Anti-Chinese sentiment in Toronto during pandemic shows the worst of humanity
"Get away from me. Get out of here. You Chinese, get away from me," screamed a woman outside of a Whole Foods in Markham.
My family warned me. They said racism against the Chinese community is inevitable during the pandemic. They remember the anti-Asian hate during the SARS outbreak - it’s not something you forget.
I naively assumed I would not fall victim to it. And if so, definitely not in my hometown, Markham; a city of 353,000 people, 70 per cent of which are visible minorities. I was naive. I was wrong. I went to the store for eggs and left with angry tears.
I waited in line outside of Whole Foods - there were ten people behind me and one person in front of me. Everybody was respecting social distance and standing on the taped floor markings six feet apart.
The person in front of me turned around constantly to glare at me. Her face was sour - as if she was repulsed by something. I felt uncomfortable, but the last thought on my mind was that the thing disgusting her was me.
I did not jump to conclusions about potential prejudice. I assumed it was nothing personal - until she opened her mouth. "Get away from me. Get out of here. You Chinese, get away from me," she shouted to an Asian woman who approached the line.
At that moment, it clicked - racists are in my community, waiting for their opportunity to spread hate.
"You are rude and racist," I said to her.
She grew more belligerent and demanded I stop talking. "Get away from me,” she screamed.
“Are you ashamed of yourself for being so blatantly racist?” I asked, “You should be.”
She stood by her hate. She stood by her words and justified it.
"I'm scared. Okay,” she shouted back to me. “I'm scared for myself and I'm scared for my family. Stay away from me. Don't come near me."
Her turn in line was up. This was the end of our exchange and she entered Whole Foods with her head held high like nothing had happened. Groceries - check. Xenophobia- check; as if this was just another day during the pandemic.
Being scared does not excuse racism. Racism will not protect her or the family she is so scared for. Would any of this click with her?
I understand how frightening the world is today. There is instability in the present and uncertainty for the future. Thousands are gravely ill and dying every day, people are losing their jobs and children cannot go to school. It is scary - that I can wholeheartedly agree with.
What else scares me is the audacity she had to be so hateful in public - as if it was a shameless act. Most of the people in line were silent and looked down at their shoes, one laughed and one noted how loud she was - but nobody corrected her.
My dose of racism did not stop with that face-to-face encounter. As the virus spreads, so does Anti-Chinese movements online. Racist keyboard warriors are rampant - spreading rumours about the Chinese community, mocking our appearance and dehumanizing us by calling us filthy, diseased animals.
With the global effect of the pandemic, prejudice against the Chinese community is stronger than ever through the power of cyber-racism and a xenophobic world leader who pushes to racialize the virus.
There are reports worldwide of Asians being assaulted, spit on, refused from businesses and kicked out of taxis in the middle of the highway. Racist commenters applaud these actions and hope the same happens in their community.
Fellow mothers in a local Facebook moms group have warned each other to avoid eating Chinese Food to protect themselves from the virus. “I bet they serve bats instead of chicken. Disgusting,” another mother added to one of the many derogatory posts.
Every day I scroll through my social media feed and see a growing surge of insensitive posts online. The GIFs and memes shared by friends and acquaintances may not appear to be overtly racist, but sharing them normalizes and condones racism - I, too, am guilty of this.
There is a meme circulating about ‘things that feel wrong but should not.’ Coughing while Asian is one of them. I wish I could laugh at this, but it is not ‘just a joke’, it is reality.
I would go as far as to say, in my experience at Whole Foods, coughing while Asian was not the issue, it was simply existing.
In times of crisis, we can work to be more kind and sensitive to each other. As a deadly virus spreads viciously through the world, there is heightened fear, panic and growing uncertainty.
Hate can be contagious - let’s not condone, but condemn racist responses to the pandemic. There are enough worries in this chaotic time - racism should not be one of them.
Chelsea Shim Sharma
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