By Carrianne Leung
Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Culture 2020-21
I feel bruised. My body, my brain, my heart. All of me is bruised.
In January, I felt it beginning. COVID-19 was in its peak in Wuhan, and the fears that the virus would jump across borders and bodies of water to become a global pandemic was just on the horizon. I started bracing for it then. In 2004, I was the lead researcher on a community project about the social impacts of the SARS outbreak on Chinese, East Asian, and Southeast Asian communities in Toronto. I posted the report across my social media accounts as warning and preparation for what was to come. It was immediately shared thousands of times on Twitter.
The backlash came swiftly too. A picture of an East or Southeast Asian woman eating “bat soup” went viral. There was no context given for the photo and soon, it was revealed that the photo wasn’t even taken in China. It didn’t matter, and I won’t get into the issue of xenophobia and food here. The image already did its work and carried with it a trail of scapegoating the Chinese as responsible for the infection. Others telling me to “go back to where you come from.” Like I said, I was braced for it because I’ve lived long enough to remember what this kind of racism feels like viscerally. As the weeks went on, and the virus spread to Europe and the Americas, anti-Asian incidents started to enter my feeds. On the TTC, I found myself seated alone in the crowded streetcar. Once, going to the grocery store, I encountered two people who literally stopped when they saw me approaching on the sidewalk and turned their backs to me. On Dufferin Street, while walking with my child, we saw a car pass by a masked East Asian man, and the passenger screamed, “Corona Chink,” out the window at him.
Even though I was braced, even though I have studied and researched exactly how this happens, fear still entered me. When I was doing a PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, U of T, my research was focused on race and nation. Somehow, I thought that if I could intellectually understand, I would be immune to the pain. Not true. I am not immune.
When restrictions were put in place with school, work, and retail closures, I was grateful to be locked at home. While others became scared about getting infected, I felt the added layer of being afraid of getting assaulted or harassed or shunned. I had grown too anxious to be in public spaces, including my own neighbourhood. The fear felt so familiar, reminding me of being a child immigrant in the 70s and 80s when this was common: When overt acts of racism were common, and I had to witness the countless times when people were openly disparaging of me and my family, and I would start to feel my body shut down, lose sensation, feel cold and be on the constant verge of vomiting. That’s what racial fear feels like for me, and my body always remembers it.
I started to see the signs, “We’re in it together,” and they made me want to scream. It felt like one big gaslight, as the inequities became clear. We are not in it together. We are not all experiencing the same things. Not even close. As I see people share images of the feral life reclaiming spaces all over the world, I think of the humans whose spaces are shrinking.
My post about what we learned from SARS continued to gain traction, and the backlash continued to come. Some were very plain in wanting me to just die. White friends privately messaged me that they are “shocked,” and this only added to the pain. Why shocked? That they were surprised only emphasized the structural difference between their embodied reality and mine. Friends who like many of my funny posts are silent on the ones when I am showing my wounds publicly. The silence feels like conspiracy, feels like the growing terror in my body.
The silence is cutting. It has mostly been other racialized friends who have reached out to me, and those messages have given me relief that others are seeing this terror.
Someone asked me if I was more afraid of becoming infected with COVID-19 or being targeted for racist backlash when I have to go for groceries. I have no idea. I can’t tell. It is a giant lump that resides in my body, and I feel vulnerable in every way. My child, who is mixed race, volunteered to go shopping for us because he said maybe he could “pass.” I cried in front of him, and he was concerned he was adding to my pain. Out of everything in these last few weeks, this moment devastated me the most.
This loss of mobility and space angers and saddens me. As someone who is very self-sufficient, it is excruciating for me to rely on others. A neighbour was kind enough to think of me and ask if she could pick up anything for me on her grocery run, and I was so moved that she was thoughtful enough of these contexts to think of me. Otherwise, I have not been able to ask for help. Even though I know there are friends who care about me, it feels like added humiliation and loss of autonomy.
I think of the everyday lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous folks, trans folks, queer folks. I think of how our bodies cycle through these moments of crisis as the enemy. I think Donald Trump called COVID-19 the “invisible enemy” but its subtext is clear. There are many of us with the tag “invisible enemy” on our backs, and we are in plain view.
Derek Sloan, federal conservative leadership candidate questions if Dr. Teresa Tam is working for China or Canada. Ezra Levant circulates a petition to fire her. Two nurses, assumed to be Chinese by the perpetrators, are harassed in Toronto while trying to go to work. In Vancouver, a 92-year-old Chinese man with dementia is called a racist slur, pushed out of a store and onto the ground. Bryan Adams tweets spectacularly about having to cancel concert dates and activates the bat trope, laying blame on wet markets. Still, the overwhelming conversation I see on social media is a debate whether or not it was racist. I can go on, but I am tired of trying to make a point by throwing exhibit A, B, C, etc., onto the table. This is the problem and frustration that racialized people have – we have the findings, the reports, the analyses, the rigour of excellent scholarship – but what changes? What changes when the public discourse is still about whether something is or is not harm and the people who are/were harmed and put at risk fade into the background?
Other things are going on. There are reports of anti-Black racism in Southern China. Black people are facing harassment, evictions, barred from restaurants and public spaces. I despair at this show of hate. I search for solidarity, alliance, coalition. I rail against the anti-Blackness and state-sanctioned racism in China that has also put Muslim Uighurs in internment, that still occupies Tibet. And yet, the conflation of the Chinese state with Chinese bodies in the diaspora only add fuel to the backlash. We are not only read as people who would “eat anything” and cause viruses but also, we practice anti-Blackness. Let me be clear. None of the harm and injustice is okay.
Racism is a form of terrorism. This kind of stress on our minds, bodies, and spirits can’t be diminished. Racist speech and acts are meant to send the message that you do not belong, that you don’t have the right to space. Once enacted, it fills the air and all the spaces unless there is a swift intervention on an individual scale and an analysis that identifies and speaks back on a global scale. Otherwise, the toll is extraordinary, so I am very concerned about the mental health of racialized people.
A former student asked me in an interview if I had anything that I would like to say to racialized people who are scared, angry, targeted, and harmed by what is happening at the moment. I had to reflect on that.
The trauma that is inflicted at this time does not begin or end with being the recipient of hate. And also, where can we trace its beginning and end when historically, structurally, anti-Asian racism has always been there? Perhaps it has been below the surface at different moments, but it has always been there, ready to take a step back into the light with a boldness and vigour that does harm. If you are feeling vulnerable, reach out. Connect with other racialized people who understand. The Chinese Canadian National Council has a place for you to document anything you have experienced or witnessed.
If you need to talk to someone, a collaborative project between organizations and health professionals has developed a new resource to support you.
There have been articles and blogs being passed around about what to do in case you are a witness to racial incidences, but not what to do if you are the one who is the target. I am not satisfied with this. I understand the politics of not putting onus on the victim to do anything at all because, of course, they are the one receiving harm. But I also need to reach for agency here. Those folks who have been targeted don’t appear to be strong enough to defend themselves. They are often alone, are elderly, are women. There has also been evidence from some of the attacks of added vulnerabilities – international students, the homeless, the poor, the disabled. If you feel able, defend yourself. Use your voice and scream, holler. Make a scene. If you are being physically assaulted, and you feel you can, punch, kick, bite, spit. I am not saying you should. You don’t have to do anything and especially something that would put you in more danger. But I also want you to know that you are allowed to make yourself as large as you can. You deserve the space, too.
Finally, the whole time I was writing this, I worried you would read this as a passive spectator to my pain. I’ll be very honest with what I want from your reading: I want you bruised, too. I don’t want empty comfort. I don’t want shock emojis. I can’t bear silence. I want to know that you are bruised because you are human, too. That you recognize that we share this space, and some of us are in pain.
What are we going to do? What attention will you pay?
What world do we want to live in?
Published July 14, 2020.
This article is the first in a series on COVID-19 by Canadian Studies researchers at University College.