Ep 3: The Pandemic of Asian Xenophobia

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As the world battles Covid-19, stories of blatant racism and violence against the Asian community are surfacing in Canada and United States. In light of this, Health Not Hate (HNH), a campaign that fosters the dispulsion of COVID-induced racism, has gained momentum. In this podcast, you will hear from two advocates who are doing something about it. Serena Fong (VP at Catalyst) and Sonny Wong (President of Hamazaki Wong and lead of HNH) share their experiences and discuss how individuals and organizations can address racism and biases.


Anish: Hello and welcome to the Ascend Canada podcast. Ascend Canada’s vision to have a diverse and inclusive Canada with talent can achieve their full potential. In today’s episode, we will be discussing a very important issue impacting all of us. Protests, the started in response to police brutality have renewed age-old conversation about racial inequality in healthcare, education, politics, pop culture, and business. As the world battles COVID-19, stories of racism are also surfacing with references to the Chinese virus in the United States and Canada. Today’s episode focuses on these anti-Asian sentiments that we’re seeing in Canada and the United States, as we battle a pandemic. However, we will weigh in on the black lives matter movement as we stand in allyship.

Anish: I’m pleased to have with us, not one but two special guests who are both advocating for inclusion and diversity in different ways. Serena drives positive change by leading and executing strategic communications and strategies to key stakeholders, including government leaders, policymakers, influencers, catalyst support organizations, and board members. Serena positions Catalyst to give expert testimony, guidance, advice, and recommendations to governments and organizations around the world, serves as a policy expert, and gives presentations for various speaking engagements and media opportunities.

Anish: Our second guest is Sonny Wong, President and Creative Director of Hamazaki Wong Marketing Group, an award-winning multicultural marketing communications agency that has taken the initiative to foster and promote public tolerance in the age of COVID-19 through their latest campaign. Sonny is a social and marketing entrepreneur with a diversity of business interests and projects that span marketing, media, live programs and events, sustainability, arts and culture, film and television, creativity, and social innovation. He is a committed community steward with a long record of community engagement.

Anish:  Today, we’re going to hear their experiences related to racism bias during the pandemic, the initiatives they’re leading to foster public tolerance, and what are the actions we can all do to speak up against bias when we see it. Welcome, Serena and Sonny.

Serena: Thank you.

Sonny: Thank you.

Anish: We’re happy to have you here. Serena, to start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what inclusion and diversity mean to you?

Serena: Absolutely. Thank you so much, first, for inviting me on this program. I am thrilled to be able to join you and talk about such an important issue. So prior to my time at Catalyst, I was a broadcast television news producer for about 13 years, and when I was trying to switch out, I was trying to find a job and a career that I could take the skills that I had developed in my time in journalism and apply it to something that was positive and that would make a positive impact for society, and that’s how I ended up at Catalyst and because diversity and inclusion is such a critical component of making society better. So that’s how I ended up at Catalyst and that’s why I think diversity and inclusion is such an important and a way for me to make change and give back to society.

Anish:  Wow, that’s such an interesting background with broadcast, film, television production. I can’t imagine the stories of what you would have seen in your time. I love the fact that you’ve also identified the skills and experiences that you’ve developed and thought through how you can reapply them with a vision and a purpose to impact. I admire that. Thank you so much. Sonny, what about you? What’s your story and what does inclusion and diversity mean to you?

Sonny: Well, I have a marketing and advertising agency and we work with national and global clients, including Air Canada, Audi automobiles here in Vancouver, some local clients such as the BC lottery corporation and BC hydro, but I have this whole other side of me that is very socially driven, very socially charged and has been engaged in that kind of community process for probably over two decades. One of the first projects I got involved with was one of the founders of the dragon boat festival in Vancouver and dragon boat events typically are just racing events, but we felt it was really important to imbue a sense of social purpose.

Sonny: So what we did was make the festival, the dragon boat festival in Vancouver, a vehicle for multiculturalism, and it was a bit of a reaction at the time to a lot of immigrants coming to this city from Hong Kong, and that was when Vancouver was dubbed Hongcouver. A group of us said that that was not right and that was really the beginning of my journey into the whole area of racial discrimination. So multiculturalism was really the vehicle that was set as an overlay into the dragon boat festival, so that was the beginning of it, and it’s never really left me.

Sonny:  So when I think about diversity inclusion, another word comes to my mind, and that is acceptance as humans and as part of the human condition. We all want the same thing. We want security for our family. We want to have good income so that we could live and buy things that we need and even things that we want, but I think it’s the differences also that make us who we are as human beings, that really allow the richness of human experience that we can all enjoy and the similarities are great, but I think the differences also need to be embraced and celebrated. So that’s really what diversity inclusion means to me. It’s adding that third layer that I call acceptance.

Anish: I love that definition, the mixture between both the similarities, but then the overlay of what the differences exponentially end up actually having a huge magnifying effect on, as you shared, the richness of the experience. Appreciate that. Thank you. Serena, you wrote a blog post on the Catalyst website, which was very timely and seemed like the need of the hour. In it, you mentioned when you first heard about the coronavirus rapidly spreading across China, a feeling of dread came over you and not only because of the illness. Can you tell us a little bit about this and share your personal experiences and observations during this time?

Serena: Yeah. Thank you so much for asking me the question because the blog came about because of what I was seeing and what I was experiencing and what I had experienced in the past. Whenever you have a pandemic or whenever there’s a big news event, particularly when it involves race, ethnicity, what I always do, I automatically, because I am an Asian woman working as a non-majority person, I look at that because what always happens is that it becomes racialized. So that’s why that feeling of dread came over me because it was a pandemic, it was coming out of China, and I said, there are definitely going to be acts of racism that evolve, particularly because it is something like a disease. It’s something that’s a crisis and of course, needless to say, it happened, and so at the same time, as the cases were being tracked and as it was spreading throughout China, I knew that these kinds of problems were going to happen, and of course it did.

Serena: As far back as January, and so I’m based in New York City and I was very concerned about impact the Asian community, particularly here. So what I did was I carried cough drops with me because if I started coughing, the automatic thought is she’s got the disease, and I would definitely try to smile and in New York City, you don’t really smile because it’s like, you’re not from New York City. I try to present as much friendlier just because again, it was one of those situations where in order for me to feel safe, I had to do those kinds of things, and needless to say, it happened. When they started calling it the Chinese virus, you heard about there was an attack on a woman in the New York City subway system.

Serena:  Her attacker said “you’re a disease. Get away from me”. It was specifically because she was East Asian appearing. I also wanted to link back the Catalyst mission and bring in our work when I decided to write the blog, because our work is really focused around building more inclusive workplaces, because I knew that these kinds of incidents, yes, the verbal and physical assaults were happening, but these racist acts were also happening within the workplace and they happen in terms of microaggressions, and so I wanted to address it that way as well, so that people didn’t think that just because you’re going into a workplace that you’re necessarily safe or that your Asian colleagues feel safe.

Anish:  It’s crazy that it’s been fortunate that you proactively knew something was going to come down the pipeline and you saw that uptake take place. I will say one thing, the blog post for myself, and I think for many that got awareness of it, it brought a point of view that I may not have had, and it made me take a step back to really appreciate some of the non spoken impacts are taking place and to really be a bit more empathetic of the situation and be more vocal when things are offside and not shy away from that whole paradigm where when you’re in a large group, like in a public setting, you don’t really speak up.

Anish: I think the blog posts empowered me personally, when I see injustice take place, to say something because through the blog posts, I appreciated the impact it had on someone. Now Sonny, your company has been doing a lot of work advocating for anti-racism in light of COVID-19 as well. Can you tell our listeners about why your company chose to get behind this cause?

Sonny:                  Yes, Anish. We’ve created what I call a movement and that movement is called health, not hate. So it’s #HealthNotHate and healthnothate.com. Similar to what Serena was saying about the Chinese virus, the timing is very similar when this all happened, and when the pandemic came and government regulations came into effect that just allowed travel that resulted in the closure of restaurants and bars and stores. That coincided with the slowing of our business as well, but what we also saw at that time was a rise in racism, and I think that the misdirection of that was the hatred of a country then translated into hatred of a people, and therefore the blame on these people for this virus, that whole hatred just really cascaded down to the general population.

Sonny:                  And we, as an organization and a group of us also said that this was wrong, that racism has no place in society. In Canada, we have always had a very multicultural society. We even have a multicultural act. So the fact that it’s happening at all is absolutely unacceptable. So with the time available, what we did was we took the networks that I had, and that was in marketing and media, and reached out to partners across the country to ask if they would participate in a campaign to combat the perceptions of racism and hopefully create awareness and change those attitudes as well. I also am cofounder and producer of the Leo Awards. It’s the film and television awards program in BC.

Sonny:                  So as a result of that, I have a wide reach into the film and television community. So went into that and asked celebrities and film and television actors if they would appear in the ads and overwhelmingly, they all said yes. Similarly, in the media side, virtually every media organization we asked said yes, that they would support our campaign and the next thing you knew, we were then heading up a national movement called health not hate that was changing the narrative on racism and really redirecting the narrative because it’s really not a racism issue. COVID-19 is a health issue.

Sonny:                  So misdirecting the energy towards hatred of people is misguided, and we really wanted to bring that to the forefront and help people understand that we’re all in this together and that health and the community health and social welfare and wellbeing is really where we should be thinking and directing our energies as opposed to lashing out at people who really are blameless. Somebody walking down the street in Vancouver or in New York who are of Asian descent, really had nothing to do with the virus. So lashing out at individuals and at people is unacceptable and that’s really what our campaign is about.

Anish:                   That’s great to hear. I’m happy that you were able to round up, not just organizations, but also celebrities to get on board to address that misdirection. I think you nailed it when you said there was a misdirected hatred toward a group of people, which was actually just brought on by the frustration that COVID brought, and I think the campaign, I can say from the imagery I’ve seen is powerful in getting that message across in a very succinct manner. That as you said, it’s not a race issue. It’s literally a health issue, and that misdirection needs to be brought into the spotlight where it should be put to use.

Anish:                   Serena, you mentioned different ways in which people face racism and how some racist acts play out as microaggressions. Can you tell us a bit more about these microaggressions and how they manifest and what listeners can do if they find themselves in that situation? I know earlier you had alluded to carrying cough drops and smiling to play a role where you’re not actually a New York resident. You’re potentially a visitor to hopefully get a bit of slack from your own community. Can you tell us a bit more about that microaggression components of racist acts?

Serena:                Yeah, absolutely. So microaggressions are one way that, and it’s actually the dominant way, I think that racism appears in a workplace environment in the business context because they’re small verbal or nonverbal slight snubs or insults, and the majority of times, they’re unconscious to the person who’s actually speaking and making them. A lot of times, they think they’re either giving a compliment or joking around, but there’s a hidden insult and negative assumption underneath that microaggression.

Serena:                So an example of this would be in workplaces as it relates to the rise in COVID-19 is that there would be some people who would, when we were all working in the same physical environment, they’d say, I’m not going to sit next to that person because I think they’re Chinese, and it’s one of those things where it’s not necessarily that they’re doing it on purpose and much less, if they’re even aware that that is coming off as offensive, but it is. It’s hurtful.

Serena:                One of the things that drives me nuts, actually when people say, Oh, I was just joking. I’m just kidding around. It’s first of all, if it’s a joke, that’s not a funny joke. Secondly, that does not excuse it because just because you were joking, doesn’t take the sting away. It still hurts. Rightfully so, attention and action should be taken against a verbal and physical assault. The stance needs to be taken about racism in general, regardless of how it presents itself, and I think, given what the work that Sonny is doing and what he was just talking about, I think that’s amazing, and that’s awesome, and that’s because exactly what we want to see from leaders and that’s exactly the types of actions that is so important for leaders within an organization, within companies need to take to be role models and make public announcements that they condemn any kind of racism and xenophobia that happens.

Serena:                You can also do it internal to the organization, because if anything, that makes your East Asian colleagues or your Asian colleagues feel better, that the leadership acknowledges what’s happening and that they have their support. That’s the other thing actually, that why working with Ascend has been so terrific because they’ve put together a consortium that Catalyst joined, to denounce the racism and xenophobia that’s coming out of COVID-19, and there’s a five point action plan. So we are one of the founding members of the consortium, and it continues to be heartening to see all of the corporations across North America who are signing on in support and I think it’s up to at least a hundred large corporations.

Serena:                So those are other ways that action can be taken, particularly from the corporate community, which also brings me to another point, which is that as the burden should not be placed on the target in terms of responding to these kinds of microaggressions, that what we’re really looking for is allyship, and I think that’s another thing that makes what Sonny’s doing is so great is that it’s about allyship and taking stand and supporting those who are targeted by these acts. By doing something like that, you can address it and take that burden off of the target from dealing with those kinds of acts that take place.

Anish:                   The consortium that you put together and hearing the number of organizations that have signed on to be part of that positive change is heartwarming. Serena, given the need for unity with the protest taking place for black lives matter, what are your thoughts about the five point agenda as well as your work with Catalyst can help tackle the issues we need to address to achieve a state of unity?

Serena:                Totally. Again, thank you so much for bringing this topic up in particular, just because it is so relevant to the conversation that we’re having right now, because racism is racism and everything that’s happening right now, it all goes back to institutional structural racism, and now it’s playing out or we’re getting a very, very vivid example of its direct impact on the black community, and so I think the five point agenda that Ascend put out again, I’m so grateful that it’s out there because all five points are extraordinarily relevant, even more so now. You can quantify it at all. It’s just relevant and it resonates so much because not only in terms of all of these points are to promote inclusion, raising awareness, denounce bias, support community and give donations.

Serena:                All five points are applicable not only to the racism that the Asian community is facing because of COVID, but also that the black community is facing. The other issue here, intrinsically woven in throughout the agenda, as well as why it was so important to be a part of this consortium is because the other underrepresented community supported and continue to support the pan Asian community when this all started to surface, and this is our turn as well to give that support back, to be an ally, and so in addition to those five points, everything that we talked about, when you have those microaggressions, when you experienced it in the workplace, when you experience or you see a colleague experiencing the microaggressions that we talked about earlier, that there’s something that you can do.

Serena:                That now it’s incumbent upon you to be an ally. You need to address it. You need to talk about it. At the same time, you should also challenge yourself, and in some ways, it’s incumbent upon the Asian community, because let’s be honest, there is racism within the Asian community towards the black community. So it’s something that we need to also reflect internally in terms of our own group and ourselves, and have those uncomfortable conversations with your own colleagues, with your family, with your friends. You can also do homework. Look at the Catalyst resources about how to have the conversations and overcome those conversational roadblocks that might stop you, that might paralyze you because you are afraid of saying the wrong thing or you feel that it might not involve you.

Serena:                There’s all kinds of steps and tools that are out there on the Catalyst website, as well as in general. One of the things that I think was really interesting as I’ve been, not only preparing for this podcast, which was for me, I’m a total research nerd so I love doing it, but also just in terms of my work in general is that there’s a lot of really good resources and writings that are going on right now about what the Asian community in particular can do. Medium, in fact, put out a 20 plus allyship actions Asians can take to support the black community. So those are really good. There’s also, again, if you just do some homework and just do some Googling, you can find a lot of different resources.

Serena:                The important thing is really to embrace the allyship and support particularly right now, because we’re an underrepresented community, and to go back to the initial question about unity, this is how you show unity. This is how you exemplify unity. This is what unity means. It means to take action and take a stand and again, it doesn’t have to be huge actions, but it’s the combination, and you have to just continue to do it, to just fight for everybody to build workplaces and also just in our own inclusive society.

Anish:                   Thank you for sharing those thoughts. As you mentioned, with the amount of research and writing out there, I like the guidance on doing the homework to educate yourself and be better equipped to take some sort of action and demonstrate unity. I want to circle back to something you mentioned earlier. You mentioned certain commentary on the sting effect and it should not happen in today’s environment. However, in the case that it does, are there tactical ways to deal with racism when you’re confronted in real life, whether virtually or in person?

Serena:                One is you can use appropriate humor. It’s a little tricky because again, you have to think about the context but another one is asking thoughtful questions. So for example, if you hear in the workplace, well, I’m never going to order Chinese food again, one of the things that I’ve said is, Oh, really? Why? Can you tell me more because everything is showing that you can’t get the disease from food. Chinese food is excellent. I love it and it’d be a shame to have to miss out on eating Chinese food. So can you tell me a little bit more about why you wouldn’t want to do it because that then is a safe way to allow that person who said it, because again, that is a microaggression and it’s something that they may not even think that they are aware of how racist that is, and it makes them think a little bit.

Serena:                I think that it’s hard to come from the perspective of the target when I’ve been subjected to racial… People have made racist comments to me outside of the workplace. I always of course, assess the situation and because it’s your safety first. You always want to deescalate what’s happening to make sure that I don’t get myself into further trouble, and then a lot of times when its happened, what I’ve done is I make sure I fight back because frankly, they have the stereotype that, Oh, she’s not going to say anything because she’s Asian and they’re very passive, and I think that one specific data point in terms of the rise in the racist attacks that are happening is that it’s actually happening at twice the rate to women than men because of the stereotype that they have of Asians, that Asians are seen as very passive, they’re weak.

Serena:                They are not going to say anything. I think, and with women in particular, because they’re seen as not only passive because they’re Asian, but they’re also weak because they’re women. I think that’s why it’s happening. What we can talk about though, and what I do advocate is it does go along the lines of what allies can do, or just being a leader and what you can do when you hear these types of microaggressions, and that is you definitely don’t want to ignore it. You don’t want to excuse it, and you would need to push through and not become immobilized by it.

Sonny:                  I want to pick up on the allyship thought that Serena introduced, because that really extends to what we’ve been doing as well. I describe it in our context as community and getting a community of support who says racism is wrong is crucial. If it were just the Asian community that says, don’t discriminate against me and this is wrong. Well, that creates a bit of ghettoization, that it’s coming from one group only. That feels disenfranchised and really fails to provide that greater perspective that racism is wrong. If it’s only directed at one community, and if only one community has responded, then it creates that very black and white issue, but if you have other leaders, other individuals from different cultural backgrounds that say that this is wrong, then the entire community is making that statement.

Sonny:                  That’s why, in our messages, we have not just Asian people. We have a white people, we have black people, we have Brown people, and if I can find pink and purple and the orange people, I would put them in too. So really, it’s communicating that racism is wrong and that the entire community is opposed to it, and that’s really what we’re trying to get across in our campaign, to really indicate that there’s a properness in society and as a civil society, that we need to behave in a certain way, and that we really need to accept people from all backgrounds, because that’s what all makes us great.

Anish:                   Yeah. From what I’m garnering from the conversation, the ally fifth is literally the tipping point at change being made and embraced by all, rather than a group trying to do it on their own, and I do want to thank you for some of the tidbits on ways to deal with confrontations, where you’re assessing the situation. It’s always a good idea to focus on disarming, but then to also address it, to not buy into the stereotype of being passive and weak and where appropriate, use humor, and I really liked the one around asking a thoughtful question. I think when you get someone thinking, their subconscious or unconscious behaviors come to light and they then embrace the reality of what they were doing and saying was inappropriate.

Anish:                   We’re nearing the end of our time together, but a great conversation. I’m happy to hear about all of the amazing campaigns in flight and the awareness that’s being brought on to the topic of racism and how it’s not okay and there needs to be collective effort in addressing it. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our listeners today? If listeners want to stay in contact with you, where can they find you? Sonny, do you want to take this one first?

Sonny:                  Yeah. So my final comment really is perhaps one that looks into the future a bit. We’ve been having this great discussion about the effects of COVID-19 on populations and how it’s raising this ugly head of racism. I think that what’s happening now is really in response to this firestorm that’s happening. So individuals and organizations such as ourselves, we’re trying to pour water on it as fast as we can just to put that out, but I think the parallel stream is education, it’s policy, it’s, governments coming to the table and putting measures in place, prevent this into the future and I think the education aspect of it is equally important.

Sonny:                  A lot of that doesn’t exist because I think society has always kind of said, well, racism is not that topical and it’s expected that it’s hidden beneath the veneer of civil society, but certainly this pandemic is bringing it to the fore and saying that it really is a problem that we need to be dealing with. So I think those kinds of measures on a more medium term basis are what’s going to help us. If people want to get a hold of me, they can just go to the healthnothate.com website. There’s a form there, a contact form that they can fill in, and right now, all the inquiries come directly to me. So that’s one way. I am on social media as well as an individual. Sonny Wong, S.O.N.N.Y Wong, but also we monitor our health not hate social media feeds as well, and those are #HealthNotHate. On Instagram, it’s #Health_Not_Hate

Serena:                And for me, what I think people should really take away in terms of the workplace, one of the things that I always try to stress is be intentional. If you’re going to build a truly inclusive workplace, then you need to take action when you see these kinds of incidents of racism that come about, but also in terms of looking at the processes and the programs that you have in place that can break down the barriers to building such an inclusive workplace. So in terms of where to find me and the work that we do, and if you want some tools or resources and tips, we have a lot of things on our website at catalyst.org that you can find. My blog is also there, if you want to take a look at it. There’s a lot of the Catalyst social media handles that you can reach me through. The best way in terms of this context is probably through LinkedIn, if you want to reach out to me specifically.

Anish: I agree with both of the final takeaways. Education to fundamentally and systemically bring awareness and not keep it under the subconscious is about most important for the long haul and I like the idea about being intentional, getting people aware of the impact of what they’re saying and doing has on another’s life. With that, on behalf of myself and our listeners, I’d like to thank both of you for joining us today and sharing your insights into this very important topic. Listeners, we do have links to both Serena and Sonny’s work in our episode description. Before I end this episode, I do have a call to action. I urge you all to continue to support the efforts of both Sonny and Serena by spreading their thought leadership and what you’ve garnered from this conversation today. Together as a community, we can make a difference. This is your host, Anish Patel signing off. Stay well and keep safe.

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