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Joseph Wong is the University of Toronto’s interim vice-president, international. He is also the Roz and Ralph Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I tweeted that in 2003, during the SARS outbreak in Toronto, I would find my very presence clearing out half the subway car when I got on, presumably because I’m visibly Asian. If I cleared my throat, I’d sometimes get the entire car to myself. “Got to commute in comfort,” I wrote on Twitter, “but let’s not do a repeat of that, okay?”

It turns out that was wishful thinking.

Since last spring, anti-Asian racism has been growing around the world, and especially here in North America. In Canada, reports of anti-Asian harassment, discrimination and even physical violence are increasing at alarming rates. Some reports suggest that on a per-capita basis anti-Chinese racism in Canada is worse than in the United States. A Statistics Canada survey from last September found that nearly one-third of Chinese-Canadians perceive anti-Asian racism in their day-to-day lives, with women feeling it disproportionately. The killing of eight people in Atlanta – six of them Asian women – only serves to highlight this issue.

Asians in North America are feeling increasingly anxious, for understandable reasons. When former U.S. president Donald Trump and others in his administration described COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Flu,” or “Kung Flu,” or the “China Virus,” what did we expect would happen, other than a meteoric rise in anti-Asian racism?

Yet, while Mr. Trump’s politics certainly fuelled anti-Asian racism at home and around the world, he is not the sole cause of the current and visible spike. Invisible racism, including microaggressions toward Asians, has lurked just beneath the surface for a long time.

I grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, and as a kid I regularly heard comments such as, “You don’t sound Chinese,” “Does your family own the Chinese restaurant?” and “You’re not as good at math as I expected you’d be.” What I thought was normal I now understand as microaggressions: derogatory attitudes expressed toward racial and cultural minority groups. Sadly, my son, growing up in Toronto today, tells me that he hears similar comments all the time.

My parents, who have lived in Canada for more than five decades, say that since the start of the pandemic, some people steer clear of them when they go for walks in their suburban neighbourhood. They feel uncomfortable in their own community. They are not sure whether wearing a mask outside makes them targets. That they even have to think about this is disheartening, but what saddens me the most is that my parents’ belief in Canadian multiculturalism has been shaken; the country they love is not the place they once thought.

The “model minority” narrative – in which Asian immigrants are celebrated but also dismissed for efforts to assimilate into dominant majority cultures – mutes the kind of overt racism other communities experience. Racial violence is not just physical violence. The fact that police officials and news media outlets covering the Atlanta tragedy questioned whether there was proof of anti-Asian racism at play was disappointing. Too often, it takes physical violence and harassment to alert the media to the issue.

Microaggressions are insidious because they are invisible, routinized, everyday slights. They are hard to report and impossible to prosecute. They do not show up in the data. Their meanings are subjective, interpreted by the victim. They are more about hurt feelings and anxieties than physical harm. And they are often unintentional, and so are presented as “teachable moments” – typically requiring the victim to do the teaching. In my role as a professor, it is not unusual for me to hear people say they think there are too many Chinese students and expect me to not be offended by this preposterous statement.

What makes microaggressions most dangerous is the fact they’re seen to be benign. But they are not an insignificant, dismissible form of racism; they are a slippery slope from everyday slights to something more sinister and overt. The very prefix “micro” threatens to let us believe that these comments and behaviours, even if unintentional, are contained and somehow less harmful, but microaggressions are not a diminutive form of racism. They form the foundation of racist attitudes and behaviours – and they need to be called out systematically.

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