Overt and deadly: anti-Asian violence does not happen in a vacuum

The tragedy of the Atlanta Spa shooting late last March forces us to reckon with anti-Asian racism in Waterloo Region — it’s subtle, implicit, and distinctly Canadian

The most vivid memory I have of anti-Asian racism is an old one. I was in grade six or so at St. Luke Elementary School in Waterloo, and I had received a really good mark on my math test.

Everyone else in my class had done poorly, and the teacher singled out my mark as what we should all be getting. I heard someone whisper from behind me, “Of course he got that mark.” I shrank into myself; it was horribly embarrassing, and remains a vivid memory that has stuck with me. 

Moments like this kept happening throughout my life, even while at the same time I was told that I was not different from other people – a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian. We live in a society that markets itself on inclusivity. Canadians love everyone and every citizen fits in a multicultural mosaic. We compare ourselves to the Americans, and we praise ourselves for not sharing their problems. We don’t have their polarized political atmosphere nor their capacity for violence. Above all, we are certainly not racist. 

So, when a tragic incident like the Atlanta shooting occurs, Canadians boldly declare, “Thank God we’re not Americans. We’re lucky to live in an inclusive society.” However, this comparison is wildly inaccurate and disingenuous. Canada the nation-state exists because of the colonization, enslavement, and subjugation of different ethnic groups. These human rights abuses extend to Asian-Canadian communities: in British Columbia, Chinese immigrants spilled blood building Canada’s infrastructure, and the Japanese internment camps were directly oppressive. This cruel history of anti-Asian racism in Canada, and the harm it has caused, has been made explicit. But over time, the form anti-Asian racism took shifted. Outright action turned to silent judgements, explicit became implicit.  

This change partly comes from the need to drive a gap between racial minorities, a colonial tactic used to divide and conquer. The model minority myth stems from this; by propping Asians up as a monolith and pretending that we are all better off than other minorities, the layman can argue that there isn’t systemic bias within our institutions. This gap also creates tensions between each ethnic group, leading to infighting and accounting for the anti-Black sentiment within some Asian communities. 


In addition, anti-Asian sentiment within Canada was probably affected by immigration policy changes after WWII. The 1966 White Paper on Immigration and resulting 1967 policy changes introduced a pseudo-points based system, in which new immigrants were selected based on education and financial status, among other criteria. These changes led to an increase in immigration from Asia, but preselected for wealthier immigrants. Over time, media depictions of wealthy Asian denizens and the relative erasure of poorer communities of Asian descent have led to a prejudiced view of Asians as all rich, successful, and smart, but also conniving and foreign. 

I’ve laughed off comments that reduce my academic accomplishments to my ethnicity. I ignore the side glances I get when I walk my dog. I’m willing to brush off these incidents because I’m expected to. Asians aren’t seen as “real” minorities and so I’m not supposed to experience “real” racism. This refusal to view things as racist or to “play the race card” is prevalent within my Asian friend group. I’ve been told by a mixed-race friend that while growing up, he chose to solely view himself as a “White” person. He shut off the Japanese part of himself. At particularly hard times, I’ve wanted to distance myself from my minority status as well. I’ve called myself a banana: Asian on the outside, white on the inside. And I’ve distanced myself from non “white-washed” Asians by calling them FOBs, or Fresh Off the Boats, a horribly prejudiced term. In my head, this distinction put me closer to whiteness and therefore, protected me from experiencing “real” racism. But this practice is horribly self destructive and ineffective. I was lying to myself, pretending to be something I wasn’t. Even if this protected me from receiving outright racist vitriol, these lies encouraged implicit racist actions.

To a certain degree, explicit racism is somehow easier to reconcile with. The violence against Asians is horrific, but I can recognize it for what it is. Implicit racism feels more uncertain, but it isn’t any less dangerous. When I asked my brothers for their thoughts on the recent attacks, they said they were not surprised. And why should we be? Overt anti-Asian violence does not happen in a vacuum; you can draw a line from seemingly innocuous statements like ‘Asians are good at math’ to Donald Trump calling COVID-19 the “Kung-flu” or “China virus”, to the shooting which claimed the lives of six women of Asian descent. 

We’ve known for years that we’re treated differently. Because of the model minority myth, we’re seen as closer to white and therefore, following white supremacist logic, closer to “ideal”. But consciously or unconsciously we’ve all recognized the truth. We have never been white nor will ever be white. We are not afforded the same privileges nor are we judged by the same standards. We’re only able to lie to ourselves to a certain point.

We should not be shocked to learn about yet another attack on Asian-Americans or Asian Canadians. I am tired of the surprise at these attacks. I am full of anger and sadness, emotions built from years of repression. But, today and henceforth, I will have my story heard, and the countless stories like mine represented. We cannot afford to be silent any longer. 

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