being polite doesnot cut it

Ann Shin: Being polite doesn’t cut it

Opinion: In these desperate times, all us “polite people” have to speak more loudly than we are used to doing, so that people filled with hatred and fear cannot assume they have licence.

I count myself as part of polite Canada. I’m generally nice and I hate confrontations. But in light of recent events, I realize politeness just isn’t going to cut it anymore. There is no politely appropriate response to the violent attack on 65-year-old Vilma Kari, a Philippine-American woman who was walking to church in New York. A number of bystanders watched while it happened, but one person tried to intervene by yelling and screaming at the assailant to stop.

I was shocked and horrified watching the video of Vilma being repeatedly kicked in the stomach and stomped on the face. The attack is one of countless acts of violence against Asians in recent months, including the shooting incident in Georgia in which eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian.

When I first heard about these incidents, I hoped they were random events. I grew up in Vancouver and now work in Toronto, and none of the people I work with, nor the people I meet in Zoom meetings, are racist. I don’t encounter racism at the grocery store or on the streets where I live. Those acts of violence I had read about didn’t seem to reflect my reality, or that of most Canadians.

But in fact, it’s happening all around us. My partner was standing in line outside a bank in Toronto’s Chinatown when someone started shouting at the Asian people in the queue, calling them “ch—-” and telling them they didn’t belong here. An Asian woman walking in downtown Vancouver was confronted on the sidewalk and assaulted.

Verbal harassment, spitting, outright acts of violence, the list of incidents in these and other cities across the globe goes on. Anti-Asian violence has been on the rise since the moment former U.S. President Donald Trump blamed China for the COVID virus, calling it the “Chinese virus.” He not only legitimized racism against Asians, he fanned the flames.

As lockdowns were announced and the economy slowed down, feelings of anger, disempowerment and fear have intensified among the millions who have lost their jobs or homes, and along with them, their sense of security. Those of us who were struggling before the pandemic have it worse now with job cuts and the economic slowdown. The desperation caused by the pandemic has given rise to a dangerous kind of populism, creating an environment in which extremist groups like Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have thrived, and in which individuals have felt licence to commit acts of hate crime. In July 2020, Statistics Canada reported that the rate of increase of harassment or attacks based on race or skin colour had tripled among visible minorities compared to the rate among the rest of the population since the start of the pandemic. The largest increase was seen among Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asians.

Sowhat does this have to do with those of us who don’t hate Asians or visible minorities? We can post and retweet others’ posts that condemn acts of hate crime — which I have done, and in my non-confrontational way, I am showing my support. But is that enough? What do these violent attacks have to do with me?

I remember as a kid being called “ch—” by a boy who was hanging out with his friend. I felt deeply ashamed and all I could splutter out as a comeback was, “But I’m not Chinese!” As if by pointing that out, I could refute the racism.

my confusion and outrage. I was trying to say that they didn’t see me for who I was — a girl born in Canada and raised on Kraft Dinner, as well as homemade apple pies and kimchi. English was my first language. I had a pet dog. I wrote poems and played basketball. I lived the “normal” North American life.

The other part of what I was saying, however, stemmed from a more cowardly impulse. By saying “I’m not Chinese,” I was also saying, “I’m not part of the ethnic group I believe you’re targeting with your racism.” As if by differentiating myself from the targeted group, I could somehow sidestep the racism. I felt the aspirational whiteness that Margaret Cho speaks about, and I wanted the racist bullies to accept me for who I was. I was willing to throw Chinese-Americans under the bus to make that happen. when they are attacked.

But the bystander in this equation had power — a kind of power that is often not flexed, or even realized. What if that boy’s friend had stepped in and said, “That’s not right, that’s not right at all!” What if that friend had called the boy out on his racist comment? Could that have helped change the boy’s behaviour, if not his attitude?

It’s been decades since I’ve been called ch—, but as I see the rise of anti-Asian hate around me, I realize that when we don’t speak up, we are not simply being non-confrontational bystanders; we are complicit with this behaviour in the world. We cannot be innocent bystanders as racism is on the rise. In these desperate times, all us “polite people” have to speak more loudly than we are used to doing, so that people filled with hatred and fear cannot assume they have licence to commit acts of hate crime.

We should be like the witness who yelled and screamed at Vilma Kari’s attacker.

We need to do more to recognize the humanity of those targeted by acts of hate crime. To recognize the humanity of Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz. To recognize the humanity of every Philippine nanny, novelist or firefighter. To recognize every Mexican farmhand, lawyer and actor. To recognize every Black man jogging in Stanley Park, doing stem cell research, or going to university. To recognize that the Indigenous person waiting for proper hospital care is like me. I am them.

They are us and we are them.

And in recognizing the common humanity we share, we need to stand up and defend it.

So if you see someone perpetrating an act of violence, or if you see a racist posting, speak up. Interrupt and intervene. Make it known to the perpetrator and their peers that the rule of law will be upheld. Honour and defend the values of our hard-won democracy, and together we defeat hate.

Ann Shin is a writer and a documentary filmmaker who grew up in Vancouver. Her novel The Last Exiles, about two young North Koreans who flee from their country, was released this week by Harper Collins.























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