Overcoming barriers to seeking justice from anti-Asian hate crime

Vancouver-based lawyer Steven Ngo shares his experience being the victim of an anti-Asian hate crime, the barriers he faced while reporting it to the authorities, and what he’s done in the fight to reduce barriers to seeking justice.

TW: Racism, racial slurs, hate crime. Please take your time with reading this piece if you have been the victim of a hate crime. Know that you don’t have to engage in this piece if it’s too triggering, take care of yourself first. 

My mom is Chinese, and my dad is Vietnamese. 

Growing up in Vancouver, I never understood the Vietnamese side of my identity. Despite my last name being Ngo, I’d always brushed off the fact that I was Vietnamese. At the time, there was a stigma associated with being Vietnamese, and it revolved around drugs, gangs and violence. I didn’t want to be part of that stigma, so for much of my life, I pretended to only be Chinese. This worked for the most part: Most of my friends were Chinese, I picked up Mandarin by learning Jay Chou songs, and spent summers abroad in China and Taiwan to immerse myself in the culture.

After graduating from law school and having worked for a few years in Calgary, I felt a calling to go back to my roots. I moved to Vietnam to understand the missing part of who I was. I learned Vietnamese, found a community of friends, and applied my legal skills to help with the country’s transformation into the next economic powerhouse.

Upon my return to Vancouver, I felt like a different person. I felt complete knowing that I was no longer neglecting who I was.

I am Vietnamese. I am Chinese.

I am Canadian.

Photo submitted.
Photo submitted.

Racism strikes at home

In April, I was the target of an anti-Asian hate crime. 

I was waiting at a traffic light when I heard someone yell, “you f*** chink” from the car next to me. When I rolled down my window, the two guys repeated it again and threw garbage at me. Before I could respond, the light turned green, and they sped off.

I was stunned.  I’d seen videos of the elderly getting pushed to the ground and I’d faced my share of microaggressions, but had never experienced an attack this overt. Was this actually happening?

I tried to report the attack to the police. First, I tried the non-emergency line, but despite waiting for 30 minutes, no one picked up.

When I tried to report online, the only forms available were in traditional or simplified Chinese—not even an English form could be found. I can speak Cantonese and read a dim sum menu, but filling out a reporting form is a different story. This couldn’t be right. It was as if only those who could read or write Chinese were subject to hate crimes?

Are all Asians the same?

Having lived in Canada and the United States, I’ve endured my fair share of sweeping generalizations: “All Asians look alike,” “What kind of Asian are you?” and even, “Sorry, I don’t date Asians.” I’ve also been in situations where my supervisor confused me with another Asian employee. His response was, “Sorry, I can’t help it. You guys look the same.” I laughed, but it hurt inside.

When I saw that the hate crime reporting forms were only available in Chinese, I felt like only a part of my identity mattered. It didn’t make sense that my mom could report a hate crime, but my dad could not.

Our individual cultures matter. Saying that “all Asians are the same” is no different than saying that “all white people are the same”.

See also: Mental health tips to cope with anti-Asian racism

Even the term ‘Asian’ is problematic. There are over 4.5 billion people across 48 countries in Asia, each with its own distinctive history and culture. That’s more than 10 times the population of Canada and the United States. 

No, not all Asians are the same, and assuming that all Asians speak/read/write Chinese is willfully ignorant.

What is true? 

All Asians are subject to anti-Asian hate crime.

Photo submitted.
Photo submitted.

Systemic discrimination is pervasive

Sadly, this is just one of many examples of systemic discrimination. 

Much has been written about Asian job applicants who have had to anglicize their names to secure an interview and fit into the dominant culture. When I helped with recruiting students for my law firm, I encountered Asian job candidates who used their anglicized name during the interview when in reality, their given and preferred name was different.

When I founded the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers in Calgary, I received pushback and jabs from non-Asian friends who wondered why we even needed to create an “Asian Law Club.” 

The fact that the question is even asked, highlights the struggles and the uphill battle that Asians face in a profession that is and remains predominantly white. A report by Harvard Law School highlights that while Asian Americans are the largest minority group in major law firms, they are also the most likely to leave, with very few making it to partnership.

When I worked in Vietnam, I no longer felt the pressure of having to prove myself or worry about my race. It was strange being on the other side of the bamboo ceiling. Because I spoke fluent English, I was the one being invited to client-facing meetings, whereas my colleagues were not. For the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to have privilege and not think about discrimination or racism.

Being on the other side showed me what systemic discrimination can look like from a position of power. It is easy not to do or change anything, because there is no incentive to do so. From that perspective, those in power are already benefiting, so therefore the system isn’t broken and there’s nothing to fix. The problem is that the system only works for a select group of people. Therefore, it is even more important that marginalized communities, such as Asian Canadians and Asian Americans, speak up and take action against systemic discrimination.

So where do we go from here?

I’ve had enough of seeing stories of anti-Asian racism in the news, attending talks on anti-Asian racism, and the complete lack of action from the government and institutions on meaningfully addressing these issues.

Systemic change is hard. Systems don’t change on their own, so we have to take action to initiate that change. We cannot simply wait for other people to act on our behalf. There is a notion that you need money, resources and political will to get things done, but this is not true.

You can make a difference as an individual—as a private citizen. If you notice something wrong, now is the time to speak up and ask questions. We have to hold our governments and institutions accountable. Staying silent is no longer an option.

See also: Dear Kiki: How do I overcome burnout while fighting against anti-Asian hate?

Successful first steps

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and so I squeaked, and I keep squeaking. After my incident, I posted my story on social media. My mission was simple: hate crime reporting needed to be more inclusive and accessible.

As a lawyer, I am also in a position of privilege. I work in a respected profession, I speak English fluently, and my words carry weight in the media and the community. Rather than do nothing at all, I felt a calling to use this privilege, reach out to my connections and do what I can to fight against anti-Asian racism.

I asked for help to spread the word and am grateful for friends who opened up their networks and amplified the message. Within hours of posting my story, a media outlet reached out to cover the story. The next day, I was on the morning news. A tsunami of media coverage from local to international news ensued.

In case the police couldn’t move fast enough, I crowd-sourced a campaign to translate the existing hate crime reporting form to English and a number of other languages, which we sent to the police.

Additionally, to continue applying pressure for change, I launched a website called Fix Police Reporting where anyone could send pre-drafted letters to the police while staying up-to-date about our movement.

Photo submitted.
Photo submitted.

Breaking down barriers

After a month of media pressure, the Vancouver Police Department made reporting hate crimes more accessible. At the time of writing, they have hate crime reporting forms online in English as well as seven other languages, including Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Japanese and Punjabi. 

There is much more work to be done. Language is a key barrier to reporting hate crimes. My mission is to make reporting as accessible as possible. Data drives decision making at the public institution level, and so the data set for hate crimes needs to be as comprehensive as possible. This starts with providing a way to report hate crimes online to the police in English and as many other languages as possible.

There are many areas where one can make a difference in our institutions. An important lesson that I’ve learned during this journey is that systemic change starts with just a small step. At the start, it felt like I was alone. But I followed my instincts, and trusted that if I persisted long enough, change would happen. And, it actually did.

My parents immigrated to Canada in search of a better life. They didn’t have a voice and had to stay silent to survive. But they didn’t work this hard so that I would also remain silent and watch my friends, neighbours and loved ones suffer as well.

See also: Dear Kiki: My grandma is a victim of anti-Asian hate but my parents don’t want to report it. What should I do?

It’s time for us to speak up. We have a voice – a powerful voice – that can and must be used to hold our governments, politicians and institutions accountable to make the systemic changes that we need. Whether it’s making reporting hate crimes more accessible, formalizing and improving anti-hate legislation or incorporating mandatory diversity curriculum in education, it’s time to push for those changes.

Talking about anti-Asian hate crimes was once stigmatized in the past.

It’s not anymore.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash – Jason Leung

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