“We need our white brothers and sisters to really own this because it is a problem of white supremacy — of putting one group and their needs at [the] centre of [a] system that has worked only because it has dominated others.” — June Francis, Simon Fraser University professor and co-chair of Hogan’s Alley Society on CBC, June 1
What does it mean for white folks, like me, to own the problem of white supremacy as June Francis beseeches us?
No question it means reflecting on our own conduct, unlearning racist habits that have been ingrained and coming to terms with things like white privilege. That, for me at least, is a lifelong quest.
It also means overcoming what has become known as the bystander phenomenon — to not intervene to prevent injustice, or to stand on the sidelines (and perhaps even cheer) as people demonstrate and demand justice, thinking you’re not involved.
It also means learning what allyship is about — learning when to step up and when to step aside, something about which I still have lots to learn.
In the end, however, it’s not about making white folks “better” but about understanding and rooting out a system of colonization and empire building that arose with transatlantic slavery 400 years ago, became systemic, and continues to manifest itself through acute and persistent racism against Black communities.
I came to this realization after the Black Lives Matter uprisings prompted me to return to the writings of Gerald Horne of the University of Houston. The chair of history and African American studies, Horne has written over 30 books with titles ranging from The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism to The Deepest South: The United States, Brazil and the African Slave Trade to Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire.
Horne often quotes W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American leader and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Horne has embraced Du Bois’s approach, weaving together the strands of slavery, settler colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy within a global framework that centres the devastation of transatlantic slavery while integrating the complex dynamics of anti-racism in the transpacific.
And that is important, particularly here in “British” Columbia, a settler state whose foundations of white supremacy have been rendered invisible to many by a process of simultaneously securing white privilege while obscuring it with myriad veils, including multiculturalism and the recent rush to anti-racism.
Reading Horne reminded me that “white supremacy in the United States was never solely targeted at African Americans: Native Americans were the first victims,” a theme he develops in his recent The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism.
And so it was in this province, when the British Empire made a deal with the U.S. in 1846 — the Oregon Treaty — to annex the lands of Indigenous peoples west of the Rockies. First Nations have been fighting to re-assert their sovereignty ever since, a topic Nicholas XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton and I take up in our paper “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia.”
The genocidal dispossession of First Nations congealed into a regime of white supremacy on the Pacific in 1872 when a small group of white, male legislators decided to disenfranchise all First Nations and Chinese settlers. That was an extraordinary seizure of power at a time when First Nations and Chinese made up 80 per cent of the population. This began a cycle of racist exclusions that saw African Americans, Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians), Chinese, Japanese, South Asians and other peoples of colour excluded or discriminated against as white settlers imposed a regime of overt and institutionalized white supremacy, leading to the attempted ethnic cleansing of Japanese Canadians from 1941 to 1949.
As I suggested in the International Journal seven years ago, the exclusionist foundations of B.C.’s regime were partially modelled on the restrictions (rigged "literacy" tests, for example) developed in Mississippi to stop African Americans from exercising their right to vote, won after the American Civil War. From the American south to Africa, from London to B.C., the British colonial office globalized white supremacy on an unprecedented scale.
And so here we are, faced with constant resurges of racism directed at First Nations, Black communities, Asian Canadians, those of Arab heritage or of the Muslim faith, and the list goes on. As communities of colour come together, I have little doubt that profound changes are in the works.
For now, I return to the question of anti-Asian racisms associated with the pandemic, as that is how this series began and there are some critical issues that demand attention.
The blame game: race to the end?
“If people continue to assert that COVID-19 is a Chinese plot, that it is being spread by Chinese, if we buy into that racist logic, we may all end up dead.”
That is how professor Tim Stanley, author of Contesting White Supremacy, concluded a recent discussion we had about anti-Asian racisms.
Hyperbole? Exaggeration? Perhaps. But maybe not.
As anti-Asian racism spread with the virus, how to respond has been a challenge, particularly for Chinese Canadians (a term that masks a huge diversity of voices) who today often feel caught between a rock and a hard place.
“One big difficulty,” says University of British Columbia professor Henry Yu, “is how to deal with China.”
Six months before the pandemic began, Star Vancouver reporter Joanna Chiu reported on how racism affected her as she began to house-hunt in Vancouver. After remarking that one condo was “pretty cheap” at an apartment pre-sale event in Burnaby, “one white lady made a furious sound that sounded like ‘Eeuarrckk!’ then hissed under breath, ‘Go back to China, bitch.’”
The Hua Foundation’s Kevin Huang reacted swiftly to a Vancouver Province headline in early February — “Second China Virus Case in BC,” tweeting “The use of yellow peril narratives only serves to drive xenophobia, racism.”
The indiscriminate association of Asian-looking people with China, as well as yellow peril narratives, are in many cases a form of sinophobia — the fear of, or contempt for China, its peoples including overseas Chinese, or its culture.
This phenomenon has been recently analyzed in the article “The Epidemiology of Sinophobia” in the critical labour magazine Made In China. The author, Gerald Roche, points out how anti-Chinese images related to the pandemic aren’t new. The Globe and Mail, for example, accompanied a front-page story on taxes on foreign real-estate owners in Vancouver with an illustration showing a giant dragon looming over the city’s skyline.
But this underlying racism exploded with the COVID-19 pandemic, as some people tried to define the virus as “Chinese,” blaming its origins on China and anyone who looked Chinese. It quickly morphed into anti-Asian racisms that have led to microaggressions (avoiding people simply because they look Chinese or Asian), cultural denigration as in the defacing of the lions in Vancouver’s Chinatown, or hate crimes committed against people who appear Asian.
In previous eras, sinophobia demonized China as the “sick man of Asia,” a source of disease or cheap labour and a social or moral threat to white supremacy. With the rise of China as a major economic power however, sinophobia is today deeply entangled in geopolitical rivalries.
What can be maddening is that some Chinese Canadians attacked under the guise of sinophobia are among the harshest critics of the Chinese government, yet they continue to be seen as an extension of China or, even worse, agents of Beijing.
Few understand this better than Dr. Joseph Yu Kai Wong, one of a host of anti-racist leaders who emerged decades ago in a campaign against a segment on CTV’s W5 that portrayed Chinese Canadians in Canadian universities as foreigners.
Wong says the problems related to China have to be kept in perspective. He’s critical of China for the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy and supports the movement for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, though he’s critical of tactics used by some of the demonstrators.
Wong sees recent criticism of China’s handling of the pandemic and its alleged domination of the WHO as misplaced. “China did quite well this time,” he said. “There might have been some attempts to hide the problem initially, but once they understood what they were dealing with the authorities moved quickly and decisively.”
“Within a few weeks Chinese scientists succeeded in sequencing the genome of COVID-19 and released that information to the world,” points out Wong. “In imposing the lockdown, as tough as that was, the Chinese government did the right thing,” says Wong. “They did wonderfully well.”
Wong, whose community work earned him the Order of Canada, is also the founder of the non-profit Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto. Operating 805 long-term care beds and an acclaimed model in culturally appropriate seniors’ care, Yee Hong has so far not recorded any COVID-19 cases among its residents, a remarkable record given what has happened in other long-term care facilities.
Still, not everyone agrees with Wong’s views on China. The Chinese government’s treatment of minorities, including Tibetans and Uighurs, the crackdown against those fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, and recent threats by the Beijing government to end the one-country, two-systems approach for Taiwan and Hong Kong underscore the authoritarianism of the Chinese government. Reports of discrimination against Africans in China during the pandemic are a further reminder that racism knows no bounds.
Tim Stanley suggests that part of the problem is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s repressive authoritarianism: “Xi’s vision of putting China on the world’s centre stage, returning it to former glory as the Middle Kingdom is an expression of nationalism, a way of mobilizing support for his policies.”
However, he also cautions that an all-consuming focus on Xi or reducing China to just the regime in power will only add to an emerging campaign to demonize China that could have terrible consequences. “To view China as a monolith will lead us down the road to the polarized world that Trump is creating,” Stanley said.
That polarization is being reflected in current policy debates in Canada on many fronts, including 5G technology, the attempt to extradite Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese government’s incarceration of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and the WHO.
Doug Saunders’ recent Globe and Mail commentary “Our China Showdown has Nothing to do with Washington’s Cold War” suggests that Ottawa’s criticisms of China have little to do with Trump’s policies.
But is that really the case? Or does the alliance with the U.S. blind us to the risk of bias inherent in such an association?
Fishing in these troubled waters we find none other than Canada’s spy agencies — the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment. They are deeply enmeshed in the U.S.-dominated “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which includes the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The alliance is a race-based spy network that arose out of the ashes of the Second World War, as documented in historical research by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds as well in my own book Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific.
A recent joint statement by CSIS and CSE warned recently “foreign interference and espionage” were a threat to Canadian health organizations in the wake of the pandemic. Though not naming China, the warning came shortly after U.S. agencies publicly accused China of targeting its health research.
While constantly warning about China, CSIS apparently sees no need to offer any warning about the attempts on the part of U.S. and British agencies to give pharmaceutical giants a monopoly over any new COVID-19 vaccines.
And given previous incidents in which CSIS and CSE officials tried to discredit Chinese Canadians as agents of China, one can’t help but ask: Have Canada’s spy agencies come down with a nasty infection of sinophobia?
“The solution we’re being presented,” says Tim Stanley, “to cut off ties with China will only make matters worse. Any policy worth considering has to engage with the fact that China is not going away, that it will be an important player in the world.”
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien has called for a more independent China policy. Last fall he proposed that the Canadian government should stop the extradition hearing of Meng Wanzhou and engage in direct negotiations with Beijing to resolve outstanding issues, including the release of Canadians Kovrig and Spavor.
Some pundits condemned the idea. Yet could it be that Chrétien has it right and they have it wrong? As prime minister, Chrétien at least had the gumption to reject George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” and prevent Canada from participating in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an illegal attack based on false intelligence provided by the British.
As the world tries to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, further escalation in global tensions poses real dangers. Right now China’s military presence abroad is limited, especially in comparison with the U.S. military that, according to David Vine, a professor at American University, still has 800 military installations in over 80 countries, many of them surrounding China.
Meanwhile commander-in-chief Donald Trump continues to spew populist anti-China hatred, preying upon existing racial anxieties in his largely white base.
Henry Yu notes the similarities between pandemics and the spread of anti-Asian racism.
“The endemic way in which white supremacy and anti-Asian racism flares at times when too many people search for easy answers is strangely similar to how viral outbreaks occur,” he says.
Finding the means to overcome the pandemic, root out white supremacy, support democratization in China — while preventing a military confrontation between the U.S. and China — present immense challenges for the foreseeable future.
The global uprising against white supremacy, the guidance of seasoned anti-racist activists, the emergence of dynamic new diasporic voices, and the leadership provided by First Nations upon whose land we stand all provide me with hope that a better world is possible.