The importance of thinking more carefully about our language

In early June, a student posted a video of a woman yelling at Chinese workers in a Scarborough Foody Mart. The woman can be heard saying, “Go back to China,” and repeating that it is the law to know English if you work in Canada—a claim which is untrue for private businesses.

Racist verbal abuse isn’t always so blatant, but it is all too common, and the majority of racist comments don’t make the news. I’ve received blatantly racist and careless remarks my whole life. In my driver’s education course, a couple of years back, my teacher randomly pointed to every five students to demonstrate a statistic of those who will experience car crashes, and when he pointed at me, one student exclaimed, “Of course the Asian one will!”

However, being mixed-race, I see issues of race through a rather unique lens. People say things to or in front of me that they would not say to a fully-white or a fully-Asian person.

I think that even mildly racist or thoughtless comments about East Asians sit in such an uncomfortable spot for me because my identification with the term “Asian” is seen as being up for debate.

When you are white, or you pass as white, you have the privilege of not having to constantly define and justify yourself to other people. I find myself often defined by the fact that I am not white because I am not fully white.

I’m often asked: “What are you?” or “Are you half?” by strangers, and often before I’m even asked for my name. I’m asked about my ethnicity so frequently when first meeting people, it has become my go-to “weird or fun fact about me” during icebreaker games—it’s a cycle.

One of my close friends, who is not Asian, recently said something interesting to me: “You’re Asian, but you’re not really Asian.” This wasn’t because I’m half-Estonian in addition to being half-Japanese, but because my family does not abide by traditional, or stereotypical, East Asian cultural practices. It seemed, to her, as though the ethnicity of being East Asian is defined separately from identifying with East Asian culture. “Asian” in this case referred to specifically East Asian stereotypical behaviour.

Someone else once told me, “I feel like your mom is like my mom, but the Asian version.” Somehow, my mom’s Japanese background impeded the similarities between her and my friend’s mom—ironic, considering that the Japanese side of my family repressed their culture and hid their ancestry to fit into Canadian society. My grandparents did not want my mom and her siblings to have accents. My grandfather escaped being interned as a child, and encountered racism during his teaching career. To impose “Asian” stereotypes onto my mom erases the history of cultural repression our ancestors faced.

Racism and stereotyping directed towards East Asians is rampant in comparison to the amount of discussion there is about it. Why is no one talking about the frequent and socially-accepted racist or stereotype-ridden remarks made towards and about East Asians?

Perhaps it is lack of education about East Asian repression that is to blame. Who, in my generation, actually knows anything about the Japanese Canadian internment camps, property confiscation, and deportation during World War II on the Canadian West coast? Why does this seem to be left out of discussions of WWII and Canadian history?

In my experience, the word “Asian” itself seems to change meaning depending on the social context and who is speaking. It’s common to hear both Asian and non-Asian friends say things like, “That’s so Asian,” “that Asian guy,” “These Asians are…” or even “They’re [insert complimentary adjective here], for an Asian.”

I remember when one of my friends, who is Korean, was asked about what he looks like without his glasses. He took them off, blushed, then said, “I look really Asian without my glasses,” and quickly put them back on.

It’s as though you can be Asian, but not too Asian. You can identify with the culture, as long as you denounce it once in a while.

What’s even more interesting, and perhaps problematic, is that mocking East Asian stereotypes and self-identifying with these stereotypes is often a main topic of conversation amongst a lot of my East Asian friends. Conversations often gravitate towards making fun of their family traditions or mocking their parents’ accents. It’s as though the imposed stereotypes have become a source of bonding.

When East Asians themselves use “Asian” jokes or references to be cool or funny, it contributes to the heritage of East Asian repression by giving other people the impression that this language is permissible for them to use. When someone says something dehumanizing, stereotypical, racist, or incorrect about Asians, they may not be deliberately trying to be malicious, but their words will foster the acceptance of this type of language in other people. The more we speak up and counter racist comments, the more we inspire and encourage others to do the same.