A tale of Asian triangulation and what that has to do with racism.

Let’s channel our own experiences of racist harm and ensure that we are working in solidarity for equity for all Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in Canada

Introductory Preface: My reflections and reactions to the tragic shooting targeting Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021


Like so many Asians in North America, I have been completely enraged and despaired at the tragic mass murder of 8 people in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. As more details came out that 6 of the victims were Asian women who worked in three different Asian massage parlours, it became obvious to me that this was a racist and misogynist attack. The names of the victims hadn’t even been announced yet when the sheriff’s deputy, a white male, stated with such surety that the alleged gunman, a 21 year- old white male, had not been racially motivated because he allegedly told officers this, and that it was the result of being “fed up” and having a “bad day”. In one sentence, this police officer erased the humanity of these victims, and erased the collective experiences of racism that Asians and Asian women in particular have experienced since the mid-1800’s.

Say their names:

Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Kim (Grant), 51; Soon Cha Kim, 69; Young Ae Yue, 63; Xiao Jie Tan, 49; Dao You Feng, 44; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54

How this tragedy was framed by law enforcement and many media reports touched off a social media firestorm where Asian women, anti-racism advocates and other racialized communities came out forcefully denouncing these dehumanizing remarks. Witnessing this as an Asian woman was empowering. Asian women all over North America and the world were explicitly shirking the age-old lessons we have been taught– to be diminutive, quiet, docile and stay silent—and speaking up loud and clear that we are no longer going to accept this erasure.

At the same time, media outlets were reporting on the gunman and his history in a sympathetic manner, rather than that of the victims. Was some of the dismissiveness of the victims due to the women possibly being linked to sex work in massage parlours? These victims were all human beings and did NOT deserve to be gunned down at their place of work. There has been very little coverage about the actual tragedy itself. Was white privilege at play here? There was coverage of what this police officer had said without any conversation that he won’t see the racism as a white man in society, and works within an American institution that is built on white supremacy, the political and socio-economic system that bestows advantages to white people as compared to other racial groups . This sheriff’s deputy identified and sympathized with the white male gunman and not those who were brutally killed, and there was no push back by the reporters at the press conference.

There has been little critical analysis on how this is a hate crime and of the layers of intersectional oppression of racism, sexism, classism, exploitation, and precarious immigration status that this tragedy exemplified:

How this was not a conversation about femicide or racism, but both and much more. The historical stereotype of East Asian women as exotic, demure, deferential and for sexual objectification and thus, to be valued less as human beings and be disposable when this white man has a bad day. That this stereotype harms all Asian women to this day because we are expected to act in a non-threatening and subservient manner in any workplace. The historical context of oppression, human trafficking and exploitation that results in many working-class Asian women to lead lives of indentured servitude in massage parlours and other marginalized businesses to pay off debts amidst their precarious immigration statuses in North America.

Would the coverage have been different if the victims were white and middle class? Would the coverage have been different if the gunman had not been white?

My guess is yes, it would have been different on all counts.

Beyond the media coverage, there has also been harmful discourse on social media that Asians in North America do not suffer from racism. Just because there does not exist a universal anti-Asian hate symbol doesn’t mean anti-Asian racism doesn’t exist. Look at the statistics during the COVID-19 pandemic regarding an increase in attacks on Asians in Canada. However, anti-Asian racism is not new to us. It has always existed. What this is bringing out is the many covert ways that racism exists and harms to this day in society. The extreme (often violent) events and extreme hate symbols are only the tip of the iceberg. Just like all racialized communities and the people within each community are unique, so too are our experiences with racism. This requires a nuanced exploration into the complexities of the racism that exists in Canada for all Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), without playing “Oppression Olympics“.

What people “see” as racism is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism exists in many forms every day.

I had written the following Op-Ed last week in an attempt to tease out some of these nuances as they exist in my medical profession as a call for solidarity in our fight for equity for all groups that identify as BIPOC. I didn’t feel that I could publish it at this time without an introductory preface that acknowledged the tragedy that occurred two days ago in Atlanta, Georgia and my personal reaction to the entire situation. I could have gone back into the OpEd and added references to this tragedy but I thought a separate introduction would be more explicit and honour the tragedy and my reactions to it.

I hope that this OpEd adds to the current conversation. Thank you.


A tale of Asian triangulation and what that has to do with racism.

Let’s channel our own experiences of racist harm and ensure that we are working in solidarity for equity for all Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in Canada

Dr Amy Tan

The racial justice reckoning that occurred after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in May, 2020 resulted in many institutions, including medical schools across Canada to make bold statements declaring their commitment to anti-racism. But what exactly has this led to? How exactly have organizations and institutions worked towards becoming truly anti-racist and anti-oppressive? Look at the comments from the publicly posted discussion by members on a draft “Equity and Diversity in Medicine policy” in 2019. These are my colleagues–physicians in Canada–and it was personally painful as an Asian physician to read many comments denying that racism exists and in fact showed many were invested in the colonial and white power structures in Canada and the healthcare system.

As a Chinese, heterosexual, settler of colour, second-generation Canadian, cis-gender female with more than one disability, I want to use my privilege and be part of the solution. I have had to think about race relations throughout every facet of my life since I was a child. I have mentored many BIPOC medical learners for over 15 years. I have also had many conversations with racialized learners through this year of racial reckoning, in which they have had to unpack navigating the pain of racist experiences while examining how they may have unwittingly upheld racist structures themselves. Many of these discussions have led to painful realizations that South/East Asians in medicine can be complicit in harming Black and Indigenous colleagues and learners. We have contributed to perpetuating racist and colonial toxicity that is layered upon the toxicity that comes from perfectionism, overwork, burnout, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, cis-genderism and mental health stigma for those in medicine.

How are we as Asians complicit? After all, we have been victims of racism too. East and South Asians have been historically discriminated against in Canada through immigration laws to limit Asian immigration, voting bans and political exclusion, and segregation. We all cannot forget that Japanese-Canadians were removed from their homes and forced to live in internment camps while providing hard labour and treated like criminals in their own country during World War II. Right now, East Asians are having a particularly difficult time being falsely blamed for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There are daily reports of elderly Asian people being attacked on the streets completely unprovoked. Their only crime is that they look like they’re Chinese (some are actually Southeast Asian or Korean and that’s part of the same racism problem) and thus blamed for the pandemic and the restrictions because of it. The Vancouver Police Department has reported a 717% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes from 2019 to 2020 alone.

Yes, we Asians have felt the pain of being othered, even in medicine. We know what it feels like to be asked by patients and colleagues, “Where are you from? No, not Canada, but really where are you from?” or “Wow, your English is so good” or “I told you already that I wasn’t done with my dinner tray yet so don’t take it away- oh, I thought you were the dinner lady”. We know what it is like to be identified by another Asian name and to be given the message that we are all the same, a monolithic representation of a non-white group. We know how infuriating it is when you are 15 years into your career as an attending physician as an Asian woman, and the patient refers to the white male medical student working with you as the doctor, despite him having 21 years less experience in medicine than you. And these are only the microaggressions that we experience daily.

So, why is it that we are not channeling those demeaning feelings of not belonging to ensure that NO ONE feels like they are not safe to be authentic, to not belong, to be treated differently just because of their race?

Because it is difficult work to have to continually advocate for not only yourself, but others in medicine. The profession is challenging enough and there is often not enough hours or energy in a day to keep fighting against the tide of racism while doing the work of treating patients and reducing their suffering.

But here’s a hard truth: South/East Asians have been turning a blind eye to the harm inflicted on our Indigenous and Black colleagues because we have learned that our silence will be rewarded. Our communities have been enticed into the fantasy that we can enjoy some of the benefits that come with being “white-adjacent” in the socially constructed racial hierarchy that exists. We achieve this by distancing and distinguishing, and not denouncing colonialism and white supremacy at every turn.

Asians have been triangulated in relation to white people, and Indigenous and Black people in Canada. This triangulation means that we have benefited from white- adjacency while being limited in our belonging through the mechanisms of relative valorization (in which whites valorize Asians relative to Black or Indigenous people while dominating all groups) and civic ostracism (in which whites propagate that Asians are persistently foreign and thus must be limited in civic and political inclusion).

Racial Triangulation

The relative valorization has resulted in what is known in popular culture as the “model minority” concept that has put Asians on a conditional pedestal for our work ethic and apparent upward mobility in society. But this is a harmful myth, because describing Asians with one brush as a monolith (there are different experiences and many disparities even within the Asian diasporas in Canada) and then weaponizing us against Indigenous and Black people in Canada (by using South and East Asian upward mobility as misleading examples that systemic racism can’t occur) only serves to affirm the white superiority that exists in Canada.

Our parents and ancestors that immigrated to Canada made themselves as “small” as possible so as to not garner any attention to themselves as a means of survival against racism and xenophobia in these complex racial and colonial structures. In the tangled web of white supremacy and settler-colonialism in Canada, we are simultaneously “Forever Foreign” while benefitting from the colonialism of Indigenous people.

We have benefited in medicine from our collusion; South Asians and East Asians are over-represented in our profession. That’s not to minimize the hard work that got us into and through our medical training, but it’s to recognize the systemic structures in place that have given us privilege and benefits not extended to our Black and Indigenous colleagues. We must not deny the generations of systemic oppression that continue for Black and Indigenous communities to this day. We must use our privilege to change the medical culture from within for the benefit of ALL of us in the profession and our patients. Everyone benefits in a more inclusive and equitable profession.

Let’s channel our own experiences of racist harm to ensure that we are not complicit.

We Asians (like any BIPOC) can be both victim and perpetrator of racism and systemic racism. We must not hide behind the illusion that because we are victims of racism that we cannot inflict racist harm on other BIPOC.  There was a recent illustrative example of this very concept in the Globe and Mail. We all aspire to be white in Canada because existing in society has taught us that is to be coveted. And in doing so, we ourselves are prone to racist thoughts, acts and complicity by not denouncing it at every turn. We must not be silent when we witness anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism within our profession by our colleagues and towards patients. This cannot be tolerated.

We do not get a free pass on doing the work required to be anti-racist and create brave anti-oppressive spaces in all spheres. As People of Colour, we have even more responsibility in how we engage in racist or anti-racist actions in solidarity with all racialized and Indigenous people. Yes, this is another place that as POC we are held to a higher standard. But if we do not uphold anti-racist actions and values in support of all BIPOC, then we are setting the wrong example and perpetuating harm to ourselves and others in medicine.

Racial justice must continue to be at the forefront of all medical leaders and citizens, even during the pandemic. The pandemic has shone a bright light on why racial justice must remain the priority because COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequities in society; its solutions are inextricably linked to the systemic racism that exists in Canada. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we are woefully late with dismantling inequities in society. We MUST knock down the inequities that persist within the medical profession and decolonize the healthcare system for the collective health of our profession and for the patients in society that we serve. The majority white population in medicine has its own work to do to move anti-racism and anti-oppression forward, but we must reflect and look at the hard truths about our Asian complicity in all of this and how this perpetuates harm to our own communities too. We must use our painful lived experiences of racism to advocate for safer spaces for Asians while fighting in solidarity for equity for Black and Indigenous people. It is time that we Asians be on the right side of history and all embrace being co-disruptors to dismantle these structures.

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