When traditional power structures are threatened, fear is one byproduct. Opportunity for real change is another
An anti-racism demonstration in Montreal on Oct. 7, 2018. ‘We must accept that the hate crimes and interpersonal racism we are witnessing are part of much larger systems of racism.’
When the first reports of a new virus emerged from China, it was like hearing the first fizzle of a lit fuse. When COVID-19 exploded, wreaking havoc on our habits and ways of life, melting down the economy as we know it and heightening anxieties and fears, the boom reverberated around the world.
Through the dust and the smoke, fear is manifesting in racism, violence and discrimination. In many crises we see the same pattern — violence occurs when and where power and control are threatened. We can see this phenomenon not only in the rash of racist violence in our communities, but also in the spikes of domestic violence within our homes.
Indeed, the pandemic does threaten entrenched power, both individual and systemic. It has made many of us much more aware of the inherent fallibility of our bodies, our habits, our social structures. The fear has some of us falling back on old racist tropes— the hallmarks of human hierarchy.
While this moment has created a flashpoint for anti-Asian racism in our communities, it is not new. Racism — specifically anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism — has a long history in Canada. From the Chinese head tax to the Chinese exclusion tax, anti-Chinese racism has been embedded in the power structures of our country for generations.
If we are to successfully challenge its manifestations, we must accept that the hate crimes and interpersonal racism we are witnessing are part of much larger systems of racism. We must understand these incidents of hate within the context of power and marginalization that are deeply entrenched in Canadian society. When we recognize these incidents as embedded in bigger structures, we can see that the solutions must be transformative of those very structures.
This can feel like an insurmountable task. The rash of racist violence sweeping British Columbia has left so many of us — myself included — at times afraid, infuriated, or both. As B.C.’s human rights commissioner, I have more responsibility and more tools than most to fight the rising tide of hate, and yet I find myself at times immobilized in the face of such senseless violence.
But I also believe that transformative, disruptive change is more possible now than it has been in my lifetime, because there is a flip side to the chaos of disruption at this scale. When our traditional structures of power are threatened, fear is one byproduct and opportunity for real change is another.
Much of what this crisis has brought has been painful but there is also been a groundswell of collective caring and courageous action. People are buying groceries for their elderly neighbours and running errands for people they’ve only just met through social media connections.
Governments at all levels have swiftly enacted programs to support those affected by the pandemic including housing the homeless, getting financial aid to those who need it, and delivering public health initiatives in new and innovative ways. What we are accomplishing together right now is showing us all what we are truly capable of. I believe the same transformative change is called for in response to the rise in racism that we are witnessing.
The boom we heard when this crisis began may well have marked the end of the world as we know it. Despite the fear, or maybe because of it, we are left with pivotal questions: How much is possible when we find ourselves in a moment where nothing operates as usual? What opportunities does this crisis give us to make transformational change to the structures of racism and white supremacy that underpin these incidents? Can our shared human fragility ultimately make us stronger as a society?
Canada protests police violence, racism in shadow of U.S. tumult
Black Lives Matter – Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson (centre) with Jordan Monroe (left) and Pascale Diverlus (right) outside Toronto police headquarters at a protest in 2016. Photo by Paige Gallette
Protests against police brutality spread from the United States to Canada over the weekend, sparked in part by last week’s death of a young Black woman in Toronto, as critics argue that systemic racism festers just as deeply here.
Thousands of people took to Toronto’s streets on Saturday, while similar events took place in Montreal, Vancouver and other Canadian cities this weekend, and more are planned.
The protests come amid a week of tense confrontations in cities across the United States, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who spent the last eight minutes of his life pleading with a Minneapolis police officer to take his knee off Floyd’s neck.