Anti-Chinese racism during Black History Month

The men and women in the car covered their faces and turned away from the woman. She appeared to be of Chinese ancestry and that made her a default carrier of the coronavirus.

by Tarek Fatah

There were six or seven of us inside the hospital elevator when a woman tried to make a last-second dash to enter the car. Under normal circumstances the passenger nearest to the door stops the closing door to let in the fellow passenger. But not in this case.

Instead, the gentleman closest to the coveted space where the elevator buttons are installed started fumbling for the ‘close’ button, trying to shut the cabin before the woman could get inside. He failed and she got through uttering a heavily accented “thank You” to the rest of us.

What followed was a scene fit for Alabama in 1920, not Toronto in 2020. The men and women in the car covered their faces and turned away from the woman. She appeared to be of Chinese ancestry and that made her a default carrier of the coronavirus.

As the car stopped on the second floor, all the other passengers left the elevator even though the buttons to the 4th and 6th floors were lit indicating the good people in the lift had jettisoned to save themselves from the ‘cursed’ virus carrier who stood staring at the ceiling.

Chatting with her, I learned that she was a third-generation Canadian of Chinese ancestry who had never been to China. I had arrived a day earlier after a two-month stay in India and statistically had a greater chance of being a virus carrier than her, but she was judged by her facial features, and race, by a group of people none of whom were white.

Were the people who ran away from this Chinese woman racist? Damn right they were, but the academics teaching racism insist that people of colour (folks like me and my fellow elevator mates) do not possess ‘white privilege’ and therefore can never be accused of practising racism.

To give credit where it is due, on Tuesday Mayor John Tory, along with the Liberal federal health minister and her Conservative provincial counterpart, came together and visited Toronto’s Chinatown to address the discrimination some in the Chinese-Canadian community have felt.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott stressed that the virus is an international situation and is not related to any one group of people. “There’s still a lot of discrimination out there,” she said. “We want to make sure that people know it’s safe to go out. It’s safe to come to your favourite restaurants … it’s safe to go shopping.”

In Europe, the situation is far worse than here. According to the German news agency Deutsche Welle, anti-Chinese racism is “spreading across the globe in countries as far apart as Australia and Canada and others in between such as Malaysia and Indonesia. France has recorded just six cases of the coronavirus. But Chinese people and others in the East Asian community there say they are becoming targets for discrimination.”

Racism is ubiquitous across the globe and one reason is that racism, if not committed by whites, is not even reported. The dead in the genocide of Black Darfuris by Sudan’s Arab Janjaweed are only now getting justice by the arrest of the country’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

And five years ago, when Black Darfuri refugees in Jordan were being attacked by Arab mobs, it was only a report by Vice News that broke the story.

The Chinese may be victims of racism today, but they need to recognize that their community too is not free of contempt for others. Whether it is at Chinese restaurants in Toronto or in China itself, anti-Black racism occurs.

In 2018, Chinese network CCTV staged a segment that featured a Chinese actress playing an African woman in blackface followed by a monkey portrayed by a black actor. It was subsequently removed from the network’s YouTube content.

But first we take Manhattan. So, the next time you run into a Canadian of Chinese descent, shake their hand and give them a hug. Then we take Berlin.

Tarek Fatah is a Pakistani-Canadian journalist and author. Fatah is a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and served as its communications officer and spokesperson.

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