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Why are we so shocked by recent waves of anti-Asian violence?

March 20, 2021

How could this be happening to us?

Despite the similar xenophobic, scapegoating and scaremongering rhetoric that took place during SARS, the vitriol surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has sent a shock wave through Asian Canadian communities.

Last year, our organization, the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, partnered with several groups across the country to launch an online reporting platform, “Fight COVID Racism,” to track anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. Together with Elimin8hate, we have received over 1,000 reports of racism. The reports range from shunning to physical attacks, including the 92-year old man with dementia who was aggressively shoved out of a convenience store in Vancouver and the research fellow from South Korea who was stabbed on the way to buy groceries in Montreal.

As Asian Canadians, we are accustomed to the occasional racial slurs, stereotyping and microaggressions that are essentially par for the course in Canadian society. Still, the recent onslaught of anti-Asian violence, which culminated in the March 16 terrorist attack in Atlanta, came as a surprise to many. It really shouldn’t have been that shocking.

Racially motivated attacks are far from new. Brutal attacks on Black and Indigenous communities are despairingly normalized, and so too are racially targeted shootings. What made us think that racial violence couldn’t happen to us? Could it be that the “model minority myth” led many of us to believe that Asian Canadians were immune to violent physical attacks and racially motivated killings? If we did all the “right” things — study hard, get good grades, keep our heads down — did that not earn us some proximity to whiteness and thus protection from racially motivated attacks?

The model minority myth is deeply entrenched within the Asian Canadian identity. The narrative paints each individual of seemingly Asian descent with a single brush: the “good” immigrant and nothing more. Quiet, law abiding and studious. Sometimes with an accent, and often in glasses. Always, not from here.

The model minority myth was created in the 1960s after an influx of highly educated professionals entered America from Asia. Prior to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, American laws effectively banned immigration from Asia. This 1965 legislation lifted de facto racial discrimination and began to prioritize immigrants with certain backgrounds and experiences, such as those with specialized skills and medical degrees. This all coincided against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. Asian Americans were, and continue to be, pitted against Black communities. Those of Asian descent are held up to promote the idea that the American Dream does exist if you work hard and are used as pawns to reinforce the subordinate position of other minority groups (”they made it, why can’t you?”), thus delegitimizing demands for equity and civil rights.

Not only does this myth erase the impact of colonial histories, it also erases individualities and nuances within the Asian diaspora. As millennials, the model minority myth is the only archetype we know firsthand. We did not live through the original construction of East Asians as the “Yellow Peril.” We did not pay the Chinese head tax after building the nation’s railway. And we were not banned from entering the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act. The model minority myth is powerful. It has encouraged the rewriting of the Asian Canadian narrative, nearly wiping the atrocities of the past from our memories.

But the past cannot be forgotten.

When left unchecked, the model minority myth furthers white supremacy and provides Asian Canadians who have internalized it with a false comfort of presumed racial privilege. This myth is to blame for the bewilderment and shock in response to the recent waves of anti-Asian attacks. We are not exempt from racial violence in today’s climate. When a racial archetype is premised upon white supremacy, no one is safe. While many Asian Canadians have spoken out against the model minority myth, there is still much work to be done to undo the harm that it has caused. This shock will hopefully be a wake-up call to remind us of the need to unpack stereotypes and the importance of solidarity.