On March 16, six Asian women were among eight people shot to death in an attack on spas and massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia. This tragedy focused attention on the plight of migrant sex workers in North America; it was also the most heinous example of the ongoing violent attacks on people of Asian descent that have escalated globally since the beginning of the pandemic.
Following the Atlanta massacre, many rallies, seminars and discussions have taken place across the world and at U of T itself. Notable among these was the Community Roundtable on Anti-Asian Racism and Intersectional Violence, a webinar held on March 26. With well over 500 registrants and hundreds of subsequent viewers on YouTube, the roundtable exemplified the strong interest shown by the U of T community in this topic.
The event — organized by the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Women & Gender Studies Institute and the Department of Sociology — was moderated by Hae Yeon Choo, associate professor of sociology at UTM and the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy; and Robert Diaz, associate professor of transnational feminisms, globalization and sexuality studies at the Women & Gender Studies Institute.
Speakers included Justin Kong from the Chinese Canadian National Council; Rick Sin from the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance; and Elene Lam of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network.
The discussion is ultimately about building power. How do we build and support it in the community? And what does it mean to be in a society where labour isn’t respected and is devalued?
In their introduction to the speakers, Diaz and Choo underlined that anti-Asian violence in North America is far from new. It is in fact, as Choo said, “embedded in a colonial history that has treated Asians as perpetual foreigners who do not belong but whose labour is very much needed.” They also pointed out that the Atlanta murders must be viewed through an intersectional lens: they are reflective not only of structural racism, but sexism and classism as well.
Elene Lam’s organization, Butterfly, was founded in 2014 with the aim of providing support to Asian and migrant sex workers. At the roundtable, Lam enumerated the various ways such workers are vulnerable.
“Every year we have workers in the sex industry being murdered,” she said. “It’s happening everywhere, not only in the U.S. but many places in Canada as well.” While sex work has been decriminalized here, workers often cannot access traditional forms of support offered to other business owners. Lam says they are frequently fined and assaulted, and that police — who should be in the business of protecting them — often victimize them further through arrest and deportation. Anti-trafficking organizations nominally seek to protect sex workers, but condescendingly work to shut down their main source of livelihood due to what Lam calls “moral panic.”
As executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, Justin Kong also supports and advocates for Asian workers and community members. Many of these have seen their businesses vandalized since the pandemic started; essential workers — such as those in grocery stores — have been repeatedly exposed to COVID-19 and deprived of sick leave and fair pay.
Attacks on seniors have been particularly tragic and such incidents often go unreported unless caught on video by bystanders. Said Kong, “The discussion is ultimately about building power. How do we build and support it in the community? And what does it mean to be in a society where labour isn’t respected and is devalued?”
In addition to his work as co-chair of the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, Rick Sin teaches social work at York University. He reaffirmed the historical nature of anti-Asian racism in Canada, pointing out its resurgence due to events in the news.
Empathy cannot only mean mourning. Empathy must also become militancy. It must become a demand for social change … to mourn, and to demand immediate change for the oppressed, must always coexist.
Right now, geopolitical tensions between North America and China, as well as COVID-19’s racist designation as the “China virus,” are perceived to be intensifying assaults that have never really stopped since the start of Asian immigration to Canada in the 18th century. Sin said that modern anti-racism — compared to its more blatant antecedent — is more about the denial of racism, which can be a more powerful engine than racism itself.
He also said that Canada’s fabled multiculturalism is not necessarily a protective force, as cultural distinctions between Asian groups mean little to racists. “We are sharing the same space, vis-à-vis white nationalism,” he stated. “We are not being targeted because of our cultural heritage but because we look alike.”
Following the presentation, many attendees asked what actions are currently being taken against anti-Asian racism. According to the speakers, these have been many and varied.
In May, for example, Kong’s organization will produce a survey reporting on the experiences of hundreds of Chinese-Canadian workers in the Greater Toronto Area. During the pandemic, Butterfly has been active in raising emergency funds to support sex workers. And on April 2, Choo and Diaz published a column in Inside Higher Ed calling for continual challenges to anti-Asian racism in the curricula and institutional structures of post-secondary institutions.
While empathy with the victims of the March 16 and other attacks is necessary, Diaz affirmed that it must not stand alone.
“Empathy cannot only mean mourning,” he said. “Empathy must also become militancy. It must become a demand for social change … to mourn, and to demand immediate change for the oppressed, must always coexist.”