On March 16, a racially motivated shooting in Atlanta killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. This was a painful reminder of the racial discrimination Asian communities face on a daily basis. This same racial discrimination is also very much present at U of T.
The ongoing pandemic has affected the world for more than a year, and the anti-Chinese sentiment that followed has been getting worse, leading to real-life danger for Chinese people. Anti-Chinese discrimination has also been rapidly generalized to Asians everywhere.
While social media’s role cannot be ruled out as a culprit, it’s not the only source of this rhetoric — former US President Donald Trump publicly used the pandemic as a means to gain right-wing political support, constantly highlighting the “China virus” and “Kung Flu” on various occasions, which has kept the trend of hatred alive to this day.
However, anti-Asian hate is not unique to the United States. It fits within the larger historical context of white supremacy in both the US and Canada. From the implementation of the “head tax” in 1885 to the treatment of Chinese indentured labourers while building the Canadian Pacific Railway, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, it is evident that historical bills associate Chinese people with being dirty, dangerous, and alien.
These tags not only devalued the labour provided by Chinese immigrants, but also resembled the same discrimination that other ethnic groups face as a result of white supremacy today. It is true that anti-Asian racism may have been intensified by the current pandemic, but it originates from a long historical pattern of racism.
On March 19, a few days after the shooting in Atlanta, U of T President Meric Gertler published a letter to the University of Toronto to “express solidarity with Asian community.” This letter was sincere and powerful, but it is not enough to address the historically biased culture toward Asian people, Black people, and other minoritized communities in this school.
One of the only institutions at U of T that has addressed issues of bias has been the Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office, which wrote on its website that its mission is to “[engage] collaboratively with stakeholders on campus to enable the University’s academic mission through the integration of its commitment to equity, diversity and inclusivity.”
Furthermore, the office wrote that the goal will be realized through “education programming,” “complaint resolution supports,” “strategic initiatives,” and “community outreach and engagement.” However, when we reflect on recent reports of on-campus discrimination, such as the reported racist environment at Trinity College, the office is obviously limited in its effects.
After all, anti-Asian racism manifests in its own unique ways at university, such as the model minority myth, a racist perception that all Asians adhere to stereotypes such as being “good at math.” At first glance, these may seem like harmless compliments, but they have detrimental effects on Asian lives as they turn a diverse group of people into a monolith devoid of real struggle and hardship. The myth is also too often used to minimize the lived realities of other minority groups facing oppression.
Furthermore, the recent Atlanta attack has sparked discussion on the oversexualization of Asian women, which directly contributed to this tragedy. The compounding realities of the model minority myth, the criminalization of sex work, and racism must also all be addressed in order to ensure a similar tragedy doesn’t occur elsewhere. However, these realities were nowhere to be seen in U of T’s solidarity statement.
It is vital that the university recognize these truths and be proactive in taking action. Solidary statements won’t support these communities, but the university could offer all students an anti-racism course at the beginning of each academic year. The university could also regularly train faculty members in anti-racism efforts and support student activism by providing correct information and proper resources for activism.
If the tragedy in Atlanta has taught us anything, it must be that the discrimination toward different ethnic groups was established under white supremacy. While students and groups who suffer from these tragedies must unite, institutions like U of T must also provide their support in the form of action, not just solidarity.
Yixuan Li is a third-year economics and public policy student at New College.