In the midst of a pandemic — and perhaps, because of it — Chinese Canadians find themselves on both sides of the racism dynamic: as victims of targeted attacks and perpetrators of anti-Black sentiment.
As the community mobilizes to fight the rise of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Canada, some Chinese Canadians are also working to dismantle racism from within in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The pervasiveness of anti-Black racism in Canada extends beyond the confines of police brutality, which recent protests have brought to light — in 2018, Statistics Canada reported that hate crimes targeting Black communities were the most common (making up 16 per cent), while a national survey in 2019 found that more than 50 per cent of Black Canadians have personally experienced discrimination due to their race.
Meanwhile, Chinese Canadians have felt the sting of a different strain of racism, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic — 50 per cent have reported being targets of racial slurs and discriminatory behaviour since the pandemic, while 61 per cent have changed their daily routines to avoid racial harassment, according to a new study by the Angus Reid Institute.
While such forms of racism are being increasingly called out by the community, Chinese Canadians have also reignited difficult conversations around how anti-Black racism takes its form in the present day. High-profile incidents like the case of Hong Shing, a Toronto Chinese restaurant that was fined for discriminating against Black patrons, show that there’s still work to be done to uproot racism from within.
As society comes to terms with the idea that it’s not enough to just be not racist, where can Chinese Canadians start to confront anti-Black racism if they haven’t already, and how can those that have started the journey take it a step further to dismantle it in ways that are sustainable?
HuffPost spoke to Vincent Wong, a human rights lawyer and research associate at the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, about how Chinese Canadians can begin unpacking anti-Black racism, and why progress towards cross-racial solidarity is a cause the community is championing more than ever.
There have been more well-known flashpoints between Chinese and Black communities in the United States that publicly air out these tensions, like a couple years ago when a Black man named Akai Gurley was killed in a New York City housing project by officer Peter Liang, which created a massive division in the Chinese community.
It’s harder to gauge in Canada, but a case I recall was in 2009 at the Lucky Moose supermarket in Toronto’s Chinatown, where owner David Chen did a citizen’s arrest of a well-known thief named Anthony Bennett, who is a Black man. I think this is actually a huge case where stereotypes about Black criminality were played out by the Chinese community through rumours that hardworking small business owners were being ransacked by these criminal elements in the Black community.
More broadly, it’s common in the community and on social media to see comments that play off Black people as inherently dangerous or criminal, and a lot of “All Lives Matter” retorts to Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, there’s also constant discourse and attempts to tackle anti-Black racism within the community by sharing resources and even memes, educating, and translating. So you certainly have these two elements going on at the same time in the Chinese community.
Basically, it’s a racial minority group whose members are seen as transcending racism through being docile and accepting the dominant culture’s values. And then also through diligence and hard work to experience social mobility. I think everybody who grows up East Asian in Western society kind of feels it.
Asians being used to make the case against affirmative action is the perfect example of this playing out, where [the claim that] “Asians are the new Jews” is used to exemplify one group’s ascent, while criticizing other groups’ enduring oppressions. In Canada, Maclean’s “Too Asian” controversy [also] reinforced a lot of white anxiety about Asian admissions in universities through model minority stereotyping.
This concept is used to support the idea that we’re in a post-racial society, and therefore the marginalization, racial inequities and violence faced by Black and Brown communities are not the consequence of systemic racism, but individual, cultural and biological racial failings.
It’s helpful to get a better understanding of Chinese Canadians with respect to anti-Indigenous racism and settler colonialism. The original migratory waves of Chinese labourers in Canada who came to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway also faced brutal racial oppression, and an interesting part of this history is how many injured Chinese workers who were left to die on the side of the railway, were taken in by certain Indigenous communities in British Columbia.
“If your community has been victimized, you should know better than anyone else how important it is to come together to fight all forms of racial injustice.”
Over time, as the immigration class demographic shifted, Chinese people that came to Canada were more professional class and wealthier, and many of these better-off immigrants don’t experience the same kind of systemic discrimination found in certain populations, like those in the old Chinatowns. These enormous class demographic shifts prevent Chinese people from actively coming together to fight the model minority myth.
It’s been really interesting to see organizing against anti-Asian racism at the beginning of the pandemic, immediately followed by organization against anti-Black racism at the hands of police.
When we think about Asian and Black racial relations, you often hear something like, “Asian people are reproducing the kind of racial hierarchy that’s learned from Western colonialism,” which is not untrue, but the explanatory power of that is limited.
There’s also folks that say, “Well, anti-Black racism has taken the spotlight off anti-Asian racism and that’s unfair,” and this is where the entrenched anti-Black racism in the Asian community is really damaging.
What’s important is that if you’re against racism, that you understand it manifests itself in different forms. For folks who are organizing against anti-Chinese or anti-Asian racism, they need to understand that we have to all come together to fight for racial justice. If your community has been victimized, you should know better than anyone else how important it is to come together to fight all forms of racial injustice.
We need to understand that racial equality requires us to actually reject racial hierarchy and create conditions so that everyone has equal opportunity for security.
Think of the “Chinese virus,” and the idea that Chinese bodies are vectors for disease and inherently unhygienic — this is also going the opposite way in terms of ascribing the virus to Black bodies, where you have hundreds of African migrants in Guangzhou, China, that have been disproportionately targeted in terms of being evicted from housing and denied access to businesses.
This kind of tension needs to be understood in its own way outside of just the context of white supremacy. I think people are just starting to seriously unpack that right now.
It’s not just calling out people and cancelling people. Some tactics folks in Chinese Canadian communities can use is to understand and reject the model minority myth and its ability to be weaponized against Black and Brown communities — I think supporting the collection and surfacing of disaggregated ethnoracial data is very helpful for this, and also reading about Black and Indigenous histories in Canada. We need to reflect on our many structural privileges and marginalizations and hold space for those complexities.
We should not start conflating our experiences with racism with that of other racialized folks, especially Black and Indigenous folks — Councillor Cynthia Lai’s recent use of her own experience with racism as a justification to speak on behalf of Black communities and vote for raising the police budget rather than defunding is a perfect example of what not to do.
Unpacking racism also means unpacking inequality within the Asian racial construction. There are many groups that suffer from racial subjugation in a way that East Asians don’t — for instance, Southeast Asians like Laotians, Cambodians, Hmong and Bangladeshis just don’t have the same experiences as say, Japanese, Korean or Chinese folks.
Translating materials on institutional and internalized racism is important. For instance, there’s lots of resources being shared by groups like Asians for Black Lives. Then, to organize in solidarity with other movements, and seeing anti-Asian racism work as going hand-in-hand with Black liberation and fights for Indigenous rights.
All this can only happen if you’re listening to the voices of other, more subjugated racial groups. Work with organizations that are doing anti-racism work that take direction from Black and Indigenous organizers just go right in and say I would like to volunteer and support. Follow their social media and come out the next time they organize something. Everything is about building relationships, and the only way you learn is to aid, abet, and struggle together.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Also on HuffPost: