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Standing Up to End Anti-Asian Racism

June Ip
April 19, 2021
Categories: Advocacy Racial Equity 

It’s a paradoxical time to be Asian. 

On the one hand, mainstream representation of Asian cultures is stronger than its ever been. Never in my lifetime would I have thought that a Korean boy band, BTS, would be the biggest musical act in the world. On the other hand, anti-Asian racism is also becoming more visible than ever before. Whether it is a cruel coincidence or just part of the slow and necessary march toward progress, it is exhausting to be “othered.” For some, it can even be life threatening.

Early in the pandemic, Toronto Star journalist Evelyn Kwong sounded the alarm anticipating a resurgence of anti-Asian racism. She experienced it during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, and predicted anti-Asian racism was likely to be a problem again. But rather than learn from the community’s previous concerns and laments, politicians did little to pre-emptively denounce the toxic rhetoric that was starting to emerge. Social media platforms refused to enforce their own hate speech policies, and average citizens weren’t paying enough attention to the micro-aggressions directed at our Asian family, friends, and colleagues. This systemic dismissal of anti-Asian racism has had tragic consequences.

The heightened threat of anti-Asian violence during COVID is sadly eclipsing the cultural prominence of Asian talent. I fear for the for the safety of my elderly mom after seeing the sickening videos of 65-year-old Vilma Kari being randomly assaulted on the street in Manhattan earlier this month. The Atlanta massacre that targeted Asian women working at massage parlours was horrifying but not surprising given heightened racial tensions because of COVID-19. 

My biggest takeaway from these headlines is this: Silence is no longer an option. Bystanders need to step in and help end this violence now.

These attacks on Asian people are not sudden events. They are the outgrowth of distasteful jokes and disparaging but subtle comments going unchallenged. They are what happens when no one intervenes to stop a racist interaction. And when racism is silently enabled, it emboldens violent people to take their hate out on a community they have been conditioned to believe is less valuable. It is completely understandable that some of us will choose “flight” over “fight.” But why can’t bystanders “fight” when the stakes are lower, when all it takes is a “that wasn’t funny, buddy” to prevent a worse outcome later on?

It is difficult for me to describe the mix of disgust, rage, and sense of helplessness I felt watching the video of the vicious attack on Vilma Kari, in which two people were seen on camera as witnesses choosing not to come to her aid. The incident has left me so numb that I have not spoken to anyone, not even my husband, about how vulnerable it has made me feel. Truth be told, despite my tendency to be stoic in the face of trauma, I actually want and need others to demonstrate that they are allies. Why is it that the victims of abuse are expected to defend themselves every time? Why did that security guard and building employee seemingly ignore Vilma’s plight? Will anyone step in to help my mom if she is ever attacked? Will anyone stop to help me?

Now, more than ever, we need bystanders to act. A number of organizations, such as US-based anti-harassment training and advocacy organization like Hollaback! are trying to “mainstream” bystander intervention training in the hopes that it will help de-escalate harassment and prevent assault. It involves deprogramming our own tendencies to “stand and helplessly watch” in favour of the 4 Ds of safely intervening when we find ourselves witnessing abuse and harassment: Direct, Distract, Delegate, and Delay. These tactics ensure that you don’t find yourself alone in responding as there is safety in numbers, but also that you do not unintentionally make the situation worse. 

I consider myself extremely lucky: I have the luxury of speaking out without fear of repercussions. However, not everyone is in that same situation, and the bravery of a stranger purposefully stepping in to intervene is something that I hope happens for me and for everyone else who experiences racism, violence, harassment, or abuse. 

Let’s not embolden bad behaviour and instead do the small but significant things necessary to uphold the social contract enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – of life, liberty, and security of all persons. 

Image by Jason Leung on Unsplash