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Anti-Asian racism is serious and harmful

Dear Editor,

Feb. 12 marked the beginning of a Lunar New Year for many Asian cultures and their diasporic communities around the globe. This week normally marks the end of a festive season, but recent headlines exposing the rise in anti-Asian racism have dampened these celebrations and troubled us all.

This letter intends to spotlight anti-Asian racism as a real and substantial issue. Asian individuals face a form of racial violence that is underacknowledged and often poorly understood by white and other racialized communities.

We hope this letter will:

  • Inspire more members of the Asian community to become leaders in anti-racism initiatives
  • Encourage everyone to acknowledge that the elements of discrimination against each race can differ
  • Clarify that the silence, courtesy, and respect demonstrated by Asian individuals does not constitute acceptance of anti-Asian behaviour

We stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and all people of colour, and firmly believe that racism requires a collective solution. After all, how can we resolve one divide with another?

Last week, a 36-year-old Asian man was stabbed in New York’s Chinatown, for what is now being investigated as a hate crime. Earlier that week, four Asian-American women were assaulted on the same day in New York’s subway stations and streets. Last month, a Korean-American man was assaulted and berated with racial slurs in Los Angeles. Members of the Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino and Japanese-American diasporas have also faced violence in Oakland, San Francisco and other major American cities at levels not seen in over a generation.

Canadians often think of racism as an American problem. While hate crimes against Asian-Americans appear frequently in American media, Canada actually has more cases of anti-Asian racism per capita than the U.S. In British Columbia, Premier John Horgan announced last month that anti-Asian hate crime in Vancouver alone rose 717 per cent in 2020. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a researcher from Seoul was stabbed while in a Korean food market in Montreal, after which a safety warning was issued by the South Korean Embassy to Canadian-Koreans. The Ottawa Police Service responded to 15 incidents of anti-Asian racism in 2020, including death threats, compared to two incidents in 2019. The actual number of anti-Asian incidents is likely to be much higher given the culture of silence ingrained within our communities — a core side-effect of the “model minority myth.” 

The “model minority myth” is a stereotype that has harmed many of us. Asian individuals have historically embraced the Western world as a haven in which they will go to great lengths to remain. The fear of alienation and expulsion instilled in the already-polite culture; an obligation to be highly productive and compliant. Accordingly, modern Western societies view Asian people as successful and obedient — an ideal population for white colonialism to dominate and cite as “evidence” that racism no longer exists. This notion perpetuates silence in new generations of Asian youth and reinforces the racism against Black, Indigenous, and other peoples of colour.

We continue trying to conduct ourselves as exemplar members of society with the goal of not inconveniencing others. Almost every one of us has a story about encountering fetishes while dating, agreeing with inaccurate assumptions, or going along with humiliating jokes. We have all been told that Asian people do not face racism, or that the racism we face is justified. For some of us, even our own parents and grandparents tell us that we should be grateful for living in Western society — that we should adopt the “quit while you’re ahead” approach.

“Asian” captures a large number of racial communities, each with its unique challenges. Those who are mixed-race with one white parent, for example, benefit greatly from white privilege, but must also wrestle with the constant identity crisis of feeling “too white to be Asian, and too Asian to be white.” Those of us born and raised in North America by Asian immigrant parents or grandparents also struggle with the constant pressure to “act white” and fit in, while trying to preserve our cultures and traditions.

The cause for the rise in anti-Asian behaviour — primarily against women and the elderly — is likely evident to all. Former president Trump’s propagation of hate against Chinese- and other Asian-Americans through his dangerous rhetoric of the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu” has demeaned our communities and resurfaced racist notions of “Yellow Peril.” He has been parroted by hundreds of thousands, including most recently at a popular student bar in London, Ont. All of this has occurred despite inconclusive epidemiological evidence of the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Anti-Asian racism has found its way into our student life along with other forms of racism. Recently, the professor of a management course at the University of Ottawa asked students for their opinion about political issues in China after expressing her own unfriendly opinion towards the Asian community. The professor then “jokingly” accused Asian students in the class of “writing to their Chinese minister” when they remained silent during the ensuing discussion. The professor’s insinuation that all Chinese students in her class are “spies” was followed by a white student in the class asking in the chat: “is this a hostage situation?” The incident has not received campus-wide nor media attention, and very few members of the Asian community have spoken out despite knowing that sinophobic tropes have no place on campus. This is a consequence of the oppressive tool that is the “model minority myth.”

Student government is another facet of campus life that can be challenging for Asian students. The historic assumption that Asian individuals will excel has led to widespread under-recognition of the efforts of Asian student leaders. We believe these experiences lead fewer Asian individuals to see themselves in leadership positions both within and outside of the post-secondary setting.

We cannot let the current rise in anti-Asian bigotry reinforce the history of anti-Asian racism upon which Canada was built. This country’s anti-Asian legacy includes the exploitation of Chinese labour for the Canada Pacific Railway and subsequent Chinese Head Tax, and the forced internment and relocation of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, once stated in the House of Commons that “Asiatic principles, immoralities and eccentricities were […] abhorrent to the Aryan race.” Ideas like this have no place in modern Canada.

We believe that the solution to systemic racism against Asian and other racialized communities must include solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. As the younger generation, we must relieve the historical tension between Asians and other racialized communities. We need to foster inclusive and dynamic spaces where all racialized individuals can apply their lived experiences and advocacy skills to combat our common enemy: white supremacy.

We appeal to members of the U of O’s Asian communities to make their voices heard, engage themselves in political causes on- and off-campus, and show solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. We can no longer afford to be silent. We also ask non-Asian students to understand that anti-Asian racism is serious and harmful. Finally, we remind everyone that the fight against racism is one that we are all in together.


Sam, Michelle, Chen T.K., Tim, and Le

Sam Yee (余嘉雯) is a third-year student in biomedical science, science policy, and Indigenous studies, and a representative of the faculty of science on the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) Board of Directors (BOD).

Michelle Liu is a law student and the faculty of law (common law) director on the UOSU’s BOD.

Tian Kun Chen (陈添昆) is a fourth-year marketing student and a representative of the Telfer School of Management on the UOSU BOD.

Tim (Tae-Bin) Gulliver (이태빈) is a third-year political science major and the UOSU’s advocacy commissioner.

Le Nguyen (Nguyễn Lê Khanh) is a third-year political science and communications student and the UOSU’s campaigns coordinator.