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“Anti-Asian racism is not new”: U of T community in solidarity following Atlanta shootings

Students and professors express anger, share experiences with discrimination
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article includes vulgar descriptions of racism.

U of T’s faculty, administrators, student associations, and students have expressed solidarity and feelings of sadness and anger over the recent shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, where eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian, and seven of whom were women. 

On March 16, a shooter targeted three massage parlours and spas. The victims included workers at the businesses and customers. The shooter has been charged with eight counts of murder. 

The shootings come after a reported rise in anti-Asian sentiment in Canada and a worldwide increase in xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Asian communities have been subjected to hate crimes, verbal abuse, and physical attacks, creating a culture of fear within these communities, including ones at U of T.

Responses to the Atlanta shootings

U of T President Meric Gertler, released a statement regarding the shootings, writing that the university condemns all forms of discrimination and violence against women and the Asian community.

Likewise, Vice-President of U of T and Principal of UTSC Wisdom Tettey and Vice-President of U of T and Principal of UTM Alexandra Gillespie have each shared messages about anti-Asian racism.

In Tettey’s message addressed to the UTSC community, he wrote that the shootings act as “a reminder of why we cannot relent in our commitment and efforts to eradicate the canker of hate, bigotry, and misogyny.”

To the UTM community, Gillespie’s message was written in “a spirit of sympathy and anger,” noting that more than 925 anti-Asian incidents have been reported in Canada since the start of the pandemic, according to Fight COVID Racism

In an email to The Varsity, Associate Professor Lin Fang, Factor-Inwentash Chair in Children’s Mental Health, expressed that following the shooting, she first felt sadness and anger, which turned into feelings of frustration. 

“I was angry and frustrated as these attacks, which have long existed, have been rising to a new level since COVID began, but it did not really generate much public attention and interest, until the Atlanta shooting,” Fang wrote. “Anti-Asian racism is not new, but it took mass murder to justify its existence.”

Kate Shao, a former graduate student from U of T’s Faculty of Law and an employment lawyer who sits on the board of directors for the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CCNCTC), believes that the narrative formed by law enforcement and the media epitomizes the prevalent stereotypes of Asian women.

“Strong attempts to humanize the perpetrator (e.g. interview his family, church, neighbors, he just had a really “bad day” etc) while simultaneously silencing the stories’ [sic] of the victims contributes to this dehumanization and objectification of Asian women,” Shao explained in an email to The Varsity. Shao’s response is in reference to a briefing with reporters, where a Georgia officer said that the shooter was “having a really bad day.”

“It is truly unfortunate that it took the killing of 8 people to get the world to take a hard look at anti-Asian racism,” Shao wrote.

Rise in racism, racist attacks during the pandemic

Earlier this week, the CCNCTC published an annual report on anti-Asian racism in Canada, which details 1,150 recorded cases of racist attacks between March 10, 2020, and February 28, 2021. A survey conducted by U of T professors and researchers from other universities in early 2021 found that 35 per cent of respondents, who were all Chinese people in Canada, had experieneced discrimination. 

The UTVSA pointed out that racism against Asian communities is not a recent problem, but has been historically disregarded. Anti-Asian racism has long existed in Canada, going back to policies such as the head tax, which required Chinese immigrants to pay $50 to come to Canada in the late 1800s and more in the 1900s.

The group added that the acts of violence against racialized communities are not remote occurrences perpetrated by a “lone wolf.” 

Similarly, the rise in anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic did not surprise Shao. She elaborated that xenophobia has been an ongoing presence, and Asian individuals have been targeted with racial slurs and microaggressions almost every day. 

With the increasing anti-Asian sentiment, Fang explained the “profound impact” that racism can have on people, specifically the children and the next generations. “Children may question their sense of belonging and loath their physical appearance,” Fang wrote. 

“Moreover, the very fact that one always has to worry about their safety and the possibility of racist encounters can cause prolonged psychological distress.”

Students experience anti-Asian incidents 

Amid the rise of violence and discrimination against Asian people, students at U of T have experienced anti-Asian incidents themselves.

In an email to The Varsity, University of Toronto Vietnamese Students’ Association (UTVSA) Vice-President External Hanh Tang, Co-President Sarah Tran, and Cultural Coordinator Jessica Pham wrote that “many… UTVSA students have first-hand experienced incidences motivated by racism at the very heart of Toronto.”

“As an Asian students’ association, students have come to us to share a whole range of emotions regarding the incident, the highlight of which includes feeling physically unsafe going about their normal lives as an Asian person, in their own neighbourhood,” they elaborated. 

In a statement to The Varsity, Bonnie Hu, a third-year student majoring in linguistics, wrote that she “did not personally experience explicit hate crimes” during her first two decades in Canada. However, since the pandemic began, she has heard of anti-Asian violence and has been in “a threatening situation” herself.

While taking an almost-empty TTC subway in June of last year, a seemingly-intoxicated middle-aged white man allegedly called her a “dirty fucking immigrant,” “slut,” and other things she did not hear.

“I told a TTC attendant what happened and he walked me home to make sure the man who harassed me couldn’t follow me,” Hu continued. 

A first-year engineering student who has asked to remain anonymous due to the personal nature of his experiences recounted two incidents that happened to him during the pandemic.

The first incident occurred on the subway, when a man came up to him and said, “Look, it’s a Chinese guy,” leaving the student unsure of how to react and deciding to ignore the man. Afterward, the student was left alone.

He also described being ignored by several people while asking for directions to a café on King Street. “I approached other people for help, they all continued to ignore me and walk straight forward,” he recounted.

Because of the two incidents, the student is now “discouraged” to go downtown. 

A former U of T student and owner of a small business called inkbymi, Aimi Tran, recently publicly shared her experience with an organizer of the Trinity Bellwoods Flea Market that occurred over a year ago. 

The organizer had spelled her business name as “inkbyami” rather than “inkbymi,” in which Mi is Tran’s Vietnamese name. When Tran asked to fix the spelling error, she ended up being removed from the market and was “berated on the phone” by an organizer.  

In an email to The Varsity, Tran noted how easy it is for Asian individuals to “internalize the model minority myth,” which is a stereotype of being high-achieving and successful that is often applied to the Asian community. 

Tran expressed that she was initially “afraid” to share her story, even going as far as “blaming” herself and “convincing” herself that the organizer could be right. 

“In sharing my story, I want to highlight how the hashtag #StopAsianHate can’t adequately capture the range and consequential nuances of systemic racism,” Tran summarized.

Creating more awareness, taking action

On an individual level, Fang pointed to a few ways students can help. Fang noted that students can partake in activism against racism and injustices. Students should also know that they are not alone and can join a supportive network to safely share their voices and experiences, she wrote. 

Tran noted the importance of sharing one’s story and encouraging individuals to come forward with their own stories. She highlighted that sharing these stories can help people realize that “we’re all in this together to learn and do and be better.” However, she also pointed out that, due to language barriers, some individuals may not have a platform to share their experiences with racism. 

On an institutional level, U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office has collaborated with stakeholders to host educational programming to raise awareness and garner support. 

There will also be a community gathering space on March 31, which will consist of collective healing spaces to denounce anti-Asian sentiments and all forms of violence. 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that the university’s administration, including safety units from all three campuses, is staying “highly vigilant” and “working closely together.”

While the UTVSA considers U of T’s statement on anti-Asian racism an initial step in addressing the issue, members of the association expressed that more could have been done to support their “grieving and fearful peers,” as many of them “feel alone.”

According to the UTVSA, students have been taking steps themselves by looking for ways to cope, seeking fundraisers, and doing their research to learn about the model minority myth.

The UTVSA calls for acts of “real change” to address the ongoing issue of anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes. 

“Since racism is so embedded in our institutional structures, institutions like UofT have the power and qualifications to influence real change more than any individuals,” the UTVSA members concluded.

The Korean Canadian U of T Students Association and the Chinese Undergraduate Association at the University of Toronto did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment.

Students, staff, and faculty are reminded of the various safety programs offered on campus including the TravelSafer program (416-978-SAFE (7233)), and the Community Safety Office (416-978-1485).