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Racism Is on the Rise. And Asian Canadians Are Fighting Back

In Vancouver, Canada and around the world COVID-19 has emboldened racists. Part one of a series.

John Price 22 May

John Price is professor emeritus of Asian and Asian Canadian history at the University of Victoria. He has worked as an ally with racialized communities for 15 years and is the author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific (UBC Press, 2011).

Dakota Holmes was walking her dog in a Vancouver park when her allergies made her sneeze. What happened next is almost unbelievable.

A white man came up to her and punched her in the face while yelling racist slurs about Asian people and COVID-19. Her dog Kato chased the assailant away.

Dakota Holmes is Indigenous.

Dakota’s father, Don Bains, is the former executive director of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and an advisor on Indigenous affairs to Premier John Horgan. The union issued a news release condemning the attack.

In the release Dakota Holmes said “I’m sharing my story to get the message out there that racism is a deadly and sobering threat and every single instance of racism must be addressed and called out by all of us, so that it stops. Although the attacker thought I was Asian at first, I yelled out that I was Indigenous, and he still didn’t stop and didn’t seem to care.”

“As an Indigenous woman I am acutely aware that sexism and racism, often intersecting, are part of my life, and I never take chances on my safety,” she wrote. “However, society continues to treat Indigenous women as disposable. What would have happened if I hadn’t had my dog with me, and if I didn’t have a strong network of family and friends for support?”

UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip urged everyone to step up to fight racism and offered his “sincere and heartfelt sympathy and solidarity to Asian communities who have borne the brunt of COVID-19 related racism. We fully agree with the calls for all levels of government to immediately take urgent steps to prevent and condemn any racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination that is related to COVID-19.”

University of British Columbia history professor Henry Yu, a leader in anti-racism education, welcomed the support.

“I appreciate the fact that Chief Phillip has taken an unequivocal stand in solidarity with Asian Canadians,” Yu said. “We must reciprocate by supporting Indigenous peoples in their ongoing fight for justice.”

But Yu worried that “people may get sidetracked into focusing on the fact that this was a case of ‘mistaken identity,’” as if it might not have been so bad if the person was Chinese.

Anti-Asian racism erupted as quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic. Kevin Huang of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit organization in Chinatown, recalls a Vancouver Province headline in early February — “Second China Virus Case in B.C.”

Huang was among many who challenged the headline’s assumptions.

“The use of yellow peril narratives only serves to drive xenophobia, racism,” he tweeted.

For Huang and the Hua Foundation team, made up of mainly young people, the pandemic has meant prioritizing their Race Equity Project while also organizing support for Chinese seniors by distributing groceries.

The violent racist episodes have been widely condemned.

“That’s great,” said Huang, “but there is a huge need to talk about the structural issues and everyday racism.”

Too often people seem to take a “colourblind” or individual approach, he said, when what is needed is systemic change, pointing to the need to collect race and ethnic data in terms of COVID-19 and provide translations of important information. The Hua Foundation team has undertaken to translate COVID-19 information into Vietnamese, Chinese and Tagalog.

Allies need to step up, Huang said, but sometimes they also need to step aside.

And intervening in a racist incident is not always easy — all the more reason those of us who benefit from the privileges of class, race or gender (all three in my case) need to be prepared.

Recently an unidentified woman demonstrated great bravery when she confronted a racist bully on a Vancouver bus who was harassing three Asian women wearing masks, accusing them of creating the pandemic. She told the bully to stop and stood up to him, figuratively and literally. He then took aim at her, grabbing her hair, pulling it out and slamming her to the floor. He then fled the bus.

She’s a hero in my eyes, and in the eyes of many others. But the cost was high.

So how can we better confront racism?

R.J. Aquino is an anti-racist activist who recently convened an online community town hall on the issue.

In a recent interview Aquino told me that people can choose to confront racists as this woman did. But there are risks.

And alternatives. If people aren’t comfortable with such confrontation, Aquino suggested they could move to de-escalate the situation. Instead of confronting the bully, they could approach the intended victims and talk to them, reassuring them and perhaps seeking help together.

Aquino, who ran for Vancouver city council as a OneCity candidate in 2018, points out that people of colour faced lots of racism before the pandemic, often in seemingly innocuous ways.

“When I ran for city council,” he said, “people would come up to me and remark on how well I spoke English.” He, like many other Asian Canadians, is continually asked “where are you (really) from?” People who have lived here all their lives or were born here are perceived as immigrants perpetually.

The pandemic has brought latent racism into the open, Aquino said. Increased social tensions, combined with the racist influence of powerful figures such as U.S. President Donald Trump promoting conspiracy theories, have emboldened racists.

New Democratic Party MLA Bowinn Ma made the same points in a Twitter video post castigating both Trump and rock star Bryan Adams for messaging that “encourages people to embrace bias about other people, as though they are righteous.” This has become a dogwhistle for hate, she recounts in her powerful message that has gone viral.

But the racist comments in response to Ma’s tweet reveal how far we have to go.

Aquino hopes there can be better reporting and recording of racist incidents. “Not everyone is comfortable talking to the police and so many incidents go unreported,” he said.

That message is echoed by Maryka Omatsu. She was a leader of the National Association of Japanese Canadians seeking justice for those sent to internment camps during the Second World War and the first Asian woman appointed as a judge in Canada.

“Too often the police are not following up on incidents, they do little and that can have a chilling effect,” she told me recently.

Two Vancouver Chinatown activists have led a grassroots initiative to document racist attacks by creating an online incident reporting form.* The form has been translated into traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, Tagalog, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese. It lets people report racist incidents without having to deal with police.

In a recent interview the two activists reported that in the past three weeks they have received 120 reports of racist incidents.

Both have personally faced abuse.

Building on the current anti-racist momentum, the two activists created Project 1907. It was on May 14, 1907, that racists formed the Asiatic Exclusion League and went on to instigate the anti-Asian riots targeting the Chinese and Japanese communities in Vancouver.

The two activists hope the project will be a vehicle to “draw on our histories and lived experiences to advocate for our political, racial and social inclusion and justice.”

The activists are also working with the Vancouver Asian Film Festival, which has begun a campaign called Elimin8hate to create a safe place to report racist attacks while providing resources for victims and raising awareness.

Organizing is taking place not only locally but across Canada as people of colour come together to fight what has become the COVID-19’s shadow — racism.

Judy Hanazawa and the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association are participating in a pan-Canadian anti-racism organization that has emerged out of a campaign targeting Conservative MP and leadership candidate Derek Sloan for his attack on Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, that questioned her “loyalty.”

The coalition is supported by Action, Chinese Canadians Together. It has members in several provinces and is also supported by the National Association of Japanese Canadians.

In Alberta, workers from the Philippines have come under attack as a result of a massive COVID-19 outbreak at Cargill’s meat-packing plant in High River. They make up a large proportion of the plant’s workforce.

But the Filipino Emergency Response Task Force has emerged to say the workers are being scapegoated and abused when the responsibility for the outbreak rests largely with Cargill, which neglected to observe safety measures, and the Canadian and Alberta governments, whose inspectors failed to enforce safety regulations.

More than 900 workers at the plant have tested positive and three deaths have been linked to the outbreak.

In Toronto, the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice jumped out to challenge racism early, organizing a press conference on Jan. 29 with Toronto Mayor John Tory to counter the growing racism being encountered as the pandemic emerged.

In April, the council released poll results showing that nearly half of Canadians had hesitations about sitting next to a Chinese or Asian person without a mask on a bus. One in five people in the survey believe it isn’t safe to eat a Chinese restaurant.

In Montreal, activists Lily Maya Wong and Kyungseo Min have begun documenting the rapid increase of attacks in that city.

The Center for Research-Action on Race Relations and other groups are calling on health authorities to collect COVID-19 data related to race, language and household income. It reports a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 cases in communities of colour where many have been working in long-term care facilities, including refugees who stepped forward to work in understaffed homes.

And these efforts, by Asian Canadians and others in Canada are drawing inspiration from anti-racist movements around the world.

*This article was edited May 31 to protect the identity of two activists who feared increasing violence.

Coming in Part Two: The global response to a surge in anti-Chinese and Asian racism.  [Tyee]

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