For these Asian Montrealers, breaking down anti-Blackness starts at the dinner table

Being an ally means confronting anti-Black racism everywhere, including in our own families and communities, say young Montrealers of Asian descent. 

Drawing elders into honest conversation about race is an expression of love and respect, says one Montrealer

Talking to her elders about anti-Black racism is a way of showing them 'I want to make sure they're going to be part of a more just and equitable society that we're building,' says Silken Chan, left, pictured here with her grandfather, Yuk Pui Chan, and aunt, Nancy Leung. (Submitted by Silken Chan)

As Silken Chan, 25, sat with her extended family in uncomfortable silence at Chinese New Year dinner two years ago, she knew she had to say something. 

One of her relatives was disparaging a Black co-worker, tying her colleague's shortcomings to his skin colour. Nobody in her family seemed to approve, but nobody spoke up, either — except Chan. 

"In many of our Asian cultures, there's a tendency toward silence, not only because of discomfort, but as a strategy for trying to mitigate or even bury topics we're uncomfortable about," Chan said.

"It's a way to show disapproval, but silence also has the effect of coming across as indifference, or even approval."

Chan, a graduate student at McGill University's school of social work, is one of several young Asian Montrealers who, after witnessing the most recent police violence against Black people in the U.S., are breaking the silence in their own community about anti-Blackness.

The role of Asian American police officer Tou Thao in the police killing of George Floyd has sparked some of these conversations.

Thao, one of the four Minneapolis police officers arrested for the murder of Floyd, can be seen on video, turning away as his colleague, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. 

As a second-generation Canadian, born to parents who came from Hong Kong, Chan knows all about the concept of filial piety — the idea that you owe a lot to your elders and should respect their lived experiences and wisdom.

"A lot of people interpret filial piety as being just about deference — that it's wrong to try and correct them or enter into a dialogue," Chan said.

"I choose to see filial piety more as an expression of love: to say to these older people in my life that, rather than give up on them, I want to make sure they're going to be part of a more just and equitable society that we're building."

By and large, Chan says she feels the discussions are productive. But she says she still finds it hard to get her parents to connect the dots between the history of Black people in North America and the racism and discrimination that persists to this day. It's a dialogue she and her parents will continue to have, Chan says.

Following the rules, adopting white name

University of Toronto sociologist Jooyoung Lee says many first-generation Asian immigrants are steeped in the belief that in order to succeed, they must assimilate and align themselves close to the culture of the majority. (CBC)

As a Korean American growing up in southern California and immersed in hip-hop culture, Jooyoung Lee witnessed anti-Blackness first hand.

Now an associate professor of sociology at University of Toronto who studies how gun violence affects the health of young Black men, Lee says he is not aware of evidence that Asian Canadians are any more anti-Black than Canadians from other ethnic backgrounds. But he has a deep understanding of the historical and socio-cultural roots of anti-Black sentiment in Asian immigrant communities. 

Growing up, Lee witnessed the way older generations talked about racial stratification, tinged with colourism — that is, preferential attitudes toward people with lighter skin — even within different Asian communities.

Many Asian immigrants to North America, Lee said, tend to be well-educated and were able to establish small businesses soon after their arrival. There is a lot of pressure on the next generation to succeed. 

There's a belief that to achieve that success, you need to do more than just work hard, Lee says: you also need to assimilate, to position yourself close to the culture of the majority.

That means "following the rules," Lee said, "adopting a white name, trying to align yourself as close as possible to the dominant group, so that your kids can have an easy life — a good life."

Many Asian immigrants buy into the idea that you should "pull yourself up by the bootstraps," said Lee. As long as you work hard, you should be able to recover from setbacks without any outside help.

Many people with that mindset are also less forgiving of behaviours that don't conform: selling loosie cigarettes, like Eric Garner did, or using a counterfeit $20 bill, like George Floyd, Lee said. 

In this April 30, 1992 file photo, two Korean men stand on the roof of a grocery store with rifles to prevent looters from entering in Los Angeles (John Gaps III / The Associated Press)

The 1992 acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers on charges related to the brutal beating of a Black man, Rodney King  — the first such incident to be caught on videotape — left a lasting impression on Lee. In the ensuing riots, Korean shop owners found themselves pitted against Black protesters.

Korean shop owners took to rooftops, rifles in hand, to defend their storefronts from looters — a culmination of simmering racial tensions that had flared a year earlier, when, in an altercation over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, convenience store owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed a 15-year-old African American, Latasha Harlins.

But nearly three decades after those tragic events, things may be changing, according to Lee. 

Lee said the recent donation of $1 million to Black Lives Matter by the Korean pop boy band BTS is a first — and an important sign of change.

Given the band's clout across Asia and North America, Lee said, this could be an indication that a younger generation cares about fighting anti-Black racism.

'Model minority' myth

Chuong Trinh, a 26-year-old Vietnamese Montrealer, is intimately familiar with the negative stereotypes some Asian community members have about Black people in North America. 

"[Those stereotypes] kind of get proliferated in the Asian community a lot, and I think my parents aren't any different in that sense." Trinh said.

"The media often portrays Black people as dangerous or criminal. I think my parents growing up were wary of me having too many Black friends. They never really said anything too overtly racist, but there were racist undertones to a lot of the things they said."

Vietnamese Montrealer Chuong Trinh, centre, says he's focusing on working with other young Asian Montrealers to support the Black Lives Matter movement. (Submitted by Chuong Trinh)

Trinh says he has tried to speak with his parents about their attitudes, but his efforts have been dismissed as disrespectful, in a culture that emphasizes respect for elders and for authority.

For Trinh, the difficulty in getting his message across to his parents is also tied in with his decision to opt out of the "model minority" myth that emphasizes success above all else.

Trinh, an artist, quit computer science at McGill to pursue a career as a musical artist and entrepreneur — a choice his parents disapprove of. 

"They feel offended that you're even challenging their beliefs." Trinh said. "They don't take my opinion seriously."

"It's tough because I think certainly the needle moves, but it's so incremental, it's a very, very tiny shift."

While he hasn't gotten too far with his parents, Trinh says, he has taken his fight against anti-Black attitudes to others in the Asian community — most recently, mobilizing fellow Asian Montrealers under the hashtag #Asians4BlackLives.

"I feel more empowered to do things within my community, in my age group or younger," Trinh said.

Along with a group of like-minded Asian Montrealers, Trinh attended the latest anti-Black racism protest in Montreal in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

For his part, Lee says he hopes the events of the last few weeks will be a turning point, in which immigrants of Asian descent will become more aware of the different ways white supremacy harms all people of colour and of the unique forms of racism that Indigenous and Black people face.

"The thing about a turning point is — you never know, until you see what unfolds," Lee said. 


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