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Rights + Justice

Anti-Asian Racism Has Gone Global. So Has the Battle against White Supremacy

Canadian activists have been inspired by and helped grow the movement. Second in a series.

John Price 1 Jun 2020 |

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).

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an uprising against white supremacy is sweeping America and inspiring people fighting anti-Asian racism to work with Black Lives Matter to overturn the old order.

People like Star Trek legend and activist George Takei, who shared this tweet with his 2.9 million followers Saturday.

Takei and many other Asian American and gay activists are fighting on many fronts to challenge police brutality, anti-Asian racism and white supremacy.

The 82-year-old Japanese American activist can’t abide Donald Trump nor his followers.

When Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley compared COVID-19 stay-at-home orders to the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, Takei shot back.

“I’m in my own home watching Netflix,” he tweeted. “It’s not an internment camp. Trust me.”

Takei knows. He was among the 120,000 Japanese Americans detained and held in concentration camps during the war.

Takei, a regular visitor to Vancouver and B.C., is one of many Asian Americans who have mobilized to fight back against the racism associated with the pandemic, as the Nikkei Asian Review recently reported.

And in speaking out they are providing inspiration for many Asian Canadian activists and broadening the struggle.

The U.S. Stop AAPI Hate campaign, for example, has seen participants report more than 1,700 incidents of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assaults across the U.S.

In Vancouver, Project 1907 created a similar online incident reporting form to let people document racist attacks without having to deal with police, a barrier to many racialized people.

The U.S. organization has also pledged solidarity with Black anti-racism efforts. The organization’s website posted an article this weekend headlined simply “George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery.”

“Those of us who have studied American history — truly studied American history — are aware that the country was built on racist ideology,” the post says. “In just over our first century of existence, the Genocide of Native Americans, Slavery, Reconstruction, and the Chinese Exclusion Act solidified the white supremacist ideas about personhood that would dictate not only the direction of our country but of our racial understandings of each other. This system was created by design and we have allowed it to continue.

“George Floyd was murdered because his life was deemed less valuable than a $20 payment to a convenience store. Breonna Taylor was murdered because no one made the effort to confirm if she was the person in question when Louisville police entered her home. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered because two white men were on a joyride that included hunting a black man,” it continued.

“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do not experience the same challenges or violence that white supremacy enacts on African American and Latinx communities. With the emergence of COVID-19, the escalating anti-Asian violence has pushed many of us out of our own communities to take a harder look at the nature of white supremacy and our complicities in it.”

Vancouver’ Project 1907 is also taking a stand in the face of George Floyd’s killing, sharing on its Facebook page an earlier publication in 19 languages aimed at Asian communities: “Dear Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie: Black Lives Matter to Us, Too.”

A rapidly broadening movement

The initial focus of many North American and global activists has been on anti-Asian racism. An Asian American marketing executive initiated the Wash the Hate campaign that called on people to record a story about how COVID-19 had affected their lives while washing their hands for 20 seconds. The goal was to show we’re all affected by the pandemic.

And that, the Georgia Straight’s Craig Takeuchi reported, motivated local artists and creators to undertake their own awareness campaign #healthnothate, with messages like “Practice Social Distancing, Not Ethnic Distancing.” The project was initiated by Hamazaki Wong creative director Sonny Wong, with participation by many local actors including Sandy Sidhu.

582px version of Takei_IMG_7761.jpeg
Celebrities, artists, academics and activists are joining a global movement to fight anti-Asian racism. George Takei, here with Japanese Canadian activist Jean Nihei Kamimura in Vancouver, has become a high-profile campaigner. Photo by John Endo Greenaway.

University of British Columbia professor Henry Yu, who has mentored many young activists, is not surprised by what’s happening south of the border.

“Asian Americans were ready for this,” he said in a recent interview. “They’ve been ready since 1969 when they rose up to join African Americans, Hispanics and others to demand change.”

The robust actions of Asian Americans and others in the face of pandemic-related racism and the murder of George Floyd derives from a long history as a movement fighting discrimination, a story that is currently portrayed in the five-hour film series Asian Americans now streaming on PBS.

In response to the killing of George Floyd, University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee wrote that Asian Americans and others “must be standing in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and recognizing anti-Black racism within our own communities.”

Lee, who was interviewed along with George Takei for a recent podcast on COVID-19 and anti-Asian American racism, sees the active resistance as a major development.

But she also cautions that the battle won’t be easily won.

“The stereotypes, the ideas that simply because you have an Asian face you must be a carrier of the virus, the hurtful and damaging political rhetoric around the Chinese flu, or this idea that the coronavirus was, quote unquote, ‘made in a Chinese lab,’ these have all revived much larger racist and anti-immigrant narratives that never go away in the United States.”

Lee teaches in the university’s Asian American Studies program. The creation of such programs beginning in the 1970s was one of the major achievements of that era. Today, they exist in many universities and often serve as an anchor for community-based, participatory action.

The University of British Columbia’s Asian Canadian and Asian migration studies program is one of a very few such programs in Canada. It only saw the light of day because Japanese Canadian elder and activist Mary Kitagawa led a campaign to shame the university for refusing to honour the Japanese Canadians it had kicked out in 1942. The university finally caved to the pressure and, as part of making amends, established the program in 2015.

According to Henry Yu, who helped create the program, governments and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council have had numerous opportunities to fund Asian Canadian studies programs but have failed to do so. This despite the tremendous demographic changes that would seem to warrant such initiatives.

Is this problem related to a continuing “colour-blind approach” here in Canada? Two decades ago, legal scholar Constance Backhouse underscored the problem in her book Colour-Coded.*

“The ideology of racelessness, a hallmark of the Canadian historical tradition, is very much in keeping with our national mythology that Canada is not a racist country, or at least is much less so than our southern neighbour, the United States,” he wrote.

Indigenous resurgence, eloquently recounted by the late Arthur Manuel in his book Unsettling Canada: A National Wake Up Call, has changed that dynamic to some extent. But as Kimberley Wong, a community organizer in Vancouver’s Chinatown, puts it: “The Asian diasporas, Indigenous peoples and Black communities are today named, but not afforded much value — we need to find solidarity with communities of colour.”

Wong, a graduate of the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program, has worked with the Hua Foundation and is co-chair of the Just Recovery Coalition Vancouver, recently established to fight for racial, social and environmental justice in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the racism that accompanied it.

Wong, with Rachel Cheang, gained experience in cross-community solidarity when they initiated a project to demonstrate solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation whose hereditary chiefs rejected the Coastal GasLink pipeline being constructed on their territory. Feeling the need to communicate what was going on to their elders and others who did not speak English, they brought together nearly 100 multi-generational diasporic Asians for a sign-making session to publicly demonstrate support for the Wet’suwet’en.

Their actions dovetailed with a project initiated by Chiyi Tam and Nathaniel Lowe. Asians in Support of Wet’suwet’en enlisted 26 volunteer translators to invite people to sign a statement of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en in 15 languages. Over one hundred organizations and a thousand individuals signed the solidarity pledge.**

Organizations such as the Hua Foundation, the Bao Ve Collective and others have used a similar approach to develop translations of pandemic-related government resources to assist racialized communities in navigating the pandemic and racism.

The growth in this type of cross-community solidarity is described by Jane Shi in a recent Briarpatch article “The Revolution Will be Translated.” Shi chronicles her own journey into cross-cultural solidarity and the emergence of groups such as Letters for Black Lives, an initiative by Asian Americans and Canadians to create crowd-sourced, multilingual and culturally-aware resources to help explain the Black Lives Matter movement to relatives or friends.

A global threat, a global movement

In the current pandemic, racialized activists have played key roles locally and globally as their communities have often been disproportionately affected.

Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies faculty member John Paul Catungal has been an outspoken advocate for data collection related to race and for more translation of COVID-19-related materials into other languages. He pointed out at a recent press conference that data collection, including on race, is incredibly important for understanding the pandemic. Although data collection based on race has a sordid history, in its recent forms it has become an important tool in the fight for equity.

This is recognized by epidemiologists who advocate moving from a “one-size-fits-all” approach in dealing with COVID-19 to a more intersectional approach, based on collecting data “such as socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, residence in congregate living settings such as a homeless shelter, long-term care facility or detention in some form.”

Where such data exists, it exposes the differential impact of COVID-19 on the elderly, women, Indigenous peoples and peoples of colour globally. It also explains why, in the current crisis, they are the ones demanding change.

For example, a recent study in King County, which includes Seattle, showed “Hispanic, Black and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups also have been infected and hospitalized at significantly higher rates in King County than white people.”

Statistical evidence reveals that the Navajo Nation in the U.S. southwest is in crisis with more than 159 deaths and almost 5,000 people affected, giving it the second highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita after New York, according to a recent report. The Navajo have asserted their sovereignty rights and closed highways through their reservation, as have the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.

In the United Kingdom, Blacks and other racialized groups have also been disproportionately affected, according to an Oxford and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine report released May 7.

“Compared to white people, people of Asian and Black ethnic origin were found to be at a higher risk of death,” it found, noting that neither genetic factors nor pre-existing conditions were major factors in this higher risk. One of the study’s lead authors told the South China Morning Post that minority groups were at higher risk because “many people from black and Asian backgrounds work in jobs with a lot of human contact — public transport, care industries, taxi drivers, small shops.”

Better data collection, however, is no panacea and racism remains strong in the U.K., prompting poet Darren Smith to write “You Clap for Me Now” a verse that Sachini Imbuldeniya turned into a powerful video that has gone viral.

Singapore, first lauded as a positive example in handling the pandemic, has since seen a huge increase in cases because of the poor living and working conditions of tens of thousands of migrant workers in the city-state, many from Bangladesh and India. Mohan J. Dutta, the founding director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation has just published the results of his investigation into the spread of COVID-19 in workers’ dormitories with recommendations for change.

In Australia, a recent survey by Asian Australian Alliance revealed an average 12 racist incidents directed at Asian Australians daily since April 2. The attacks were mainly directed at those of Chinese or East Asian origins, “but any person in Australia who is of Asian background is susceptible,” the alliance reported.

They have begun a campaign using the slogan “I Am Not a Virus.” The slogan, which initially emerged among African women in response to the stigmatization and discrimination associated with Ebola-affected peoples, has taken on global dimensions. It prompted Korean Swedish artist Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom to create a graphic series #IAmNotAVirus. She began the series after hearing early reports from France of racist incidents on public transportation.

From Paris to Vancouver, Singapore to London, Stockholm to Toronto, the global movement to combat racism is dynamic and rapidly linking up with Black Lives Matter and others fighting white supremacy.

But major challenges still lie ahead.

Coming in part three: Looking at the global history of of white supremacy — from Mississippi to British Columbia — and anti-Asian racism.

*Story corrected June 2 to reflect the correct gender pronoun of Constance Backhouse.

**Story updated on June 29 at 11:30 a.m. to include more information about Asian-Canadian support for the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.  [Tyee]

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