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Content warning: This article discusses the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes (COVID-19), and violent racism.
On March 15, my mother informed my brothers and I that her mother – my grandmother – had passed away on February 28, 2020. She had been ill for several years before this, but the circumstances under which she died were unnerving: an elderly woman in Japan living in long-term care experienced onset of shortness of breath, contracted pneumonia, and passed shortly after. To this day it’s still frustratingly unclear what caused this, though there is one reasonable guess.
All I know is that the news of my grandmother’s death struck me with incredible force. There has been a lot of discussion of grief, especially in the context of the future: many important milestones in people’s lives have been postponed indefinitely, like proms, graduation ceremonies, or weddings. But for me, I found myself both mourning my loss and grieving a future that was already somewhat foreclosed to my grandmother and I – by distance, by finances, by language, by time. I really believed that one day we would see each other again, though I could never know a date for sure, and we would sit together and smile the way that people do when they love each other but don’t know what to say (or how to say it). I didn’t think that I would have already seen her for the last time in 2013.
My mother was fortunate enough to have visited Japan as recently as last summer. She has only been able to go a handful of times since she immigrated here in the early 90s. She said she was in no rush to visit right now, as if we would be so lucky to go regardless of the circumstances. She is still working during this pandemic, which is why there was such a delay in her telling my brothers and I the news. At the beginning of March, she was working three different jobs, all in sanitation. Though she does not work all three right now, that she works at all in “essential workplaces” makes it difficult for her to qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as it stands right now.
While I’ve been recovering from the overwhelming grief, I found a photograph of my mother and grandmother together from July. They are warm and smiling. I can see myself in both of their faces. The photo sits on my bedside table now.
For the unfamiliar, allow me to plagiarize my own work: “Whiteness” refers to the positive construct that occurs in the negative space of racializing people of colour in cultures and societies dominated by white-skinned people. Put more clearly, by defining what (for example) “Blackness” or “Indigenous-ness” are, white-skinned people define whiteness in the absence of that quality: “not Black” or “not Indigenous.” Since racialization imposes negative characteristics on people of colour and their cultures, whiteness is considered positively by default. In line with this, scholars working in legal studies, history, and critical race theory have pointed out that white-skinned people are “assumed not to “have race”” as Dr. David R. Roediger (currently of University of Kansas) writes.
As a result, the defining characteristics of whiteness are more hidden, and must be inferred against the racialization of other ethnicities and skin colours. Through this rendering of whiteness, academics have been able to identify, analyze, and interrogate whiteness where it exists. As the above disciplines are investigating, whiteness can be found in sociocultural systems and institutions.
“Yellow Peril” refers to the racist colour-metaphor and white supremacist belief that Asian or “yellow” people – particularly Chinese and Japanese people (though any relatively fair-skinned East Asian and/or Pacific Islander will do; to the inarticulate eye of whiteness, we are all the same) – pose an “existential threat” to “Western values” (i.e. democracy, Christianity, and to some extent recently, capitalism, etc). If you want to get specific, Sinophobia is the fear and/or hatred of Chinese people and China. Proponents of this belief insist upon and operate under the assumption that Asian people are “invading” “their” land and/or cultural space, and thus these must be defended. If it sounds like a conspiracy theory, that’s because it is, in a sense: whiteness cannot accept its own shortcomings and violence, so it is projected onto Others and systems are built to reify it as truth. In Canada and the United States, indicators of Yellow Peril-informed racism can be found both structurally and culturally.
Structural racism refers to the complex system(s) by which racism is developed, maintained and protected. It exists in institutions that we navigate and/or interface with in our day-to-day lives – like the law, the justice system, the education system, various levels of government, and even organizational practices – so it can sometimes go unnoticed without a careful eye towards the mechanics of those institutions. In North America, structural racism that permits the Yellow Peril myth has included limiting immigration and citizenship applications from East Asian people, and unfair taxation practices towards those who were able to immigrate and their businesses.
In Canadian history, much of this revolves around constructing the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway (already a fascinating case study in race relations and nationstate-building in Canada), a project that included thousands of Chinese temporary labourers. Chinese labourers on the CP Railway project made anywhere from 25 to 150 percent less in wages than their European-Canadian counterparts under the same harsh labour conditions that left many dead. In the same decade, Canada implemented head taxes on Chinese immigrants and citizens meant to deter them from staying longer than they had been reluctantly welcomed and discourage them from returning, as under some circumstances the head tax would be payable upon re-entering the country. With this knowledge, the “perpetual foreigner” myth begins to make sense: the question of “where are you really from?” implies that East Asians are here “for a good reason,” (i.e. serving a purpose to whiteness) after the completion of which they should disappear. That the head tax revenue was used to “inspect” Chinese labourers for illness and disease like typhoid and smallpox, and otherwise surveil them, also supports this. The message is that they can only bring their bodies to work and leave no “trace” of “themselves” behind. In a similar vein, 1908’s Continuous Journey Regulation prohibited immigrants who did not come to Canada by “continuous journey” from the country of which they were natives or citizens from landing. This legislation disqualified people who had to make stops between their point of departure and Canada from immigrating from Asia (especially South Asia) while maintaining trade relationships with other members of the Commonwealth and its allies. Again, one can see that whiteness divorces Asian people from their labour, as well as their resources.
Culturally speaking, Yellow Peril-aligned racism introduces stereotypes: preconceived ideas about how East Asian people exist and behave in the world through the white supremacist gaze. Like all racist behaviour, these stereotypes exist on a continuum of mockery to violent hostility. On the side of mockery, whiteness casts East Asian-ness as submissive, and (by extension, under "Western" patriarchal gender roles) feminine. As such, East Asian men are treated as “undesirable,” whereas East Asian women are fetishized, for failing or succeeding to adhere to these gender roles. This has had violent consequences for East Asian women during World War II and wars that the U.S. fought in East Asia.
The Second World War had devastating consequences for the East Asian diaspora in North America as well. In an ethnonationalist assumption that all people from the same background hold the same belief and support for their governments (regardless of whether they lived under them or not), people of Japanese descent were expelled and/or forcibly confined in camps in both the U.S. and Canada. These are often referred to as “internment camps,” though there is still some debate about the use of the word “internment,” a wartime measure aimed at “civilian persons living in the territory of a party to the conflict who are of the nationality of the adverse party or other foreigners.” Many of the people who were detained in North America were legal citizens of their countries, not “enemy aliens,” so quite frequently these countries were selectively detaining their own people based on ethnic heritage. Yellow Peril racism was naked: East Asians were not just considered undesirable, but villainous to “Western society” and unpredictable in their methods of destruction, and therefore worthy of expulsion. Scholars have argued that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also influenced, in part, by racism.
In more recent years, East Asian-ness has been associated with a number of traits depending on the country in question. For instance, Koreans face both mockery for the Northern leader, Kim Jong Un, and a fetishizing fascination with the South’s distinct pop culture. As well, China’s revolutions into communism and rise as a global economic superpower has reactivated some of the West’s “Red Scare” sentiment.
In 2020, the extremely mobile novel coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 [SARS-CoV-2]) and the illness that it causes (coronavirus disease 2019 [COVID-19]) began to affect parts of the “Western world.” With it came a flurry of racist behaviour towards East Asians, particularly people of Chinese background, as the novel coronavirus was first reported in the Chinese city Wuhan, in late 2019. It’s only gotten worse since I started writing this piece, and I’ve been writing for weeks. I could not possibly begin to list them all, so I invite you to look for yourself, but here are a few exemplary instances:
With all of this going on, you would not be at fault for forgetting that Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019) won four Academy Awards (Oscars) in February, including the first-ever awarding of Best Picture to a film that was not in English.
There is a weird flipside to racism against Asians, East Asians especially: the “model minority” myth. The model minority myth rising out of the mid-20th century posits that Asians and especially descents of Asians have “managed to achieve economic, political, and cultural success in the face of adversity,” particularly when “success” is achieved through assimilation into “Western” cultural norms and/or perceived “positive” characteristics of a “race” or group of people are appropriated into whiteness. Narratively speaking, the model minority myth suggests that “persevering” the aforementioned hardships and racial abuse intended to punish and mock the lack of ability or desire to perform whiteness (via the Yellow Peril) has produced an adequate whiteness in the eyes of whiteness, and is therefore good and just. Translation: the model minority myth suggests that racism is good because it makes “you” more “like us” by repeated and/or prolonged force. The ends justify the means.
Obviously, this “success” narrative must be taken with several grains of salt when it does not note that some of the previously noted obstacles that whiteness installed to prohibit Asian “success” in North America were removed after plenty of public pressure. And though this myth seems to perpetuate positive traits about Asian-ness, these traits are really just euphemisms for the previously perpetuated dysphemisms: cultural “backwards-ness” becomes “exotic”; “sneakiness” becomes “cleverness”; “submissiveness” becomes “docile” or “peaceful”; and so on. The traits that were once a threat to whiteness now become worthy of praise; the interpretation of racial traits is still subject to whiteness’ whim for or against. Furthermore, the stereotyping that comes from the model minority myth is more specific. Whereas the Yellow Peril posits that Asians are generally bad faith actors set to undermine “Western” civilization, the model minority myth specifically stereotypes Asians as “naturally smart” in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as entrepreneurship. These are more difficult stereotypes to challenge, since a failure to live up to the expectation tends to indicate a “defect” under white able cis hetero patriarchy and capitalism. All of these “predispositions” towards “success” make it hard for Asians to ask for and/or receive help while maintaining the independent will that the model minority myth says they inherently possess.
The timing of the myth’s emergence is also fascinating, since it came about in the postwar years just ahead of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Increasing scholarship shows that by positioning Asian-ness in closer proximity to whiteness, white American politicians used model minority myth as a cudgel between racialized groups in North America, particularly between Asian and Black Americans during the Civil Rights movement, while also wielding it as a socioeconomic success story during the Cold War years. As with many structures of power and oppression, white supremacy asserts a racial hierarchy with whiteness at the top. The model minority myth assumes Asian-ness is closer to whiteness, which has consequences for other racialized groups.
Particularly, anti-Blackness in various Asian communities has been prevalent. The mere suggestion of this racial hierarchy – in conjunction with colourism and shadeism that often occurs in Asian cultures – has caused decades of lateral violence in service of whiteness. Black patrons being kicked out of Asian-run businesses; Black people (Africans and Black Americans) in China facing evictions and deportations during this pandemic; shockingly racist advertisements for beauty and cleaning products; lawsuits against Affirmative Action plans; rampant cultural appropriation: it all runs amok in the Asian diaspora while whiteness holds Asian-ness close, and Asians hold whiteness close, too. Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang can even ooze the privilege of rarely feeling insecure about his Asian identity while simultaneously perpetuating the model minority myth himself, suggesting that his fellow Asian Americans “need to embrace and show American-ness” regarding growing racist hostility during the current pandemic. How embarrassing that only under the threat of violence against oneself that the right to safety, life, and freedom must not be renegotiated (Black activism and scholarship have asserted this for decades, if not centuries); how ridiculous to blame victims of literal hate crimes; how detached from reality to assume that respectability saves anyone from white supremacy (again, a failure to learn from Black people and their experiences). It very well may feel like a relief to finally have a boot off the neck, but it does not mean one must or should kiss the boot, especially while it steps on another.
There are alternatives to this, of course. And thank goodness. I think often of Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American activist in New York City who ran to hold Malcolm X’s head in her hands when he was assassinated in 1965. Their relationship as colleagues was unexpected and cut short, but sincere. Both Malcolm X and Kochiyama are controversial figures (Kochiyama actually more so, because she lived into the 21st century), but shared a staunch opposition to anti-Blackness and bigotry against people of colour that marked the entirety of their adult lives. I think of Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American scholar and activist who was involved in Black power movements in Detroit – so much so that she is listed in the “African American Heritage” research section of the U.S. National Archives – and who passed in 2015 at the age of 100 years old. I think of Karl Ichiro Akiya, recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Community Organizing in 1987 for his work with Black youth in Harlem after being “interned” in Utah decades before. I think of the people whose names are left out of history books. I think about how none of these people are Canadian. Overall, I think of Yellow Peril supporting Black Power, and how that flies directly in the face of Andrew Yang’s ideas about appealing to white people’s comfort.
There’s not really a way to button this piece up nicely, especially since the current situation’s timeline is only stretching farther into the future. I’ve done a quick and dirty job of a specific phenomenon happening mostly outside of Asia (a continent so vast, varied, and complex that I could not possibly do it justice in a month even at this length) and historians are probably wincing a little. Writing about family is difficult and requires an amount of vulnerability that I’ve maxed out already, though I admit I’ve said little. It certainly did not get easier as the weeks went by. I think of my mother, and how few times I’ve seen her sick with more than the common cold. I reflect on her working in an industry where the labour is both physically demanding and an act of care, a racialized and gendered reality. Now that labour is essential and dangerous in more ways than one. I remember my grandmother, whose passing came before virtual funerals and wakes became a mainstream option. I imagine someone like her in bed, while someone like my mother tidied her room in long-term care. Maybe there is a picture of someone like me on their bedside table.
What I do know is part of it is most certainly in self-identified Black lesbian mother warrior poet Audre Lorde’s words, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” An injustice to anyone is an injustice to everyone. That is a good reminder for myself and other non-Black people of colour when we see violence and oppression that does not necessarily or explicitly affect us: how our shackles are different, how they are the same, and how what looks like the key to one’s own freedom is often a fingertrap. It’s also a good reminder for white people, though I’ve grown tired of reminding them to see me, my family, and my friends as human.
But part of it is also something that the virus has reminded me, and that historians likely always know as true. A tweet I read a few weeks ago said, “Everyone needs to stop thinking COVID19 numbers today are today’s numbers. They’re not. They reflect: a) transmission between 12-18 days ago, b) onset and course of illness 7-14 days ago, c) hospitalization and testing, 7-1 days ago. Strictly: the present is the past.” The present is just the past emerging from previous conditions, whether for COVID-19 or Yellow Peril. And the previous conditions were not inevitable – it didn’t have to be this way, but those conditions worked for at least some people at the time. The future doesn’t have to be this way either. Collective action can change the future. We can see it now, from our homes (should we be so lucky as to have one). Giving a shit about each others’ pain and suffering is not inconsequential, as some may believe. No one said it was easy, because yes, some privileges have to be conceded and forfeited. But no one can say that it did not make a difference. Because it has, it is, and it can.