The details are so clear to me, even though the incident occurred decades ago. I’m standing between my two friends as an elderly woman singles me out and berates me for being part of the influx of Chinese immigrants “taking over the neighbourhood.” Never mind that I’m actually Japanese. My friends, trying to stand up for me, correct her with this detail. Meanwhile, I stand there paralyzed at her front door too stunned to respond.
I am seven years old. And I’m selling Girl Guide cookies.
This is not going to be easy: anti-Asian hate
The shooting deaths of eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian women, and the increase in anti-Asian racism since Covid-19 have prompted organizations all over North America to condemn these acts.
“Many organizations have gone the route of releasing a statement, and while a show of support does matter, people ultimately want to see action.”
It’s with this in mind, that my colleagues and I came together for a topical JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) session, which was open to everyone at Traction on Demand.
The session opened with the personal histories of our facilitators, Karen Claus, Lead Corporate Counsel, and Jasmine Yeh, Business Development Manager, Education, both at Traction on Demand. I appreciated their honesty and vulnerability in sharing their stories, especially considering there were over 100 people attending the session, including the senior leadership.
While the anti-Asian experience extends to other ethnic groups (for example, the internment of Japanese-Canadians/Americans), this particular JEDI session focused on the Chinese experience. This was in line with the facilitators’ personal histories and, unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time to get into the injustices faced by other groups. With that being said, these JEDI discussions are part of a larger ongoing series so there will be ample learning opportunities in the future.
Rising above the history of racism
Karen opened the session by delving into the history of anti-Chinese racism in Canada. Although she identifies as first-generation Canadian, we found out her family has an interesting history of going back and forth from China to Canada. Her great-great grandfathers on both sides first arrived in Canada in the late 1800s. They came in search of work and helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway, which has a racist legacy of unfairly treating Chinese labourers. Karen pointed out—and I can’t believe I never noticed—that the famous celebratory Last Spike photo doesn’t include any of the Chinese men who were instrumental in building the national railway.
The construction of this railway was just the beginning of a century of systemic racism sponsored by the Canadian government, which excluded Asian-Canadians from many aspects of life, including the ability to practice certain professions. They were barred from becoming lawyers and doctors, and were forbidden from participating in political life.
“Of these Asian-Canadians and the ones who came before, Karen says, 'I stand on the shoulders of giants and their ancestors.'”
Through the efforts of these Asian-Canadians, and with help from their allies, the Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished in 1947 and the civil rights movement continued to push the cause of equality forward through the 1960s.
In 2009, Karen graduated from the University of Victoria with a degree in law.
An uncomfortable societal awakening
Jasmine’s family immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the late ‘80s. She grew up in Burnaby, British Columbia, where she was “fortunate to always have kids around that looked like me.” As a child, she didn’t think racism was a big problem and that it had to be malicious or obvious to be considered so. And I have to admit, I’ve felt the same way. That if I wasn’t aggressively made fun of or physically assaulted, I could somehow be thankful for being spared the worst of racism.
But what of the comments about my parents’ accents? Comments about how long they’d been speaking English for? And how they ended up together?
“I am realizing more and more that I’ve been subjected to numerous microaggressions that in today’s society are considered racist.”
Coming to this realization is both enlightening and unsettling at the same time. I’ve become emotional several times over the past couple of weeks, as I come to terms with what this means for understanding my own identity and the injustices faced by other people of colour.
The truth hurts: facing anti-Asian hate
While it’s understandable that Canada’s history of racism would come as a surprise to some of Traction on Demand’s global workforce, there were many of us Canadians who were also unfamiliar with the details. I know the basics of our unsavoury history, but recent discussions have me looking at everything in a different light. I’m now questioning the ways in which things have been presented to me.
“For instance, I’m now seeing Vancouver’s Chinatown not as a tourist hotspot but as a neighbourhood with a history of ghettoization.”
A place where Chinese residents were confined so as not to extend their influence. And as someone who also identifies as Jewish, I of course draw parallels to the ghettos of Europe.
Jasmine continued the history lesson and brought us into more modern times with an introduction to the model minority myth. This is something that I’ve always been aware of as an Asian person, but not something that I ever really identified in tangible terms. It was more of a feeling than anything that was ever articulated. I learned in this JEDI session that far from being a compliment to Asians for their ability to assimilate, the concept was made up to further marginalize other ethnicities, namely Black and Hispanic peoples.
From hurt to hope
In addition to the dialogue taking place during the JEDI session, I was encouraged by the chat taking place on the side. Participants sharing their experiences and thanking one another for their vulnerability, and allies sharing there was much of today’s discussion they weren’t aware of before.
“I’m no Yoda, so I don’t have any insightful words on how we can mend our broken hearts and carry on. All I know is that we just have to.”
There is no other way forward. So just start talking. For the love of humanity, just start. It’s uncomfortable (for everyone, regardless of ethnicity), it’s sad, it’s difficult… but it’s also enlightening, community-building and galvanizing. We’re living in unprecedented times. There’s no perfect way to approach something as difficult as combating anti-Asian or any other type of racism. So just start.
Years later, I still hurt for that seven year old kid who had to bear the brunt of a neighbour’s racist ideology, but today’s discussion and increasing acknowledgement from non-POC of historic injustices make me hopeful that we are on a path toward change.
You are an integral part of the change: resources
If you want an awesome overview of the North American Asian millennial experience plus way more:
cold tea collective
If you want to hear real talk from Asian participants:
Erasing Shame podcast
If you like statistics, charts and graphs:
Stop AAPI Hate National Report
If you want to learn about Covid-19-related racism in Canada:
Fight Covid Racism
If you want tips on bystander intervention techniques:
If you’d like to join an Asian healing circle (I’ve already signed up!):
Upcoming Healing Asian Communities Circles
If you’re in need of mental health support:
Asian Mental Health Collective