The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Indifference…is the epitome of evil.
--Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Laureate.
My first reaction to elderly Asians being assaulted was outrage, sadness, and disappointment. Outrage and disappointment that at this point in our history in North America, this is happening, and sadness for our elder generation that has already gone through so much more racial discrimination in their lifetimes, while trying to pave a better life for us. The central tenet of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation of immigrant Chinese was to provide for family, often making clear personal and material sacrifices with complete dedication to provide for the next generation. They deserve better, and outrage is simply not enough. What can we do that is actionable and that will make a difference long-term?
I am no authority on these issues; however, I found it beneficial to learn from those who have experienced tragedy, emerged stronger, and advocated effectively in the past, and I came across the importance of vanquishing indifference. The venerable Dr. Wiesel’s insightful quote is that the opposite of being moved into action by love is not hate, it is indifference. Bystander indifference, he argues, is what allowed the atrocities of the Holocaust to happen. Like those two security guards who closed the door as an elderly Asian woman heading to church was viciously attacked in NYC. These are the first steps of indifference that can lead to normalized hate. Those who do nothing and allow things to happen become culpable, an accessory to the fact, and enablers of hate crimes.
We need to prevent indifference both in regards to and within the Asian community. If we don’t do anything actionable, then we are functionally indifferent ourselves, and are similarly responsible when this becomes more pervasive, which it will continue to, left unchecked. It is common in our culture to be encouraged to rein-in confrontational thoughts, to keep them to ourselves, to stay in our own lane, and not to complain too vociferously. This is a different time. While our collective Buddhist pedigree prides itself on equanimity, this is sometimes misinterpreted with the “near enemy” of indifference. Compassion however, is what compels us to act.
Indeed, it seems true that indifference can be more dangerous than hatred, which itself can be addressed more directly when it arises. Indifference facilitates the growth of hate. It is true that to the affected group, indifference is arguably the worst position to take, because it actively denies their existence. We need to persuade the silent majority, those who do not have a direct stake in our wellbeing, to care, and have compassion that moves them.
I would submit that it starts with education:
1. We need to recognize all incidences of racism and hate, call it out by name when it happens, and support those advocating against it: so that those who perpetrate it are held accountable, and all can see that what they’re doing is wrong. It starts with the small transgressions, the lack of respect and mis-pronunciation of a name like with the current Vice-President’s, the plausibly deniable dog whistles of the previous administration, and the slant-eye gestures I’ve personally seen parents make in front of their kids. It all needs to be documented, recorded and reported before it rises to the level of a criminal offence, otherwise what does it tell their kids? That some forms of racism are okay and tolerated? It is our responsibility not to let it go, and to recognize and educate others as well as ourselves when it is pervasive and subversive. The key is to prevent an escalation to the level of a hate crime. It’s a slippery slope. Bystander indifference is the exact sentiment expressed by the Captain of the police force in the Atlanta shootings, whose statement to the press outrageously resonated with the killer, allowing the mainstream press to plausibly deny a clearly misogynistic and racially motivated hate crime killing spree. Indifference is what allows hate to grow. It allows hate to be normalized.
For the current movement against Asian racism to have lasting impact, we need to stop underestimating its pervasiveness, and our effort to counter it has to be inclusive. Fundamentally, calling attention to verbal transgressions is not about being politically correct, it's about being respectful to a person’s humanity. While it can feel frustrating and exhausting, it requires genuine effort and vigilance, and ultimately, that effort helps everyone. Nothing good, worthwhile or useful is ever easy. Even if we assume that the majority of people are well meaning, racism is nevertheless not uncommon, and at the very least tolerated. In addition, as elections have highlighted, majorities themselves can be precarious, sometimes floating at a tenuous 50.1%, and if we are not vigilant, complacency allows the other 49.9% to swing social norms in the other direction quite easily. What is socially acceptable is a choice, and we need to choose wisely.
Anti-hate messaging needs to be about more than retributive justice for crimes – which we definitely do need to achieve. It is that it also has to persuade others, who might not look Asian, to care too. Our metric needs to be that the reaction a non-East Asian person has when they see the face of the young man who assaulted the elderly Asian woman, should be equivalent to what we, as Asians feel when we see a Neo-Nazi sympathizer with a swastika verbally assaulting someone because of their race and religion. The “ch”-word needs to be recognized on the same level of zero tolerance as the n-word when referring to blacks. Collective social norms start at the local level. Silence amplifies haters and indifference denies our existence and eventually leads others to see us as less human.
2. We need to address Asian racism at an infrastructure level, and that needs to begin with schools: Growing up, I was woefully ignorant of the history of the Chinese Head Tax leveraged in Canada – it was never taught in school. Isolated by social media and polarized news venues, schools are one of the last shared educational experiences, and this needs to include learning about North America’s racist past, specifically against the Chinese because it was so pervasive that it was actually institutionalized into federal law.
Immediately after helping build the Canadian Pacific Railway, the backbone of a nascent country with blood, sweat and tears, the Chinese were the only ethnic group targeted for an immigration tax. This Chinese Head Tax ultimately amounted to 2 years’ worth of wages and culminated in the even more racist Chinese Immigration Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese immigration until 1948 in Canada. In the U.S., America had similar Page and Chinese Exclusion Acts that lasted until 1965. This is why it’s especially heart-breaking that elderly Chinese from that same generation are now being racially targeted and assaulted, because they have already borne the brunt of so much of North America’s racist past. They lived their lives with their heads down and worked hard, always on their best behaviour to represent, so that other people wouldn't assume that our cultures were anything other than the most civilized. To know this is also to realize and recognize that it can and has happened here already, not that long ago, and that we need to be vigilant about it.
We need to aim for these facts to be taught from the primary school level, and we have brothers and sisters who also want to make sure that slavery, the Holocaust and other atrocities associated with racism are taught as well in parallel. While tolerance-training is important in its own right, we need to go further, to teach historical facts, so that people understand that Asian racism was so pervasive that not less than one generation ago, both Canada and the U.S. legally institutionalized racism against the Chinese.
If flat-earthers have followers who vehemently deny that the world is round, it’s terrifying to see what other irrefutable facts are challenged in a post-truth, social-media siloed era. It’s a dangerous time when algorithms isolate our collective experiences. We need to teach incontrovertible evidence and facts that yes, racism can and does happen here in North America, because spurred on by a populist leader, history can repeat itself. The fact that a defeated racist still has influence and support means that this disease is still deeply ingrained in the fabric of society.
And what about those parents making slant-eye gestures? Even if the parents are too far gone, educating their children and their friends means that at least their peers might help to keep them in check to stop its metastatic growth into the next generation.
3. We need to support communities and cultural institutions that educate and advocate against indifference: Our generation is fortunate in that many of these already exist, so that we can build on the shoulders of those who risked so much more than us. I am humbled by what those before us have achieved. They have advocated so that issues like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Head Tax have been repealed with formal apologies, and acknowledged by both governments. They have tirelessly educated and promoted a love of our language and culture and invited others to join our communities as we have theirs. Seeing friends of Jewish and European heritage not only participate, but also become involved as directors and advocates of our culture in art, music and film at the Chinese Cultural Center (CCC) is heartwarming. The Mon Sheong Foundation teaches language and culture to a multicultural community including non-Asians, and places like Yee Hong, while providing culturally specific care, also serve and help to address the elder needs of non-Chinese communities as well, helping to build bridges. In our generation, Fete Chinoise has helped to spread the appreciation of our culture to a new audience in an inclusive experiential celebration and an evolving modern aesthetic. There are, of course, many more across North America, I’ve only mentioned examples that I've had the privilege of witnessing first hand. We need to strengthen these bonds while we help each other in this increasingly polarized, algorithm-filtered world. Equally important is the generous philanthropic donations and contributions by leaders who have provided the financial foundations to help these institutions develop and impact our communities.
Love for the human condition and a passion to teach breeds compassion on all sides, and a community doesn’t have to be political or even focused on race to make an impact on indifference. I am grateful that when I look at the places and people I love and admired growing up, that there were few places I felt as much love and compassion as at my Sifu’s dojo. We all enthusiastically came back every week because we were inspired by the warmth of his consideration, his passion for teaching, his inclusivity of all cultures and lineages, and his ability to build bridges with everyone. He built such a compassionate and inclusive family, that it has been a source of lifelong friends who are Italian, Greek, Macedonian, Filipino, English, South African and Chinese; friends who all gathered together with a mutual respect and passion for learning the arts, the culture and the comradery of being in a community that was greater than its parts. Witnessing their love of our culture and our love of theirs was such an incredibly beautiful thing; it builds bridges and fuels compassion for each other.
4. We need to support cultural representation that educates others to see us as individuals: Representation in movies, music and popular media is important, so that others are less likely to paint all Asians with the same brush, or to see us as cultural monoliths represented by the politics of a nation.
For example, it is encouraging that Marvel is about to have their first Asian hero headline a movie as the protagonist. Audiences identify with the protagonist, and so it allows others to see us as individuals and humanizes us in so far as we are all singular persons living the human experience, each with our own hopes, dreams and fears. I’ve bought streaming sitcoms I don’t have time to watch because I want to support that cause. We need to cultivate and support more writers, directors and actors of all cultures, to show their truths, so I’m encouraged that the winner of the current Academy Award for best director this year was Asian, and that the all-Asian cast of Parasite won the best picture award last year. Every time someone sees an Asian character on screen as an individual with distinct thoughts, passions and desires, we’ve moved against indifference. We’re not all the same, and that is why education to see each of our unique truths through media and stories is important.
While we need others to see us as individuals, Asians must also stand up for each other instead of evading criticism in a way that reinforces the stereotypes of other Asians. It’s not uncommon to hear, “well, I’m different because I’m from Hong Kong, (or from Taiwan, or Diaspora, or from mainland China), so we’re different, and so that criticism doesn’t apply to me”. That attitude needs to be called out, because to those who are indifferent, that type of behaviour only reinforces certain stereotypes. We also need to be supportive of each other, and not let politicians manipulate us against each other – even Asian politicians, because sometimes as individuals, they may serve nothing more than simply as a supremist’s “running-lapdog”. It’s important to see the big picture and the long-term implications on all of those short-term political feuds.
5. We need to work together with compassion to help others on shared issues: Whenever crisis strikes, the first instinct is self-preservation, and social media has magnified those differences and created pockets of polarization and hate, fueled by political baiting. Although the pandemic has been difficult physically, financially and psychologically on many, it also presents the opportunity to demonstrate our compassion to each other, to build bridges and to move hearts. The CCC has a Stronger Together campaign that strives to do this. We are not alone; unfortunately, many other groups also face discrimination, and by pursuing mutual causes and having compassion for their individual needs, we can all be stronger together.
Anti-Asian sentiments are likely to increase in the next decade, as the US struggles to compete with China economically, politically and technologically. Some will try to lay blame, paint all Asians as similar scapegoats, and won’t hesitate to commit hate crimes indiscriminately against any who happen to be accessible. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American murdered in a hate crime because he was mistaken for being Japanese in the background of a rising Japanese economy taking over the American auto-manufacturing industry in the 1980’s. This time, the economic repercussions of the pandemic will likely be greater and much more widespread.
Although we are finally beginning to see more representation in mainstream outlets, the increasing siloing of media with on-demand streaming, algorithm-driven platforms and polarized news outlets is decreasing the shared cross-cultural experiences of mainstream media; we need to do more to connect with others on a meaningful level. As Covid-19 is likely to become endemic, in another initiative that the CCC has applied for is that we hope to make plans to help educate to address vaccine hesitancy and aid with the vaccination effort, not only among Chinese, but among all the multicultural members of the community.
We sit on the precipice of a watershed moment in history, because desperation breeds selfish instincts. While economic mutual reliance is what kept countries together these past 2 decades, the economic repercussions of the pandemic and new political tensions threaten to pit China against the U.S, and those who are indifferent or ignorant would lump all Asians together. Countries hoarding vaccines and trying to protect their own supply chains, increased disparity between haves and have-nots, interrupted social connections, and a dearth of in-person festivals, concerts, and celebrations, decreases the shared experience of humanity. The irony of all this, is that regardless where or who we are in the world, our fate is intimately interconnected; we are fighting a shared enemy in Covid-19, even if it feels like we’re each doing it in isolation. The real enemy is not the other, it’s the lack of compassion for each other. Caring for those more vulnerable, older, sicker, poorer countries or communities is actually in our self-interests. If they don’t receive the vaccines necessary to stem the tide of disease, more virulent mutations will arise in those places and they will continue to be reintroduced into our more privileged “isolated” societies. The world, and all of humanity is vulnerable together.
Ultimately, when we will prevail, my hope is that we’ll do it together, with more compassion and hopefully a stronger appreciation and connection to each other to vanquish the indifferent. Scarcity leads to fractured self-interests, but with love and compassion, we can educate to move hearts and emerge from this stronger together. We are one world, it is delicate, intimately connected, it lives in isolation, and it needs one love.
"In the End, we will remember not the words of enemies, but the silence of our friends." Martin Luther King Jr.
This article is also distributed through Fete Chinoise.