The racial wounds at the centre of the coronavirus pandemic are real – and festering. There has been an uptick in the number of hate crimes against Asian Canadians since the onset of the virus (in particular, against Chinese Canadians). Many Asians also feel the spectre of racism while out in public. In the U.S., African Americans have died from COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of white people. And most recently, amidst a public health crisis and economic calamity that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left over 40 million unemployed, the killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens have ignited protests across major cities in both Canada and the U.S., as well as overseas, giving voice to centuries of pain and suffering due to racism.
Masai Ujiri, President of the Toronto Raptors and co-founder of Giants of Africa, recently reminded us that “We all came into this world the same way – as humans. No one is born to be racist and none of us sees colour at first. I believe there are far more good people than bad people, but sometimes the good must do more than simply be good. They must overwhelm the bad.”
At Ascend Canada, we couldn’t agree more. But what does “overwhelming the bad” look like in the age of COVID-19? How do we overwhelm the bad under these dismal economic conditions and in the face of the worst global humanitarian health challenge in modern times?
Ascend Canada believes we can do three things.
One, people fighting anti-Asian racism need to work with other like-minded organizations who share a commitment to advance inclusion. Consider Black Lives Matter, a movement reminiscent of the civil rights era that is sweeping across North America. While Asian-Canadians do not experience the same challenges or violence that white supremacy enacts on Black communities, the escalating anti-Asian violence since the emergence of COVID-19, has pushed many Asians to take a harder look at disparities experienced from a macro-level of racism and prejudice, and our complicities in it. I recall a now-deceased elder in the Japanese community who openly praised my engagement to an Italian-Canadian seventeen years ago: “Your father’s family worked so hard to be accepted and to succeed,” she proudly proclaimed, “I’m so glad you didn’t undo all that by marrying that other boyfriend of yours” (who was dark-skinned). Today, I believe I would be brave enough to state the obvious and call out racism even against cultural norms; but as a jubilant, twenty-something bride trying to “check all the boxes” for a successful life, I failed to raise my voice.
To help raise our voices and to magnify their impact, Sheema Khan, founder of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, suggests that Asian Canadian advocacy organizations should network more closely with national anti-discrimination organizations, such as the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Canadian AntiHate Network. Many of these organizations have a wealth of expertise and Khan argues that a common goal should be the declaration of January 29, the day of the Quebec City mosque massacre, a National Day of Action Against Hate.
Similarly, Vancouver’s Project 1907 is taking a stand in the face of George Floyd’s killing, sharing on its Facebook page an earlier publication in 19 languages aimed at Asian communities: “Dear Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie: Black Lives Matter to Us, Too.” It has also created an online incident reporting form allowing for the documentation of racist attacks without having to deal with police, a barrier to many racialized people. Ascend Canada has already joined the #HealthNotHate initiative, a collective aimed at reframing the pandemic as a health issue and not a race issue.
These types of actions are critical for the creation of a “network effect” of allies, key individuals and groups advocating for historically under-represented people, including women, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and Indigenous Canadians. As Martin Luther King reminds us, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Two, we must advocate for an inclusive economic recovery, particularly in our cities where Ascend Canada chapters and events tend to be concentrated, along with Asian Canadians in general, who comprise the largest and fastest growing visible minority group in Canada with roughly 17.7 per cent of the country’s population. In an open letter to Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council, local organizations recommended 10 principles for their vision of a bold, green and just recovery (Toronto is one of the few cities in Canada to have released race-based data on COVID-19). One of these recommendations includes immediate consultation with racialized and vulnerable communities. This is critical as 96 per cent of personal support workers are women, with 46 per cent identifying as visible minorities, according to a survey of Personal Support Workers in Ontario by the Canadian Research Network for Care in the Community. In this new pandemic-minded era of city building, we must address economic disparities in our largest urban areas where just blocks from bustling commercial corridors, many neighbourhoods struggle with high poverty rates, insecure housing, and poor health outcomes.
Finally, if we’re going to “overwhelm the bad”, we know that the burden cannot be placed on those who have been disproportionately impacted by racism. (To better understand the impact of racism at work, check out “An Open Letter to the Business Community” by Nathan J.D. Hall, CEO at Simple Story). Ascend Canada was founded in 2012 to enhance the presence, visibility and influence of current and future Pan-Asian business leaders. Today, with the support of our more than 4,000 members and numerous corporate partners, our objectives are to develop the full potential of our members by leveraging our networks and providing programs and events that inspire, as well as educate. But this can only be achieved with the support of leaders, who must talk openly about injustices, large and small, and not sidestep difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racism and inequality on our path towards economic recovery. And all of us, but especially leaders, must continue to devote time to thinking about their company’s role in ensuring that change happens.
This is important because the depth of the current economic decline makes it reasonable to expect that large firms, many of whom support Ascend, will emerge in an even more dominant position from the coronavirus pandemic. In 1975, the biggest 100 public companies in the U.S. took in about 49 per cent of the earnings of all public companies. By 2015, however, their piece of the pie had grown to 84 per cent. This doesn’t mean that large companies are immune to the ravages of COVID-19, but it does mean that their financial stability, at least so far, has allowed many of them to avoid layoffs, remain profitable, and continue to invest in product development and research. To this list, we must add speaking vigorously in favour of inclusion and denouncing racism boldly, without hesitation, for all individuals and groups, as per the recent announcement on the BlackNorth initiative.
George Floyd was murdered because his life was deemed less valuable than a $20 payment to a convenience store. Breonna Taylor was murdered because no one made the effort to confirm if she was the person in question when Louisville police entered her home. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered because two white men went on a joyride that included hunting a black man. And Regis Korchinski-Paquet, age 29, fell from her apartment balcony in Toronto while police were present.
At Ascend Canada, we have been overcome with many emotions throughout these events and throughout the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are also overcome with feelings of solidarity and resolve. Witnessing the strength and courage of so many makes us hopeful that we won’t let these moments pass without creating meaningful change. Masai Ujiri reminds us that “Your voice matters, especially if you are a leader or an influential figure, and especially if you are white.” Asians are often referred to as the “model minority,” an unhelpful stereotype which contributes to race-based and cultural biases. But we all need to be models for positive action and meaningful change – and especially now as we work towards an inclusive economic recovery and as hundreds of thousands participate in public protests around the world denouncing racism and demanding change. It’s not enough for the good just to be good anymore. We must also overwhelm the bad.
About the author: Miyo Yamashita is the Chair of the Chief Inclusion Officer Forum for Ascend Canada. The Chief Inclusion Officer Forum is a multi-industry group of volunteers, many of whom lead inclusion initiatives for their respective companies.