Standing up to anti-Asian racism

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Vancouver saw more reported anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 than any other city in North America according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernadino. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone of Asian descent: almost half of such British Columbians experienced a hate incident in the past year.

To help begin a conversation about this and what it means to our society as well as to physicians and patients, the VCH Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and the Vancouver Physician Staff Association in collaboration with the Richmond General Hospital DEI Committee sponsored a presentation on standing up to anti-Asian racism. Family doctor and palliative care physician Dr. Amy Tan discussed the history of anti-Asian racism in BC, the model minority myth, and the rise of anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a sensitive and important topic,” said Dr. Tan, who is an advocate for equitable public health policies and an anti-racism educator. She has been speaking out about the intersection of systemic racism and COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. “Racist thoughts are provocative, and we all have them. It’s what we do with those thoughts that’s important.”

To begin to understand racism, we need to acknowledge that Canada is built on a cisgender, heteronormative, Christian, white, male construct that is able-bodied. If you are not all these things, you may have privilege in some spheres and less privilege in other spheres. The creation of race as a key system of classification was created during European imperial and colonial domination to justify hierarchies of humanity. White supremacy is the belief that the white race is superior to other races as well as the belief that more needs to be done to “save the white race.” It is not always done intentionally; in the workplace, for example, company policies and practices may perpetuate white supremacy.

“This leads to systemic racism,” said Dr. Tan. “The implicit and the explicit become entrenched in institutions, policies, in how governance is formed, and how policing is directed. It looks invisible to many people and it’s not until you remove many layers that you realize the system gives white people the advantage.”

A short history of anti-Asian racism in Canada

Anti-Asian racism has experienced several spikes over Canada’s colonial history.

It began pre-Confederation during the 1858 Gold Rush with many Chinese immigrants exploited as a source of cheap labour in dangerous jobs. A riot in Vancouver’s Chinatown and the Japanese community in 1907 broke out (led by the Asiastic Exclusion League) over accusations that Asian immigrants were taking jobs from white Canadians. The 1914 Komagata Maru incident saw hundreds of South Asians turned away from our shores.

Chinese and other Asian groups paid a head tax from 1885-1923 to make their immigration more difficult. Chinese people were blocked from immigration between 1923 and 1947. Japanese Canadians were dispossessed and displaced to internment camps during World War II.

There was a strong backlash against Arab and South Asian Muslims and Sikhs following 9/11.

The model minority myth

The model minority myth was created in the US in the 1940s to try to appeal to the Chinese to be allies against Japan. It posits that there is a hierarchy amongst racialized peoples and it is about propping up the white supremacy power structure.

“It was meant to be a very specific message to Chinese Canadians that you’re one of the ‘good’ immigrants now,” explained Dr. Tan. “We went from being ostracized to perhaps being able to serve another purpose. All racist ideas do not come from hate but from what could be personally, systemically or structurally gained in disseminating racism and propagating that there is a hierarchy.”

The concept of racial triangulation speaks to civic ostracism whereby Asians are constantly looked at as “other” and are therefore ostracized. There is also relative valorization, where the model minority (Asians) are compared to Indigenous and Black Canadians and are seen as doing better economically and educationally.

“It harms Asians because Asians are a wide group of peoples and there is actually a huge disparity in economics, education, poverty levels and housing within the Asian communities,” said Dr. Tan. “It creates a monolith that Asians are all the same and prevents us from looking at what populations might need more resources. Any idea that says one race is better than another race harms us all. It’s meant to drive a wedge between BIPOC groups and actually uphold white supremacy.”

COVID-19 and the return of the “Yellow Peril”

“History,” said Dr. Tan, “is repeating itself.”

Over the past year, many people of Chinese descent have been victims of hate crimes related to the pandemic. We have seen Asian Canadians not protected in their places of work and we are now noticing anti-South Asian sentiments rising with the spread of the Delta (formerly B.1.617) variant.

“The same themes of otherness, xenophobia, diseased, dirty, different cultures and eating habits has played out in the story of COVID right since its origins,” said Dr. Tan. “We are seeing daily reports of attacks against Asian people who are being blamed for COVID-19. This is a scary time for Asians.”

Dr. Tan hopes the information she provided helps drive the fuel to fight for justice anywhere for any oppressed group in Canada.

“We are all humans. We have to embrace our shared humanity for everyone to have equity going forward in Canada.”

More DEI events

Part 2 of the anti-Asian hate series was presented June 15 with a look at allyship and resilience. Facilitators Amil Reddy and Dr. Katharine Hudson covered regional anti-Asian trends, personal and professional resilience, microaggressions in healthcare and standing up to the bystander effect in medicine.

Also coming up in June: we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day by featuring three of our local and national Indigenous leaders. Join us June 21 for a virtual discussion and Q&A with panelists Dr. Alika Lafontaine (2021 president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association and co-founder of Safespace Networks), Dr. Don Wilson (incoming Regional Medical Director of VCH Indigenous Health), and Dr. Terri Aldred (Medical Director for Primary Care, First Nations Health Authority; Site Director, UBC Indigenous Family Medicine Program; Indigenous Lead, Rural Coordination Centre of BC). Register here.

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