TRACING THE ROOTS OF ANTI-ASIAN RACISM IN NORTH AMERICA

Someone protesting against anti-Asian racism by Jason Leung
Someone protesting against anti-Asian racism by Jason Leung

A mass shooting of three East Asian spa parlours in Atlanta, Georgia left eight dead on March 16th, 2021.

This isn’t much of a surprise given the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States and Canada. Anti-Asian racism, prejudice, and Sinophobia has been around long before coronavirus. It’s been pervasive as a political scapegoat throughout the 19th and 20th centuries… until recently. For a long time, this issue was rarely addressed in mainstream media, only ever treated as isolated incidents or bigotry from a miniscule fringe.

Virtual servitude of Asian people

This issue goes back as far as the 19th century with Chinese immigrant workers being brought to the United States and Canada to work, most notably in the California Gold Rush and building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. They were often working in a role of virtual servitude, being paid very little for working in extremely dangerous conditions. That on top of the fact that Chinese alongside other East and South Asian ethnic groups faced extreme prejudice from civil society, the public sphere, and the general public. It was this prejudice that played a major factor in the institution of the US’s Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, and subsequent amendments that later led to a complete ban on Chinese immigrants.

Sinophobia in North America

Anti-Asian racism would also play a major role during World War Two (WWII) and the early Cold War. Due to the Japanese Empire’s role in WWII, Japanese immigrants, many of which were citizens of Canada and the United States, were distrusted or seen as a threat, even if they weren’t born in Japan or had any ties to the Empire. It was this that led to their eventual internment and incarceration throughout the entirety of the war. Japanese people were also the subject of racial discrimination from elements of the general populace in the early days of WWII.

During the mid 20th to early 21st century, Anti-Asian racism has rarely been brought up as a political issue during the election cycle, yet multiple depictions of China have helped reinforce racial prejudice, be it intentional or not. This is generally centered around the news covering China’s human rights abuses, authoritarian government, and economic power. It is beyond denying how repressive the People’s Republic of China is, and the media needs to call out it’s central government and it’s ruling party for it’s disrespect and mistreatment of their own citizens. However, how the media has covered these developments has been extremely flawed, often referring to China as a country, being the perpetrator of these actions rather than the Chinese Communist Party or it’s central government. This has the consequence of assuming that the Chinese people are endorsing or even being complicit in these actions.

When the above mentioned is combined with Chinese government’s Communist ideology, and growing economic power at home and abroad, it gives off the skewed perception that the Chinese people, immigrants especially, are wanting to gain control over our economic system and spread communism outside Chinese borders. It is this that very likely led elements of society to directly associate these factors with inherent un-trustworthiness, sneakiness, and greed. One factor significantly worsened all of the above: Donald Trump. Among some of Trump’s most notable policy positions was his aggressive stances against China, threatening to tariff Chinese products being exported to America and counter China’s geopolitical expansion and assertiveness. This has had the added effect of reinforcing the inherent untrustworthiness of East Asians, Chinese especially. When COVID-19 emerged in China at the beginning of 2020, Donald Trump began calling COVID-19 the “China Virus,” very likely intentionally to place blame on the whole country of China. Calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” also had the added effect of making Asian-American immigrants and communities seem complicit with spreading the virus in some form.

I’m sure that many people have had some hunch that there is growing mistrust directed towards Asian immigrants. Among online magazines and mainstream media it is becoming covered as an actual issue (as it should be) but the fact it’s taken this long speaks a lot about how the media has played a role in what systemic issues face the general public and public sphere.

What’s the solution?

Going forward, there are two areas where we can fix this problem. The first is in our everyday lives, where we have to be aware of the preconceived notions or stereotypes we have about the Asian community. Research the historical contexts behind such notions to get a better understanding of where they come from and what is the reality. Interact more with individuals from the Asian community that you’re acquainted with either online or in person. Over time, you’ll understand that the differences between individuals in the Asian community are just as multifaceted and complex as any normal person would be. 

This is an issue that also needs more discussion between friends, colleagues, family, or peers in private and public life, especially on social media. We need to not just discuss the problem but discuss and champion solutions whatever they may be, from civic initiatives, all the way to public policy. Organize and discuss with friends and acquaintances ways to break down bigotries and stereotypes, to give proper historical contexts to these complex situations, and ultimately to better inform the public. 

In the end, we all need to equip ourselves with the historical aspects of this or any situation with regards to our interactions with those of other ethnicities or races. The more we know, the more we could understand, and the more we could understand, the better off we’ll all be.

We have to be aware of the preconceived notions or stereotypes we have about the Asian community.