The Painful Reality of Anti-Asian Racism in the City

A Vancouver man says he’s afraid of leaving the house. It’s not agoraphobia, it’s racism. 

I’m Asian-Canadian,” starts his Reddit post. “While I’ve occasionally been confronted by racist people in my life, since the pandemic I’ve noticed a sharp increase in “incidents”…it’s come to the point where I dread going out just to get groceries.”

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last summer reveals 73 percent of Canadians had unfavourable views of China amid widespread criticism over the country’s response to the novel coronavirus.

At the start of the pandemic, the Vancouver Police Department flagged a disturbing increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. On Wednesday, a year-end report shows these incidents increased by 717 per cent in 2020.

For the past year, police say they’ve increased contact with the East Asian community, as well as their presence in Vancouver’s Chinatown. 

“We have also developed a pamphlet, in Chinese, that explains the different ways community members can connect with police officers to report hate crimes or hate incidents,” says Constable Tania Visintin.

While the report shows anti-Asian hate crimes began dramatically declining in July, a recent string of unprovoked attacks against elderly Asian Americans in Oakland, California has brought the conversation back to the forefront. A volunteer group, Compassion in Oakland, was formed in response, and offers chaperones to those who feel unsafe walking by themselves.  

For Vancouver writer Jen Sookfong Lee, grassroots initiatives and police interventions won’t fix the city’s problems with racism. The real issue, she says, is the people who won’t acknowledge white privilege exists.

“How do you beat back the heart of white supremacy? Good question. If I could I would stab it in the heart,” Lee says, adding that she wasn’t surprised by the reported crimes. 

While racism is clearly not exclusive to the pandemic, she says it has happened in faster cycles over the past year. When COVID-19 cases spiked in the Fraser Health Region, Lee says racist attitudes focused on the Indo-Canadian community.

“It only shifts when another group replaces us in the vitriol,” she says. 

Lee would like to see more white people take on the emotional labour of educating others about systemic racism, because that work is exhausting marginalized folks.

“Well-meaning people who aren’t racialized don’t know how to start these conversations, or if they can authentically play that role,” she says. “I think that’s something people need to be a little fearless about. It’s okay, you can make mistakes for the sake of progress.”

We’ve heard the words “there’s no room for racism” from leaders across the country since the start of the pandemic, but it’s clear that ample space is being filled. With a history of mistrust between police and visible minorities, coupled with language barriers, it’s likely that the latest report only shows the tip of the iceberg. 

The report is upsetting, but by highlighting the painful reality of anti-Asian racism, it has the potential to change minds and shift perspectives.

“The history of Chinese Canadians in this city is old and long, and any major development has been contributed to by Chinese Canadians,” says Lee. “To feel othered in 2021 is a shame, and it’s disgusting honestly. How much do we have to give for you to see us?”

If you’re looking for ways to start supporting the community, she recommends ordering take out from your favourite Chinese restaurants, and helping elderly Asians if you see they’re in need. 

Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice 世代同行會 is an organization that supports youth and low-income immigrant seniors in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. You can support them by volunteering or donating to their annual fundraiser, which just launched this week. 

If you need support, the Anti Racism Coalition Vancouver (ARC Vancouver) is another valuable resource.