If you’ve been anywhere on social media as of late, you’ve likely seen the outcry against anti-Asian violence. In the United States, an increase in attacks on Asian Americans over the past year — spurred on by misinformation and the seriously incorrect conspiracy theories that Chinese people are responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic — has led to calls from celebrities and organisations to combat violence and racism, often in the form of pastel colour-coded infographics on your Instagram feed.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study of 43,000 Canadians from Stats Can, Canadians with Asian backgrounds are more likely to report noticing increased racial or ethnic harassment against them. More than 30% of respondents who identified as Chinese perceived an “increase in harassment or attacks on the basis of race, ethnicity, or skin colour.” In cities like Vancouver, where around 20% of the population identifies as Chinese, police reported a surge in anti-Asian hate crime in 2020.
“The recent resurgence is similar to what we saw during the SARS epidemic,” says Victoria Yeung, project coordinator for the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, “and this stems from the idea of ‘Yellow Peril’ and the idea that Chinese people are all carriers of disease.” (In this case, the idea that all people who appear Chinese or Asian are spreading the coronavirus.)
Like in the US and UK, these attacks have taken various forms, ranging from verbal threats and graffiti all the way to physical assaults, with the majority of acts of violence towards the Asian population have taken on the form of microaggressions, with verbal abuse and harassment, including racial slurs, threats and derogatory remarks, making up 65% of all reported incidents.
“Physical violence hasn’t been [as prevalent], and what [physical confrontations] has happened is mostly restricted to grocery stores, and that's simply because it's one of the few things that are open,” says Terri Chu, a PhD student at York University who is researching anti-Asian racism in Canada. While Chu and her fellow researchers initially worried about schoolyard bullying and interactions in public areas like malls after the onset of the pandemic, “nobody really anticipated to be shut down for a full year like this, so a lot of that has not come to fruition simply because things have been shut down,” she says.
And overall, this lack of physical violence is nothing to pat ourselves on the back about. Because in many ways, the racism in Canada is just as bad — if not worse — than in the US. According to national data collected in September 2020 by Project 1907, a grassroots organisation helmed by Asian women and dedicated to elevating marginalised voices, Canada has a higher number of anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the United States.
“Communities of colour are fighting two pandemics at once,” says Yeung of the effect of this racism on Asian Canadians. And, often, women are fighting the hardest. Per the same data, women report 60% of all instances. And in BC, they’re even more disproportionately impacted, accounting for almost 70% of all reported incidents of racism.
In addition to Asian-owned businesses seeing a prolonged drop in business, this type of racist sentiment can have long-lasting mental health effects. Countless studies have found that experiencing racism is associated with poor mental health. Speaking with members of the Asian community, Chu says that many study participants recounted the traumatic effects of their treatment during the SARS epidemic. While it’s important to note that Chu is unsure if these participants were clinically diagnosed, “in our interviews, we heard more than once the terms PTSD and SARS put together.”
And even what some may consider a minute microaggression — a sideways look or subtle racist dig — can have long-term health effects. “What a microaggression is to you could be very different from people who aren't in minority communities,” Chu says. “I had a friend ask me, ‘What's what's the problem, it's just a dirty look, right?’ And I said, ‘You're a white guy, you don't get it; because for [people of colour] growing up here, a dirty look can mean a punch in the face. You can say, what's the big deal about a dirty look, because for you, it has never been followed by any kind of act of violence. And that cannot be said for many people who grew up in Canada as a minority.”
In the early days of the pandemic, when anti-Asian sentiment first began to pick up, this fear manifested in a surprising way. Members of the Asian community who, as Chu says, wanted to wear a mask and were doing so ahead of government guidelines, refused to do so in white spaces out of fear that they’d be targeted or harassed for any association to the virus. “They would go into an Asian grocery store and put on a mask, but if they went onto public transit or a grocery store, they would take off their mask,” she says.
A year into the pandemic, some steps are being taken to combat anti-Asian xenophobia. This month, the Toronto District School Board released a guidebook for educators on handling anti-Asian racism both IRL and virtually. In addition, social justice organisations across Canada have partnered up on the awareness campaign, #FaceRace.
For those who want to help combat anti-Asian racism, Yeung encourages people to get involved with local organisations that cater to and aid the Asian community. “Learn about and amplify our histories and stories,” she says. “And if you identify as a member of the Asian diaspora: reject the model minority myth and work towards solidarity with other Asian cultures and other racialised groups.”
The most important thing is to continue this advocacy beyond the pandemic, by continuing to support these communities, and making them visible outside of conversations around COVID. Because anti-Asian sentiment won’t necessarily end when the pandemic does — and we’d be naive to think it will. “It's not because of COVID [that we have this anti-Asian sentiment],” Chu says. “COVID, just made it permissible to speak.”
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.