Our instinct as parents is to protect our children. How can I guard them against racism?

Even passing racism can cause long-lasting damage when left unchecked and unchallenged, writes Tamara Miller.

'Even passing racism can cause long-lasting damage when left unchecked and unchallenged'

A mother and son attend a vigil in Philadelphia on Wednesday after a man killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in attacks on three Atlanta-area massage parlors on March 16. (Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters)

This column is an opinion by Tamara Miller, the mother of two busy and beautiful children born in China. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

My kids are Chinese. I am not. It makes me particularly ill-equipped to help them negotiate an ugly symptom of the global pandemic.

Even prior to COVID-19, they experienced schoolyard racism – mocked for the shape of their eyes, or made the butt of jokes about eating dog meat. We have discussed the inherent racism in such comments and, for the moment, my kids have seemed to embrace their Asian identities as they move into adolescence and young adulthood.

But history shows all too well how off-handed comments can become something more, particularly when frequency or bully pulpits turn them into a norm. Even passing racism can cause long-lasting damage when left unchecked and unchallenged.

Our instinct as parents is to protect our children. I can give my kids masks, remind them to wash their hands, and take them for COVID-19 vaccinations. But how do I vaccinate them against the hate and scarring that results when they see people who look like them being targeted for their ethnicity?

In a recent televised address marking the dubious one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden referred to a pervasive societal symptom of the pandemic. He decried the, "vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated … forced to live in fear for their lives, just walking down streets in America."

This week, the terrifying menace in Biden's words came to life when a gunman entered three massage parlours in the Atlanta area and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. While Atlanta police are not yet prepared to call the killings a hate crime, members of the Asian community and advocates are drawing a link between the rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and the horrific act of violence.

It would be comforting to think that these types of hateful and violent incidents are only happening to the south of us. The reality, however, is much different.

In 2020, Statistics Canada released a survey in which one-third of Chinese participants stated they felt there had been an increase in race-based harassment or attacks over the past year.

These observations are corroborated by data from the Vancouver Police Department, which found that reports of anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 717 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

The Ottawa Police Service reports that hate crimes against Asian populations rose in 2020, and it draws a direct connection to racism and xenophobia surrounding the pandemic. In January, the City of Ottawa released a formal statement condemning the increase in incidents of anti-Asian racism.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also denounced the "significant increase in acts of racism against Asian Canadians."

All of which raises the spectre of a new challenge for my kids, and others like them. Young people of Asian descent are negotiating the frustrations, fears and disappointments of a global pandemic, while a section of society targets them in a warped and racist belief that they are somehow the cause of that pandemic.

Simu Liu, Kim's Convenience actor and the newest star of the Marvel franchise, has been active on social media along with other Asian celebrities in denouncing anti-Asian incidents. "Anti-Asian racism is very real," Liu recently argued in a column on Variety.com, "and it will not be solved with an opulent rom-com or Marvel superhero."

It is hard to make sense of it all. However, these acts cannot be brushed away as a bad joke, or someone having a "bad day" as Cherokee County sheriff Capt. Jay Baker described the Atlanta shootings.

WATCH | Atlanta shootings fuel fear of racially motivated attacks:

Atlanta shooting rampage fuels fear of racially motivated attacks

3 years ago
Duration 2:03
A shooting rampage at three Atlanta spas killed eight people, seven of them of Asian descent and though police won’t yet call it a hate crime, it has fuelled fears across the country of more racially motivated attacks.

As writer Hua Hsu recently pointed out in The New Yorker, "[it's] difficult to describe anti-Asian racism when society lacks a coherent, historical account of what that racism actually looks like."

While there have been some highly disturbing and publicized reports – such as the violent attack on a young Korean man in Los Angeles that police are investigating as a hate crime – the vast majority of incidents involve verbal harassment, shunning, or avoidance that often receive scant public or media attention.

Yet their emotional impact on individuals and society is undeniable.

For my kids, the prevalence of racism and the discussion around it leads to heart-breaking questions about their identity and place in the world.

These are regular topics at our dinner table. I have opened discussions with their schools when racist comments or micro-aggressions have been directed their way. We work hard to promote a sense of pride in our children around their ethnic identities and the country of their birth.

However, how do I, as a person who benefits from the white privilege endemic in our society, truly teach my children to be proud of who they are and assert their place in the community against growing overt racism?

It's a task easily undermined by the barrage of messaging on social media around the "China virus," or media reports about members of the community being subjected to racist taunts. Patient education about dealing with aggressors only goes so far.

Eventually, my teenagers must engage with the world on their own terms, and though I can empathize, I cannot walk in their shoes.

There are no easy answers. As Simu Liu correctly pointed out, there is no superhero who can single-handedly stop this villain. But talking about it is a start. If we can borrow from another pop-culture hero, we must draw a line in the sand and state that racism in all its forms "shall not pass."


Tamara Miller holds a PhD, with a specialization in Canadian history. She has had a 20-year policy career with the federal government and is an independent writer.