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“We’re human”: four U of T students reflect on anti-Asian racism

In light of the Atlanta spa shootings, rise in hate crimes
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Vanessa Lai: The “model minority” is not real — and it is definitely not a compliment 

As anti-Asian hate crimes have surged since the start of COVID-19, media coverage and surrounding conversations have given many different takes on anti-Asian violence with one recurring phrase: the “model minority.” 

This myth does not lift up Asians in North America. It’s a term that was coined in 1966 by William Petersen, a white sociologist, to divide racialized communities — ranking them based on Caucasian standards. 

The ‘model minority’ is a backhanded compliment used to dismiss anti-Asian racism. It is reinforced when, for example, I’m told I should be good at math because “all Asians are,” or when Hollywood only pushes media that shows Asian Americans living the ‘American dream’: going to Ivy League universities and having high-income jobs. 

Statistics used in support of the concept often neglect how these numbers fluctuate between varying Asian demographics. Since Japanese and Chinese Americans are among the select few that are highly educated with high income, these numbers are falsely used to represent the entire Asian American community. 

According to a study released last year, the Southeast Asian American community alone has approximately 460,000 people living in poverty and over one million in low-income households. Hmong Americans rank the lowest of all racialized groups in the US across different measures of income. 

Of all employed Asian Americans, 25 per cent work in service, retail, and hospitality jobs, and Asian American women — who work many of those jobs — ranked highest in unemployment during the pandemic.

Dismissing anti-Asian racism based on biased data perpetuating the model minority myth is not only dismissive to Asian suffering; it also promotes anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiments, showing them as “lesser” racialized communities, as their statistics show low rates of education and earnings. 

It is crucial to highlight that activism in support of Asians does not aim to diminish the struggle of other minoritized groups; different racialized communities face violence simultaneously. Seeking reasons to minimize anti-Asian racism is harmful. 

Speak out, get informed, and support your Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) peers. There are many resources out there that you can use to educate yourself and support AAPI communities through tangible action.

Anti-Asian racism doesn’t have a curfew, so neither does the endless cycle of consuming news, resources, and call-to-action posts. While activism is important, sacrificing mental health is neither healthy nor sustainable. 

In the midst of trauma, grief, and heightened distress, allocating time every day to step back and focus on your own mental well-being is not selfish; it is necessary. Foster open conversations and support. Take care of yourselves and each other.

Rebecca Skoll: “Asian, but not too Asian” — solving the puzzle of my Asian-Canadian identity

Growing up with a Chinese mother and a white father, I never had just one label, but three: Chinese, white, and Canadian. I never felt the need to pick just one until I realized that people are not satisfied with ambiguity. 

The need for clear-cut labels is especially obvious when I reflect on my experiences being in public with either my mother or my father, which were quite different. I never knew why until I accepted the key racial difference between my parents that people could not see past. 

When I am with my father, people assume that we are not biologically related. In one notable incident, my dad, my two sisters, and I were in line to buy bus tickets in Toronto; my mother was looking at the map on the other side of the station. The vendor simply would not believe that we were really my dad’s daughters. 

After minutes of the vendor ‘jokingly’ questioning my dad, my mother came back. The vendor quickly put the pieces together, and we got our tickets. Being nine years old at the time, I did not understand why my dad was seen so differently from my mother, my sisters, and myself. 

My experiences with my mother are drastically different. When people see me with her, it makes sense. My mother has experienced endless microaggressions, from people complimenting her English to calling her slurs. However, her role as my biological parent has not once been questioned. 

Confusion and commentary on my ethnicity were not limited to when I was with my parents. A white friend once complimented my eyes for being “Asian, but not too Asian.” I was praised for being exotic — but not too exotic. 

Similarly, my Chinese family had a game of comparing which one of my sisters and I looked the most white. My ethnicity became a puzzle for people to try and solve — a puzzle that I could not even solve myself. 

This limbo made accepting my Asian identity that much more difficult since I was constantly being praised for the white-leaning aspects of myself. I remember staring into the mirror and trying to decide if the person staring back was Chinese or white. I did not see myself as Chinese, and, conversely, I did not see myself as white. 

In all honesty, I have not yet solved the puzzle of my ethnic identity, and I don’t know if I ever will. I feel that I will always be between labels. However, as I’ve endured microaggressions surrounding my ethnicity, I have learned that there is no such thing as being “too Asian” — because being Asian is not a fault.

Jasmin Akbari: Self-policing in public spaces — hiding parts of my identity to avoid conflict 

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. It did not take long for people to begin posting comments, videos, and pictures depicting Chinese people as filthy, disgusting, and bringers of disease. 

In the midst of the political and social climate that we are in, I knew that something terrible would happen. When the shooting in Atlanta occurred, I was not shocked. I also was not shocked when hours after the attack, police officers blatantly said that the shooter had a “bad day.”  

This was not the first instance of anti-Asian violence, and it was only a matter of time before people started to notice these crimes have been occurring. 

Despite growing up identifying proudly with my Chinese heritage, I have nonetheless been subject to hearing nursery rhymes surrounding the shape of Asian eyes, being told I eat everything from dogs to grass, and having people give me nasty looks when I speak Mandarin with my mother. 

When the pandemic was declared, I knew things would only get worse, and for the first few months, I was worried for my mother’s safety. While she has always been a strong woman who is not afraid to push back, I recognized that with the current social and political climate, there would be some who would feel entitled to act and behave a certain way toward Asian Canadians. 

In addition to being fearful for my mother, I have also self-policed in public spaces to avoid conflict, including by avoiding speaking Mandarin. The lack of understanding about the complexity of this virus has resulted in the immediate scapegoating of the Asian community as the cause of the pandemic. 

As an example, from my experience, I have learned that some people will be okay with using the term ‘China virus’ outwardly and they will immediately feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is Asian. 

I self-police aspects of my Chinese identity that I’m proud of because there is always a possibility that someone will do or say something terrible. The shootings in Atlanta, as well as a recent report detailing more than 1,000 racist attacks on Asian Canadians this past year, show that this is already a reality.

Ines Wong: It was convenient to ignore us; now it’s convenient to scapegoat us 

It happened on a Friday night. We were heading out to dinner in Québec City; there were eight of us, and we were in a good mood, enjoying the highs of finishing exams.

Then we passed by an open-patio restaurant, and a group of partygoers took our presence as an invitation. 

“Ayyy!” they shouted. The partygoers stood and clasped their hands together, bowing at us again and again. Two of them pulled on their eyes to narrow them unnaturally and leered at us. “Welcome to Canada!” 

My friends and I are all Chinese Canadian. We all grew up in Canada. We ignored those partygoers, but I still remember the shock of it even though it was years ago. 

“Welcome to Canada,” they said. 

“You don’t belong here,” they implied. “We think you’re an outsider.” 

On the same trip, a taxi driver echoed this sentiment. “Where are you from?” he asked us. When we told him that we’re from Toronto, he frowned. “But where are you really from?”

I grew up in a predominantly East-Asian community. My friends and I would frequent the Chinese bakery across from our school; for special occasions, my family would ‘yum cha,’ go for Korean barbecue, or order sushi. However, I also grew up reading books like Harry Potter and watching Marvel films. The media we were exposed to had little to no Asian representation — and that impacted me.

The first time I tried my hand at creative writing, I was eight. I tried to give my protagonist my last name, Wong. It felt weird. Odd. I erased it and wrote a white name instead. 

For years, it almost felt like I wasn’t allowed to write any Asian characters. They were barely represented in the media; if they existed, they were often portrayed as a stereotype — see Harry Potter’s Cho Chang. Usually, they were sidelined or killed and easily forgotten. And that’s exactly what has been happening in the real world. 

Look at the shootings in Atlanta, which police refuse to label as a racist hate crime. Look at the recent spikes in anti-Asian racism. Our perceived lack of significance, combined with the spread of racist fear-mongering, has alienated us and painted a target on our backs. 

We shouldn’t have to suffer through this. We belong here. Stop erasing us or singling us out. We aren’t the enemy. We aren’t strange alien beings.

We’re human.