Debra Soh is a sex neuroscientist and the author of The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths About Sex and Identity in Our Society.
The surveillance-camera video is horrifying to watch. In broad daylight, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, was slammed to the ground while on a morning walk in San Francisco; he never regained consciousness. In Oakland, a man attacked a 91-year-old man, a 60-year-old man, and a 55-year-old woman in Chinatown. Nearly two dozen violent incidents in the area have been recorded in recent weeks.
These incidents are just part of a recent and unfortunate trend, particularly during the Lunar New Year. In a Pew Research Center study conducted last July, about 30 per cent of Asian-American adults said they have experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity or race since the pandemic began.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s rhetoric has been blamed for stoking anti-Chinese resentment. He repeatedly referenced the “China virus,” the “China plague” and the “Kung Flu” while in office, holding the country responsible for the pandemic.
And yet, as these crimes continue, there has been a failure to see these attacks as racially motivated. Mr. Ratanapakdee’s homicide, for instance, is not being prosecuted as a hate crime. It wasn’t until Hollywood actors spoke up that media attention was drawn to these incidents, with Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim offering a US$25,000 reward for information. That led to the arrest of 28-year-old Yahya Muslim, who is not facing hate-crime charges.
Being level-headed about emotional subjects is never a bad approach, as it prevents us from jumping to conclusions about unclear events or any legal concerns. But in this case, what is the likelihood that multiple victims, targeted randomly, just happened to all be Asian? If an alarmingly high number of people belonging to another visible-minority group had been violently assaulted and murdered, would anyone doubt that the attacks were racially motivated?
It feels like a double standard. And it can feel, broadly speaking, as if racism against Asians is not taken as seriously as racism against other groups. Take, for example, a job listing posted by a Bay Area tech company recently, which explicitly sought “non-Asian” applicants. Or consider the debate on affirmative action sparked most recently by the case of Students for Fair Admissions versus Harvard; in 2019, a federal judge ruled against Asian-American applicants who believed they had been systematically discriminated against by university admissions officials, and who sought a race-neutral process.
That’s where it can feel like obsessions with race are erecting a bizarre racial hierarchy – one in which apparently only white perpetrators can commit racist or hateful acts, and one where discrimination against certain groups counts less or hurts less than discrimination against others.
Because the general economic success of Asian diasporic communities in Canada and the U.S. is dissonant with the narrative that societal white privilege limits and is hostile to visible minorities, we are too often stripped of any progressive clout afforded to “people of colour.” In the eyes of some, we are being recategorized as “white.” From this ideological view – one I disagree with – it isn’t possible to be racist toward white people.
Further complicating this lack of logic is the history of strained relations between Asian and Black communities in the U.S., most notably between protesters and Korean business owners in the Rodney King riots. Asian-Americans have been long held up as an example of successful assimilation, and by doing so, they become used to dismiss the genuine concerns of Black Americans, pitting one group against another.
But protecting racial groups is not a zero-sum game; ensuring the safety of one does not need to come at the expense of another. We can identify racist acts while advocating that they should not be used to justify retaliatory harassment or prejudice against others.
Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been asked whether I think claims of Sinophobia have been overblown to forward an agenda of race-baiting. In short: No. Because I am often mistaken as having a different Asian ethnicity, it’s been amusing and sad to see what some will say in my presence, only to furiously backpedal their opinions once I tell them that I’m a Canadian of Malaysian-Chinese descent.
For those who remain skeptical, I’d ask how they would feel if people who shared their racial ancestry were being violently targeted and terrorized, and then made to feel that their concerns weren’t legitimate, especially during a time of the year that would normally be celebratory. Acknowledging where the coronavirus originated can be done without blaming or discriminating more widely against people of Asian descent.
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