May 13, 2021
Not “Fresh off the Boat”: An EDI Committee Blog Post Series - Topic 1: Asian Solidarity
Racism towards Asians1 is alive and prevalent in Canada. The recent coronavirus pandemic has served to highlight the mistreatment of the Asian community, especially those of East Asian2 and Southeast Asian3 descent. Although there has been a great deal of support for those who have been harmed, in our experience there has also been a visible lack of solidarity within South Asian4 and East/Southeast Asian communities themselves. The reasons behind this lack of solidarity are complex and nuanced, as Asia is a highly diverse continent. However, many Asian groups share similar experiences with colonization, immigration, and assimilation. Thus, in this blog post, we argue that these shared experiences serve as a reason for Asian communities to unite in times of each other’s struggles, rather than default to notions of “not my community, not my problem”.
Shared History of Colonization
Colonization is commonly associated with the imposition of European (Western) values on Indigenous and Black peoples in what is now known as Canada and the United States. However, the influence of colonization5 – particularly, Western – on Asian groups is often overlooked (e.g., the division of parts of Asia demonstrated through the colonization of India by the British; the Philippines by the Spanish; Cambodia by the French; Indonesia by the Dutch, etc.). Even after countless independence movements, remnants of Western influences are still enmeshed in the religious, political, social, and educational institutions of many Asian nations.
Whereas each have experienced colonization in unique ways, many Asian groups globally have shared experiences with negative or ambivalent stereotyping regarding Asians’ non-White/non-Western features (e.g., accents, darker skin tones, English fluency, etc.). These stereotypes contribute to ongoing prejudice and discrimination, particularly towards Asian immigrants in Western nations, even though Asian groups have made important contributions to the development of countries such as Canada. For instance, the role of Chinese workers is often left out of historical retellings of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Over 15,000 Chinese workers contributed to the building of the CPR, and an estimated 600 died under dangerous working conditions. Immediately following the completion of the CPR in 1885, Chinese immigrants were required to pay a head tax of $50 for entry into Canada (~$2,300 CAD today). To further discourage Chinese immigration, the Canadian government increased the head tax amount twice more, before eventually enacting the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, barring Chinese immigration entirely. Although this is but one example, other Asian groups have historically experienced unjust treatment due to such prejudice.
Many Asian groups have lived and worked in culturally isolated communities after immigrating to Canada, resulting in the development of strong ethnic identities deeply connected through culture and religion. To demonstrate, the Chinese immigrants who came to work for CPR not only shared a common job but lived in the same region. In the face of inequity and prejudice, the Chinese Canadian community persevered, and today that region has developed into a large and thriving Chinatown in Vancouver. Thus, the development of strong ethnic groups serves, even today, as a buffer against prejudice and complete Western assimilation. However, this segregation has also allowed the divides between Asian groups to remain, often preventing groups from coming together in solidarity.
Asian communities in Canada and the United States collectively face similar pressure to assimilate to Western culture. Western values like competition and individualism become internalized, and inequities in opportunity and the experience of racism contribute to huge socioeconomic disparities within Asian communities. For example, Brian Chen of the New York Times draws attention to the fact that Asian folks are situated amongst both the highest and lowest earners in North America6, a disparity exceeding that of White communities. Such disparities perpetuate divides between South and East/Southeast Asian communities. Bringing levity to this weighty and often-ignored reality, Ali Wong comedically highlighted the cultural partitions between Asian groups7. Wong notes that Asians often hold prejudices against one another and show xenophobia (i.e., dislike towards people of different countries). In this piece, she also openly points out her racist attitude towards Koreans, relating it back to her identity as a half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese person.
In sum, whether through economic statistics or humorous callouts, South and East/Southeast Asian communities are often pitted against each other and against other racial groups, resulting in barriers to uniting in solidarity. Although the history and experiences of colonization, immigration, and assimilation vary in important ways between South and East/Southeast Asian groups, these groups also share many similarities in their experiences of oppression. Rather than fighting for a seat at the West’s table, we call on Asian communities to unite towards ending racial oppression together, finding strength in solidarity.
1 As defined by the Pew Research Center, Asian peoples are distinguished by their roots to ~19 countries in East and Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.
2 Those of Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, North Korean, South Korean, and/or Taiwanese descent.
3 Those of Bruneian, Burmese (Myanmar), Cambodian, Timorese, Indonesian, Lao, Malaysian, Filipino, Singaporean, Thai, and/or Vietnamese descent.
4 Those of Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, Maldivian, and/or Sinhalese descent.
5 Colonization across Asia was not isolated to Western forms of imperialism. There were many instances throughout history where Asian nations sought to colonize other Asian nations (e.g., Japan’s colonization of Korea).