Navigating through the rise in anti-Asian racism

We can’t single-handedly “solve racism”, but we can still take action in our communities. Zeph Wong reflects on how he created space for change in both his community and workplace.

When the news about the growing threat of coronavirus began to appear in North America, my heart sank, and I braced myself for the expected rise in anti-Asian sentiment in our communities. This was going to be bad. I knew that the public narrative around this new disease would not be kind, and that it would target everyone who had the same skin colour as me. 

As the weeks passed, I began to see my city and community, the place I called home, rise up against those who looked like me. This invisible disease and the racist rhetoric streaming across the border was emboldening terrible behaviours across the continent. Here we were: socially isolated at home, and afraid to step into the streets. I feared for the safety of my family, relatives, and friends.

Stats published in Sept 2020. Photo Credit: ELIMIN8HATE

Objectively, society was under immense pressure: economic pressure, from the massive shutdowns across the country; financial pressure, as people struggled to make rent; and psychological pressure, from the stress of being isolated and having every social norm thrown out the window. People weren’t able to grieve the loss of our way of life. Compound these pressures together, and the ties that bind us fail. 

Finding a way forward

As I struggled through weeks of being bombarded by stories of racially motivated attacks across the continent in the news, it became clear that living in fear wasn’t sustainable, and I needed a new way forward. I needed to be able to take some kind of action.

At work, after I’d shared a news article about the rise in anti-Asian incidents in Canada, one colleague commented on the use of imagery that the News1130 article had used. The original headline image was of mask-wearing Asians on a crowded street in Beijing. He pointed out that the image had nothing to do with the article’s content, and in fact, most major media outlets at that time were guilty of using images of mask-wearers from Asia in every pandemic-related article. Intentional or not, its impact was fear — fear associated with Asians.

Statistics Canada Graph on perceived increase in harassment or attacks on basis of race, ethnicity, or skin colour in neighbourhood since the start of COVID-19
Photo Credit: Statistics Canada

I saw an opportunity. This was something that I could take direct action on, and so I did — I sent a lengthy but objective email to the News1130 newsroom and asked them to consider the ramifications of misusing imagery in their articles. I challenged them to do better, and to exemplify Canadian values. While I never did receive a formal response back, within a couple of days, the headline image was changed to a bus stop in Vancouver. This was progress. This was a win.

While I began to dial back my news intake, I continued to keep an eye out and a few months later, I found another incidence with the CBC, also inappropriately using Asians in the feature image rather than one more representative of the city. Once again, I sent an email, and once again, the image was changed. 

Change is possible. By calling out these media outlets for their misuse, I had shown that my actions could result in change. While we may often roll our eyes and complain, we can do better. We can, and absolutely should take action. While small, these changes make a difference and add up to big changes, which is what our society needs to heal and move forward.

See also: How my students challenged racism during COVID-19

Empowered and emboldened

At work, I am fortunate and privileged to be in a role where I’ve been empowered to lead our approach to integrating equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) into the workplace. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the large scale focus on the effects of systemic racism, there was finally a strong push for organizations everywhere to not just recognize, but to truly come to terms with the unequivocal importance of these programs. 

Although I initially struggled to understand my role as a Chinese Canadian in leading the company’s response to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as my responsibility to build a program and system for the team that would aid in dismantling systemic racism, I slowly found a way to integrate my lived experiences and learning into the approach that we’re taking.

Too often, traditional approaches to EDI training has simply been a checkbox — a canned, recorded course that participants mindlessly click through. These types of programs didn’t result in change, and certainly weren’t preventing racism or addressing bias in the workplace. The reality is that complex problems require complex solutions.

Systems Thinking Book
Photo Submitted.

Having recently completed a masters in leadership studies, which focused on the importance of systems thinking and how to use it to approach the many challenges we face as leaders in organizations, I began to see how we could conduct EDI learning and development differently. 

By building from a systems thinking foundation, we can give our team members the tools and frameworks that they could use to analyze and process the many impossible issues that we face around systemic discrimination today. While traditional approaches to EDI training focus specifically on inappropriate behaviours within the context of the workplace, systems thinking empowers people to affect change within their sphere of influence. Think of the possibilities!

Within my workplace, I’d found a path forward from the deluge of negativity rising in society. While I may not be able to single-handedly “solve racism,” I can share new ways of thinking so that maybe, just maybe, we can all solve it together.

So what now?

As the end of the year fast approaches, I find myself more reflective than ever. Leading EDI initiatives is heavy work. There’s a huge amount of emotional labour that’s involved with living in and constantly discussing racial challenges and issues. With time, it becomes more manageable, and you do get more comfortable with finding the right terminology and having difficult conversations. But it requires a careful balance of doing the work, and managing one’s emotional wellness.

They say that knowledge is power — the more I learn about the field of equity, diversity and inclusion, the better equipped I become to respond and help address things within my scope of control and influence. This wasn’t an area that I expected to go into; in fact, far from it. But it seems to make sense and as long as I’m making a difference and shifting perspectives, then I’ll continue.

In all honesty, I’m not sure about how our communities will heal. But then, the people around me remind me that there is a lot more good in our communities than bad, and I find myself cautiously hopeful.

More importantly, I can feel momentum growing. There’s a broader awareness and a strong unwillingness for us to stand by idly and do nothing. The number of people who are willing to speak up increases daily. In doing so, they invite others to join uncomfortable conversations so that we can begin to unpack the bias and systemic discrimination that exist in our communities, and find ways to move forward together.

See also: Dear Corporations – it’s time to actually be anti-racist with actions

Featured photo submitted.

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