British Columbia·Opinion

COVID-19 has put a harsh spotlight on the anti-Asian racism that has always existed in Canada

Vancouver is the only home I’ve known. But the rise of anti-Asian crimes has made my belonging here feel conditional, writes Carol Liao.

We can stop the trajectory of anti-Asian racism in Vancouver

Dozens of Richmond, B.C., residents gathered in 2016 at a SkyTrain station to rally against anti-immigration, racist flyers that were circulating in the community. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Carol Liao, who is a second-generation Taiwanese Canadian and law professor at UBC.  For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Most of us are disgusted by overt acts of racism: death threats spray-painted on cultural sites; unprovoked physical and verbal attacks. The significant rise in hate crimes in Vancouver is akin to growing hostilities around the world where anti-Asian racism has ignited during this global pandemic. I now weigh the risk of a racist incident when deciding whether to go out for an errand.

We live in a country where many people may be tempted to view hate crimes as isolated events and not part of broader systems of racism. Yet along with every hate crime are numerous other ugly racist moments that go unreported, and the accompanying fear held by anyone vulnerable to such harassment. It is important for those lucky enough to have never experienced that kind of fear to remember this.

Vancouver is the only home I have ever known. My parents emigrated here from Taiwan over 40 years ago, and I was born in this city. Situated on the unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories, Vancouver is an international port city and gateway to Asia, and the second most expensive housing market in the world — all factors leading to inevitable strains across diverse groups. B.C. politicians have always had to be careful when advocating for important policies that may seem insensitive to painful histories, such as the Chinese head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. Nevertheless, some Vancouverites are treating COVID-19 as a licence to exhibit their hate, only emphasizing the long history of racism in this city. 

Anti-Asian sentiments are not new. It's just that COVID-19 has been shining a spotlight on an ugly issue that many people in Canada have always faced, and has now escalated.

Police release surveillance video of alleged racially motivated attack

3 years ago
Duration 1:33
Police are asking the public for help identifying the suspect. They say he began yelling at a 92-year-old man with dementia, making comments about COVID-19, then shoved him, causing him to fall and hit his head outside a convenience store in East Vancouver on March 13.

Time and again I am reminded of racism's ridiculousness, creating a monolith that weighs on dozens of different ethnicities with no regard for how long a person may have lived in or contributed to a community. Any Asian-looking person is at risk of being a scapegoat in this pandemic: Inuit in Montreal, front-line health-care workers in Winnipeg, migrants that may have resisted oppression their whole lives only to be spat on in their adopted hometowns.

Trusting the public can differentiate between legitimate criticisms of a state versus blatant racism, Chinese Canadian leaders have forcefully called for an independent investigation into the actions of the Chinese government in this pandemic, while pleading with Canadians to stand together in condemning racist acts toward people of Asian descent. It takes collective commitment and ongoing work to build anti-racist communities — it never happens overnight.

As difficult as it may be, it is time for us to recognize both the overt and systemic racism that has long simmered in this city, and the levels of complicity that have enabled it. Plenty of attention is given to the perpetrators of hate, but we cannot minimize the trauma contributed by public ambivalence.

Apathy has never alleviated racism, and claiming to be "colourblind" can perpetuate inequalities. Purposeful and concerted actions of many people are necessary to change the trajectories of our histories. There must be education and awareness, interventions, and activism. 

Ziyian Kwan and others stage a peaceful anti-racism performance in the courtyard near the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, May 11, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

I feel fortunate to live in a country that supports democratic governments, the rule of law, public education and health care, and social welfare over individual freedom at all costs. When we disagree and when we fail, I still believe our leaders and our citizenry will continue to strive for what is good. But the completely predictable nature of this spate of racism and the indifference of so many has left me heartbroken in this complicated city I love. 

Given the protracted period of COVID-19 and the convenience of misdirected blame in the face of widespread suffering, I do not know how we will move forward from the "shadow pandemic" of anti-Asian racism without the engaged support of Vancouverites, who need to speak up even when it is inconvenient. The resurgent racism has made my belonging here feel conditional.

But when my family loudly bangs our pots for our health-care workers at 7 p.m. every night, waving across fences and lanes to our friends and neighbours doing the same, I'll try very hard to remember what makes this city still feel like home.

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Carol Liao is an assistant professor at the UBC Allard School of Law in Vancouver and the UBC Sauder Distinguished Scholar of the Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the UBC Sauder School of Business.