No more innocent bystanders: pushing back against anti-Asian racism

An incident of racist harassment propelled a Port Moody photographer to combat prejudice

What happened that day was important. Ugly, but important.

By now we’ve all seen or at least heard about the video.

Port Moody resident Gina Chong takes a stroll around Town Centre Park. She encounters a seemingly nice person.

A brief exchange: the woman asks Chong to take her phone and snap a photo. Concerned about COVID-19, Chong declines.

That was all the provocation necessary for the seemingly nice woman to reveal herself as both an armchair epidemiologist and the unofficial arbiter of who is and isn’t Canadian.

“It came from your country,” she says.

Chong posted a video documenting the racist episode.

It went viral not because it was extraordinary but because it wasn’t. It wasn’t a fire. It was room temperature.

What happened that day was important. What happened next was good.

Slurs, sneers and hoofs

Those moments when xenophobia bubbles up like spilled acid can happen anywhere to anyone. You could be a lifelong resident at a park or a pregnant woman at a grocery store. They’re all examples of what Shanique Kelly calls: “the cloven hoof effect.”

Kelly, an educator with Bakau Consulting (she also DJs under the name Softieshan) recently collaborated with the Tri-Cities Local Immigration Partnership on a presentation titled Intro to Racial Justice.

Over the two-hour workshop, Kelly delved into the functions and foundations of racism.

The definition of a given race shifts based on nationality, ethnicity, history, migration and politics. A woman in Nigeria is Nigerian, Kelly says. The same woman is Black in Canada.

Historically, the definition of whiteness has been elastic.

Writing for The Root, Michael Harriot recalls the era in the 1800s when it was suspected the Irish: “might ruin America with their crime, poverty and interbreeding with white women.”

Newspaper cartoons frequently depicted the Irish as apes.


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This Thomas Nast cartoon was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1871. image supplied

But, whether through coalescing political power, opposing abolition or just blending in, the Irish became white.

“Race,” Kelly explains, “is a social construct but a real experience.”

Race affects how she’s treated, where she feels safe, whether or not she’s listened to and how she connects with her history. It’s why I don’t see colour is less of a mentality to aspire to and more a denial of reality.

In discussing the shifting definition of race, Kelly arrives at a crucial question: “How the heck is racism still a thing?”

Besides the confirmation and affinity biases, there is also the “cloven hoof effect,” where one negative trait is applied to an entire community..

“An example of that . . . there’s a huge [increase] in anti-Asian violence, hate crimes happening as a result of the coronavirus,” Kelly says.

photo supplied Gina Chong

Enemies and the state

There’s pain and there’s anger. Both are being directed at Chinese people, explains Zed Zhipeng Gao.

Gao, a postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University, was researching international tensions between Canada and China when the pandemic hit and his research shifted toward anti-Asian racism.

Generally, attempting to use logic to understand nonsensical prejudice can be a bit like hiring a locksmith to bypass a landslide.

But having studied sociology as well as cultural psychology, Gao has concluded there is a link between the current racial prejudice and overarching political tension.

“I think there is evidence that the current xenophobia is fuelled by fear of the coronavirus but there is also the political issue,” he explains. “There has been suspicion of Chinese immigrants, Chinese scientists and students on the basis of their political identities, their political values, a potential connection with the Chinese government.”

Gao notes that in April 2020, Conservative MP Derek Sloan called on Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam to step down, tweeting: “The UN, the WHO, and Chinese Communist propaganda must never again have a say over Canada’s public health!”

At SFU, a student suggested China deserved COVID-19 because of the nation’s abuse and internment of the Uyghur minority.

There’s a joke I heard . . . the coronavirus wouldn’t last for long because it’s made in China,” Gao recalls. “Again, there is a coupling between coronavirus and the political [and] human rights issues.”

While crossing the street in Vancouver, Gao says a man yelled at him to go back to China. The incident was peculiar, he recalls.

“I never figured it out, because he looks like an East Asian guy,” he says. “I was like, ‘How do you know I am Chinese? Do you think I look more Chinese than you do?’”

But, along with the rapid rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in Vancouver, Gao also noted support.

“The Canadian government has been trying to support the Chinese community,” he says.

The rise in prejudice during the pandemic is evidence of how quickly a minority group will be subjected to mistreatment, Gao says.

Chinese and East Asian immigrants were often treated as different from other marginalized groups.
“They used to be considered to be model minorities,” he says.

The notion of the model minority is a strategy to divide, Gao explains.

“The current anti-Asian racism just exposed: even though they might be considered to be exceptional . . . they are still minorities,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time to repair this.”

What are you looking at?

Discussing the spread of racism during the pandemic, Queenie Choo brings the discussion back to five words: “If everybody’s doing their part . . .”

As the CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S., a non-profit dedicated to building inclusive communities, Choo is a proponent of bystander training.

“When people are being attacked, how do you help them?” she asks. “Don’t walk away. Just imagine: it could happen to you.”

While all forms of racism are concerning, Choo notes that COVID-19 has exacerbated anti-Asian prejudice.
“Certainly, when people called it ‘China virus’ it didn’t help at all,” she says.

There were 10 hates crimes reported in Coquitlam in 2019. Through 2020 and the first quarter of 2021, there have been 19 hate crimes, according to figures provided by Coquitlam RCMP media relations officer Const. Deanna Law.

A brief review indicates that nine of those 19 hate crimes targeted the Asian community, according to Law.

In the long-term, Choo wants schools to put more emphasis on Canada’s historical and contemporary racism and for the government to combat online hatred. In the short-term, she’s lobbying the federal government to fund more bystander training.

It’s important people aren’t taken back or surprised when they hear someone shout: “Go back where you came from,” she says.

Instead, we should assess what we’re looking at and curb it.

“If everybody’s doing their part then the opportunity for racism . . . shouldn’t be happening,” Choo says.

Queenie Choo is the CEO of the non-profit S.U.C.C.E.S.S. photo supplied

Lights, camera . . . ACTION

Gina Chong wasn’t going to post the video.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” she says of the Town Centre Park video. “I really didn’t think there was much in that video of substance.”

But once it was posted, Chong was flooded with an outpouring of support.

“Because of what happened I had so many people contact me and share their stories,” she says. “These are stories that have never been shared . . . They don’t talk to the police or anyone.”

Many of those stories are about the racist slurs that weren’t caught on camera, Chong says.

“It really breaks my heart.”

While Chong says she feels grateful to have been given a platform, she’s not comfortable in the spotlight.

“I’m not good with words,” she says.

However, she recently found a way to use her platform and her thoughts without saying a thing.

“Because I’m a really visual person I wanted to put it in my art,” she says.

Chong recently photographed 58 people with hateful slurs and calls to action written on their faces and hands. She converted the photos into a new video.

“It’s going to be really hard to watch,” she says. “Toward the end, I think they’re going to understand why.”

She wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t been thrown into this role as a focal point of the anti-racism movement, she acknowledges.

“Something needs to be done,” she says. “I feel like people are really wanting to take action.”

photo supplied Gina Chong

Taking action

Just three weeks after launching her photo project, Chong was back in Town Centre Park speaking to a crowd of 60.

Along with Tiffany Duff and Celia Chiang (“just three moms,” she says) Chong marked the last day of Asian Heritage Month with the official launch of the Asian Impact Society at Town Centre Park.

Following speeches, young people took to the street to wave signs denouncing racism. photo supplied Lisa King

In a bid to foster education and tell stories that need telling, non-profit society marked its debut with the Spread Love Not Hate rally, featuring a series of speeches from local politicians and an 11-year-old Port Moody student.

Addressing the racism her neighbour suffered, Kaia Tessier exhorted the crowd of approximately 60 to oppose prejudice.

“I can still stand up for what is right,” Tessier said.

Oftentimes, the victims of prejudice face gaslighting and wonder if what they dealt with was “really racism,” Port Moody-Coquitlam MP Nelly Shin told the crowd.

“I believe that what you’re doing today is sowing a seed for healing,” Shin said. “Storytelling . . . is critical to our healing.”

Anmore Mayor John McEwen called on people who feel uninvolved to get involved.

“I hope that today’s rally pushes those of us who have not experienced racial bias to look at ourselves and recognize that we need to do better,” McEwen said.

While Asian Heritage Month is over for 2021, Chong said she’s already thinking about what the society could do for next year.

“We really want to do big things with this.” 

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