Anti-Asian racism and misogyny: It's time to call it out
The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes isn’t surprising, what's alarming is that other people are surprised
This First Person article is the experience of Marina Wang, a freelance journalist based in Calgary. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
On March 16, a gunman murdered eight people in three Atlanta-area spas, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
When I first read the news, my reaction was to toss my phone under my pillow and carry on with whatever I had at hand. It wasn't that the attacks weren't painful and appalling – it was that after decades of targeted attacks, racial slurs and fetishization, my ingrained response to dealing with the complex emotional fallout was evasion.
I'm not saying a stiff upper lip is a healthy or constructive response, but it is an instinct built from a matrix of subconscious justifications: a fear of confrontation, self-preservation, and pride that barred the racist philistines from playing any role in my success or well-being.
But the shootings in Atlanta happened in the middle of a global surge of hate crimes targeting people of East Asian descent, and I'm beginning to fear the silence of stoicism has played a passive role in the persistence of anti-Asian hate.
Furthermore, the junction of racism and sexism has proven deadly. Centuries of popular media, from Madame Butterfly to Miss Saigon, have branded Asian women as meek and obedient, disposable sexual objects to be owned by men.
In a press conference, the spokesperson for the sheriff's office in Cherokee County, Georgia, said that the shooter was acting on a sex addiction, and that a racial motive had not been determined. As if one precluded the other.
A longstanding chronic illness
The shootings in Atlanta were horrible, but they didn't come to me as a surprise.
Racism against people of East Asian descent has been persistent for as long as we have lived on this continent, and Sinophobic rhetoric has only served as an irritant in a longstanding chronic illness. It would seem plausible, then, that against a backdrop of mounting racial tension a deranged gunman would escalate the trend to mass murder.
No, a rise in hate crimes wasn't surprising, but what did alarm me was that other people were surprised.
Since the start of the pandemic I've been verbally assaulted on the street twice, which, given my background rate of discrimination, is quite average. Then again, I've seldom left the house.
In the year prior, I was accosted in a Dollarama and on a bus, where an intoxicated man continually made lewd comments about my race.
Just before the pandemic started, I was walking down the street with a Chinese Canadian friend when a woman aggressively shoved her.
I've had inebriated men chase me down the street with barks of "konichiwa" or "nihao" more times than I can count.
Of course, unless the perpetrator uses a racial slur, it can be difficult to parse whether their bigotry was racially targeted or indiscriminate, but it seems these things seldom happen to my white friends. Plus, in spaces full of white people, the perpetrators chose me.
These experiences are far from singular.
Police data from the U.K. show a 300 per cent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the first quarter of 2020, while one in five Chinese Australians say they have been physically threatened or attacked since the start of the pandemic.
A study conducted in large cities across the United States reported an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes of 150 per cent in 2020, while the overall number of hate crimes has dropped seven per cent.
Stop AAPI Hate, a group that advocates on behalf of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, reported 3,795 incidents between March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021. Over 68 per cent of these attacks targeted women.
In Canada, advocacy group Project 1907 cites 600 incidents since the start of the pandemic, a higher per capita rate than the U.S. In Vancouver, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 717 per cent between 2019 and 2020, according to Vancouver Police Department numbers.
These statistics offer a glimpse of the creeping malignance at hand, but how many micro-aggressions and verbal assaults go unreported?
The assaults that have happened to me occurred in public spaces. There were witnesses. People see these attacks on the streets, in the store, at work.
How then, does a society still respond with shock, feigning cluelessness to what's been going on for centuries?
First step is acknowledgment
At its best, it's a lack of awareness. At its worst, it is straight denialism.
Perhaps they've bought into the myth of a "model minority." The one that says, since Asian people can be successful, they are immune to racialization.
Perhaps it was because so many of us avoided attention and kept our heads down.
Perhaps it was that too many ordinary, law-abiding citizens have internalized the degrading tropes and stereotypes, dehumanizing us to a point where our struggles are not seen as equal.
I wouldn't be able to describe an elaborate plan forward that would dissolve the fear and anguish of having a target on your back because of your race. But for me, a simple step forward is acknowledgment. Anti-Asian hate is real, and it is prevalent.
I was in Vancouver when a truculent drunk man stomped onto the bus. He yelled and grimaced at other women as he made his way down the aisle. When he saw me he made a beeline. I set my gaze out the window, so as not to provoke him any further. It didn't work, as I felt the chill from his glare as he stood inches away. He lunged at me in an act of intimidation, smashing the handrail by my head. I froze, thinking that a single breath might turn the altercation physical.
A young man then hollered at him to stop. He told him he needed to get off the bus. They got into a row, diverting the attention from me.
I'm not saying the ideal thing to do is to put yourself in the line of aggression, but I am saying you should be the person that does something. Not the one that looks away.