took advantage of this latent hostility and questioned the loyalty of our chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, who, like me, is an immigrant from Hong Kong. To the political base where his dogwhistle was directed, a Chinese person is a Chinese person — chief medical officer or not, naturalized Canadian or not.

A television outlet went further with a story that painted a picture of the Chinese diaspora, including Canadian citizens, obeying orders from the People’s Republic of China and secretly buying up personal protection equipment and shipping it back to China.

The unfortunate perception left with viewers is that Chinese-Canadians cannot be trusted because they may be members of a fifth column, ready and willing to follow the People’s Republic of China’s orders against the interest of Canada.

The point is that the actions of a few should never be generalized to a group. Yes, there is an increase of assaults on Asian-Canadians, but the actions of those few should not generate fear of all.

Yes, some Asian-Canadians sent care packages to China to protect loved ones prior to COVID-19 reaching Canada. But it was also done in hopes of preventing the virus from spreading and reaching Canada.

Everyone is afraid of COVID-19, of losing family, of being without an income, of what tomorrow will bring. But we know the fabric of Canada is sewn with kindness and compassion.

Our civic leaders and elected politicians need to continue speaking up to condemn those who physically attack to cause bodily harm or those who verbally attack to create doubt about the loyalty of Chinese-Canadians. The perpetrators of these malicious acts must be made to understand that their actions and their words are not acceptable in our society.

For the sake of our country, let’s focus our energy on fighting the virus, not each other.

Source: Tung Chan: Recent increase in hate crimes toward Asian-Canadians is a shock and a shame

Asian Canadians launch letter campaign to address racism in their own communities

A reminder that racism is not just a white/black issue but that it exists among many groups.

One of the stronger legacies of former Minister Jason Kenney was his broadening the integration focus of multiculturalism to include such tensions between and among visible minority groups, not just between the “mainstream” and visible minorities.

Good initiative:

A group that represents young Asian Canadians is taking an anti-black racism education program to their parents, grannies, uncles and aunties to help break down longstanding tensions between the two minority groups.

In light of the backlash against Black Lives Matter, the aftermath of Toronto’s Pride parade and recent police gun violence in the U.S., hundreds of Asian Canadians plan to launch a letter campaign this week reaching out to elders in their own communities.

The campaign, which follows a similar effort in the United States, aims to create a space for “open and honest conversations” about racial justice, police violence and anti-blackness in Canada’s Asian diasporas.

“The letter is meant to help Asians start having conversations within their own communities about anti-black racism, and specifically, about the anti-black racism that Asians are complicit in,” said Ren Ito, a Japanese Canadian from Toronto and one of the organizers of the Canadian campaign.

“The reality, though, is that different Asian communities are shaped by race and racism in different ways. And this means that different communities have different needs when it comes to starting conversations about anti-black racism or even about racism in general.”

A similar letter effort by Asian Americans was spurred by the recent killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.

“For some of us in Canada and in Toronto in particular, the timing was also apt because we’ve had to deal with controversy and racist backlash against Black Lives Matter-Toronto for their actions during the Pride parade to hold Pride Toronto accountable for its marginalization of queer and trans people of colour,” said Ito, 28, who came here with his family from Japan at age 2 and is a PhD student at the University of Toronto.

The letters are being translated into Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, Farsi, Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu, Spanish and Arabic to help supporters from these communities reach out to their peers and their own ethnic media, said Anita Ragunathan, another campaign organizer.

“I began the conversation about anti-black racism within our community with my parents following the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida (in 2012). It’s an ongoing conversation, and I am hopeful that this letter will help them understand why this is so important to me and others in our generation,” said Ragunathan, 27, who was born in Toronto to Tamil immigrant parents.

“To refuse to speak against racism is to be complicit in allowing it to happen.”

Another organizer, Sun, an artist and educator who has gone by one name for about 10 years, said anti-blackness is almost a given in many Asian communities.

“Many of our communities conform and internalize these ideas in very deep and unconscious ways. This is problematic, and we need to work towards unlearning these oppressive ideas so we can build healthier communities,” said Sun, who came to Canada from Korea when she was 5.

“The media is complicit in perpetuating these biases. Our parents turn on their televisions and see images of black men as ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals.’ Victims of police brutality are not treated as such. Instead of their humanity being the focus, we hear about their records alongside photos that are meant to make them look menacing. We are brainwashed to forget that these men and women are fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.”

Sun had first-hand exposure to her community’s anti-black sentiment when her father disowned her six years ago because she had a black partner.

Source: Asian Canadians launch letter campaign to address racism in their own communities | Toronto Star