We remember after George Floyd died the outpouring of support from everyone. The personal messages from friends and colleagues asking us how they can help. The Blackout Tuesday and online statements of solidarity in support of Black lives. The protests, the marches, the woke culture.
Watching a similar reaction take place towards the Asian community in the aftermath of the tragedy in the US is almost surreal. We feel like we are watching the same scene unfold but from the outside. We know what it feels like for our people to be harmed, for the world to suddenly turn its attention toward a problem that has been festering for so long but almost unnoticeable. We are offering some thoughts about what we need to do, as parents, to address racism towards Asian people.
Understand That Anti-Asian racism is a Canadian Problem Too
On March 16th, six Asian women were among eight people killed after a gunman opened fire at three American spas. Anti-Asian racism has been on the rise as a result of COVID-19.
We like to think Anti-Asian racism is not a Canadian problem, but Canada has a long history of racism against Asian people. In the 1800s, Canada brought in thousands of Chinese labourers to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, the Canadian government adopted a series of measures to prevent Chinese immigration to Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act (1885) required every Chinese worker, and family member, entering Canada to pay a $50 head tax, up to a total of $500. From 1885 to 1923 when the head tax was collected, Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in tax. In 1923 the head tax was replaced by the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The legislation banned all Chinese immigrants to Canada until it was repealed in 1947.
Canada was a country that was hostile to immigration from non-white countries, including China. According to Library and Archives Canada some Canadians:
Saw China as a weak nation of backward people who could never learn to live like white Canadians. Moreover, they said that Chinese people carried diseases and other bad habits (such as smoking opium) that threatened Canada’s well-being. Racism against Chinese and other immigrant groups such as Japanese and South Asians, as well as against First Nations peoples, were expressions of a powerful belief in white superiority.
Chinese Canadians were subjected to various forms of discrimination, and excluded from exercising several rights, including the right to vote. Under the 1920 Dominion Elections Act, “people disenfranchised by a province for reasons of race would also be excluded from the federal franchise.” In 1920, British Columbia discriminated against people “on the basis of race” because it excluded people of Japanese and Chinese origin, as well as “Hindus” from voting. It wasn’t until 1948 that Asian Canadians were entitled to vote in Canada, irrespective of the province in which they lived.
This is a part of history that we are often not taught in school: the history of racism directed towards Chinese Canadians.
Today, Chinese Canadians continue to experience racism. According to Stats Can, racialized people in Canada report experiencing discriminatory harassment or attacks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic:
Overall, the proportion of visible minority participants (18%) who perceived an increase in the frequency of harassment or attacks based on race, ethnicity or skin colour was three times larger than the proportion among the rest of the population (6%) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This difference was most pronounced among Chinese (30%), Korean (27%), and Southeast Asian (19%) participants.
Anti-Asian racism is alive and well here in Canada. We need to acknowledge this racism and learn about the history of racism against Asian Canadians and how it continues to be experienced today. The #FaceRace Campaign is a valuable resource to learn about anti-Chinese and Asian racism in Canada prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teach Your Children an Anti-Racist Mindset
As early as three and six months, children become aware of race. By the time they are toddlers, they are able to “use racial categories to reason about people’s behaviors.” Children as young as three to five years of age are able to categorize people based on race, and express racial bias.
However, as adults responsible for these little ones, we often shy away from conversations about race and racism. We shush our children when they comment about skin tones and colour, and we teach our children that colour doesn’t matter; that we should treat everyone equally.
By evading race and racism, we are teaching our children to ignore how racism exists in our society. If we don’t see a problem, we cannot take the steps to address it. “I don’t see colour” means I don’t see how anti-Asian racism exists in my society and the harm it causes. It also means I do not see how white privilege and white supremacy enable racism to exist.
Parents can engage in courageous conversations with their children about race and racism. Children are not too young to talk about race and racism. When children notice colour, instead of shushing them, take a moment to validate their observation. For example, if a child comments on a different skin tone, acknowledge it. This may lead to a conversation about how we all have different skin tones, and the uniqueness of each individual. This can lead to conversations about how certain people are treated differently because of their different skin tones.
Young children may not understand complex racial problems, so use terms that they understand. Children under five years of age understand the concept of fairness. Talk about how certain racialized groups are not treated fairly because of the colour of their skin and why this is problematic. Again, books are powerful tools to teach children about racism.
As children grow older, continue to engage in these conversations. Talking to teens about concepts like the model minority myth as well as the history of racism using tools they relate to can go a long way in deepening their understanding of individual and systemic forms of racism. Examine social media with your teenager, and talk about unconscious bias, digital blackface, and stereotypes of racialized people. Teach your child about allyship and how to avoid performative allyship, especially on social media.
Hold the People and Organizations Around You Accountable
Lastly, as parents we can hold educators and school boards accountable. Talk to your child’s educators and administrators about how they are teaching about racism in the classroom and practicing anti-racism throughout the school community. What anti-racist curriculum is being taught? When teaching world history or the history of Canada, do educators teach the history of racism in Canada like the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru incident, or the Japanese internment camps? Do they also celebrate the many achievements of racialized people to this country, including those of Asian Canadians?
March 21st is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The day is in honour of the 69 peaceful Black protesters who were killed and the hundreds injured in Sharpeville, South Africa, on March 21 1960 after police opened fire on them for demonstrating against apartheid’s “pass laws”.
The history of racism is a long one. To dismantle racism, we need to begin with ourselves and our children.