When can Chinese Canadians stop being foreigners in our home?

This July 1st marks the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a racist law that for 24 years excluded all but a few Chinese from coming to Canada. Numerous events are being held to commemorate the occasion.

Many would suggest this is a time for celebration. After all, isn’t everything much better now, and aren’t there so many successful Chinese Canadians?

If so, how do you account for the fact that the Chinese Canadian community experiences higher than average poverty rates, including higher than Black and South Asian Canadians? How do we respond to social science studies that show job seekers with Chinese or Asian sounding last names have 30% less chance of getting interviews, as compared to those with Anglo names? And how do we explain the consistent themes of anti-Asian racism that can be traced from over a century ago to our modern manifestations of individual and systemic racism?

As Chinese Canadians, in addition to combating the “model minority myth”, we face constant challenges to our sense of belonging. At best, it comes as a microaggression in the form of a “friendly” query about “where are you from”. However innocent these inquiries may sometimes sound, they reinforce assumptions about who is a “real” Canadian, and a reminder that we are seen as the “other”. At worse, this stereotype of Asian Canadians as perpetual foreigners fuels xenophobia and hateful attacks that are trying to drive us, the “foreigners”, to “go back to where we came from”.

Telling Chinese Canadians, regardless of where we were born, to “go back to China” is sadly nothing new. The Canadian government took the lead in 1885 by imposing the infamous Chinese Head Tax on every Chinese person entering Canada as soon as the Chinese railway workers finished building the Canadian Pacific Railway that connected our nation from coast to coast. When that did not stop enough Chinese coming here, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, to essentially exclude all Chinese from entering until this racist Act was repealed in 1947.

Different governments’ racist actions have reverberated throughout Canadian history, marching in step with the dehumanization of the Chinese, as shown by the public violence in the 1907 riots by white mobs in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the 1919 ransacking of Toronto’s Chinatown. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed racist hate and violent attacks aimed at Chinese across the country, driving home the same message of who belongs and who is the “other”.

The current public discourse about foreign interference by China has added a layer of complexity to the already precarious discussion around anti-Asian racism. We know that negative views about China can contribute to more racism against Chinese Canadians, especially because of the perpetual foreigner stereotype where our loyalty to Canada may be questioned. At the same time, concerns about anti-Chinese racism should not be abused as a tool to suppress legitimate discussions about potential threats from foreign regimes. As Canadians, we all have the same concerns about protecting our democracy. To achieve this shared goal, we must confront the threats posed both internally by the white supremacy movement and externally by foreign regimes. We must not play politics with our national security.

Also, we must respect the diverse communities of our 1.8 million Chinese Canadians, including many who have been here for generations and many who were not born in China. By dehumanizing a group and stripping away individual identities, racism affects our sense of belonging in different parts of our lives. For example, when some of us enter a meeting or an event, we scan the room for those who look like us: another person of colour, or better yet, another Chinese. More often than not, we are faced with a sea of white faces of mostly men who are likely oblivious to our sense of being “othered”, even as they point to the presence of “minorities” as a sign of their  commitment to diversity. Meanwhile, we gravitate towards the handful of racialized people in the room and wonder how much of our token representation could actually make a difference. Likewise, we look to important announcements like judicial appointments and ask if the one or two Chinese Canadians who get the nod would be the last ones as the government fills their unspoken quota.

Ultimately, discrimination and racism is not unique to Chinese Canadians. As we mark our community’s long history of exclusion on July 1, 2023, let us take the opportunity to collectively call upon our governments and all those with power and influence to combat racism and oppression of all forms.

If only one day we could walk into any room, and not have to ask ourselves again: are we here as tokens, or do we truly belong?

Amy Go (president) and Gary Yee (Vice President) contributed to the Globe and Mail Opinion column, published June 30, 2023.

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