It’s Time to Confront Anti-Black Racism in the Asian Community

Writer Anna Haines says we need to talk about Tou Thao, the myth of the 'model minority' and why Asian Canadians can no longer choose silence

It was too painful to focus on George Floyd’s face pleading for his life as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes. So I scanned the scene for something else to look at. My eyes landed on Tou Thao, the Hmong American police officer standing with his back turned to the murder scene. As a half-Asian Canadian myself, his emotionless face enraged me. And I’m not the only one—comedian Hasan Minaj, fashion designer Prabal Gurung and chef Dave Chang have all criticized Tou Thao’s role in the crime. Why? Because he symbolizes the passive approach to racism that is often all too common in the Asian American (and Canadian) community.  

Some might assume we tend to not “rock the boat” because of cultural values associated with family harmony and respecting authority. More likely, the silence is explained by the idea of the “model minority,” the dangerous myth that if Asians keep quiet and work hard, they can overcome racial inequality. The stereotype began in the 1960s as a way to pit minority groups against each other and it worked. We see anti-Blackness today when Asian Canadian store owners racially profile Black customers and Bollywood stars promote skin-lightening products, reinforcing colourism in the South Asian community. The “model minority” is in action when Lilly Singh appropriates Black culture for personal fame and South Asian Canadians use the word “kala,” a derogatory term to describe Black people. For some Asian Canadians, especially first-generation immigrants hoping to fit in, aspiring to be the “model minority” and putting down other minorities along the way may seem like a logical strategy to climbing the social ladder. 

Then came COVID-19, unleashing anti-Asian xenophobia across the country, and it became clear that pretending we’re the “model minority” won’t protect us from racism. A couple months ago, a man on my block threatened to “put me in the hospital” because apparently that’s where I “belong.” I quickly realized the danger in keeping quiet and aligning myself with whiteness. You see, when I take the “model minority” approach, I’m allowing a diverse group of over six million Asian Canadians to be reduced to a single identity, and excluding the Asians who don’t fit the label because of socioeconomic factors like a lack of access to education. Even worse, I’m silencing our own storied history of oppression—from the internment of Japanese Canadians in 1942 to xenophobia during the SARS outbreak in 2003. By not being actively anti-racist, I’m maintaining a system that diminishes Asian Canadians, and everyone, to a stereotype. 

Like Tou Thao acting as a bystander to murder, my silence also makes me complicit in the oppression of Black and Indigenous Canadians. Whether it’s Islamophobia, housing discrimination, or COVID-19-related racism, Asian Canadians’ occasional experiences of racism should remind us that racism in Canada is real and unrelenting for Black and Indigenous Canadians. How can we ignore that unemployment rates among Black Canadians are more than double those of other visible minorities; that Black Canadians are more likely than any other racial group to be the victims of hate crimes? How can we not talk about the hundreds of missing Indigenous women or Indigenous chief Allan Adam being brutally beaten by police over an expired license plate?

It’s only recently that I’ve stopped feeling like wearing my mask in public spaces sparks fear and suspicion because I have the privilege of xenophobia only affecting me occasionally; it pains me to think that Black and Indigenous Canadians live with this feeling of being watched every day. Some Asian Canadians, particularly of our parents’ generation, may say, “what about our oppression? We struggled too.” This isn’t the Oppression Olympics—recognizing the plight of Black and Indigenous Canadians doesn’t make our experiences of racism any less valid, if anything it creates more room for empathy.

Being physically threatened was a stark reminder of my minority status, but it also reminded me of the privileges I do have. When I stay silent, I fail to honour the Black and Indigenous Canadians who made many of my freedoms possible. My hometown of Toronto is built on the traditional territory of Indigenous Canadians. And it was Black Canadians who championed the human rights movement of the mid-20th century. Their efforts resulted in anti-racism laws that I benefit from today, such as the 1944 Racial Discrimination Act which prohibited any public displays of racial discrimination. While the racism experienced by Asian, Black and Indigenous Canadians are not the same, we all benefit from being able to hold our different experiences in the same space. 

From virtual panels on Asian-Black solidarity to K-pop fans flooding the hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter with anti-racist posts on Twitter, I’m hopeful that other Asian Canadians have realized the danger in complacency and are ready to show up. Having hard conversations with family, friends and ourselves is likely to spark some guilt and shame, but not nearly as much guilt and shame as if we keep ignoring racism, only to become victims of it again and again. Anti-Blackness, denial of racism or just plain silence are no longer options for Asian Canadians—we all benefit from dismantling white supremacy.