How Should We Respond to Anti-Asian Racism?

Date Published: 19th March 2021

I’m a second-generation immigrant. I’m ethnically Chinese, and my parents both emigrated from Singapore initially for university. I spent the first half of my childhood in a relatively white area of Scotland (Glasgow) and the second half in a relatively Indian area of England (Leicestershire). Of course this meant in both places I was very much in the ethnic minority. Other than my immediate family, I only had a handful of Chinese friends, and elsewhere in society, I saw very few influential figures in the media, or in education, or on TV, who looked like me. Furthermore, I have spent my whole life being asked “Where are you from?… No, where are you actually from?”, been repeatedly mistaken for other Chinese males, and have been the butt of a fair few explicitly racist jokes pertaining to our eye shapes, or similar appearances, or the presumption that we all do martial arts and play the piano.

However, it may be surprising to hear, but none of the things I have mentioned above have ever really bothered me.

I have never really cared about the paucity of Chinese Hollywood actors or Members of Parliament- these are industries I have never wanted to be involved in myself. I quite enjoyed the fact that my skin colour was unique at school. I find it quite amusing that people get me mixed with other Asian doctors at work. And I know I fulfil a lot of the stereotypes, being a Chinese doctor who learned the piano and martial arts as a child.

I have since wondered why these society prejudices (and occasional explicit racism) didn’t bother me growing up. I think in large part, it was because I never really saw my race as the primary source of my identity. As a child I put my identity much more in my grade and talents, and then in my latter teens, in my Christian faith. Race was only another attribute of mine, not my primary identity.

But then 2020 happened, and things began to change. I’m sure we all remember when the news began to break that a novel virus was spreading through the Chinese city of Wuhan, which had pandemic potential. Soon, slurs such as “China virus” and “Kung Flu” were coming out of the United States White House. And then on 3rd March 2020 a Singaporean student was assaulted on Oxford Street, a few steps away from my church, by four men shouting “coronavirus” in what the Metropolitan Police described as a “racially aggravated” attack1. At the time, I was working in a GP practice in North London, and was suffering from a runny nose and sore throat.

March 2020 was the first time in my life that I began to feel self-conscious about my skin colour. I began sensing that people were giving me odd looks at work when I blew my nose, or getting a little shifty when I walked into a kebab shop. I may have been over-interpreting events around me, but if nothing else, I was certainly feeling self-conscious about my race.

Over the last year, there has been a huge increase in reported “hate crimes” against Asians in America, with the United Nations stating that there was “an alarming level” of racially motivated acts of violence against Asian Amerians2. The UK has seen a similar pattern, with the Metropolitan Police reporting a substantial rise in racially-aggravated violence and discrimination against Oriental individuals in 20203. And this week, all this came to a tragic head. On Tuesday evening (UK time) a white gunman shot dead 6 Asian women in multiple spas in Atlanta, Georgia4. The shockwaves of Tuesday’s events are still being felt, especially in Asian communities, with many taking to the streets to express their grief and fury at the hate and violence experience by Asians, especially during this pandemic.

How Should We Respond?

So how should we respond to the tragic events of the last week, and the broader rise in racially aggravated violence against Asians?

Black Lives Matter have accomplished an enormous amount of good in raising awareness of racial injustices, and fighting for political reform in institutions such as the US police force. However, I am unsure about some of their policies such as unconscious bias training and positive discrimination. As far as I’m aware, there is no evidence that unconscious bias training actually works. And positive discrimination begins to break down when you realise that Asians often out-perform their white counterparts on many classical “success” indices (such as grades, salaries, boardroom places etc.). However, more importantly, I think all of these policies are simply sticking plasters that don’t really address the roots of the problem. As we reflect on the events of the last week and of the last year, I think it is worth diving deeper into the foundations of racial equality.

The Roots of Racial Equality

Looking historically, I would suggest that the racial-equality movements have deeply Christian foundations. Many civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Junior and Desmond Tutu were devout Christian preachers. The American Founding Fathers enshrined equality in the Declaration of Independence because they believed “all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. And the very invention of Universal Human Rights can be traced to the Christian Canon Lawyers of the Medieval period, who believed all people are equal because they all bear the image of God. In other words, the racial-equality campaigns have been historically rooted in the Christian beliefs that all people are endowed with equal value and are part of a global family. This appeal to our “common humanity” is something that I think is lacking in the current public discourse around race, and yet I think it is one of the most important principles on which modern society is built.

Critical Race Theory frames society as an institutionalised struggle between white supremacist oppressors, and the ethnic minority oppressed groups who need to fight for their liberation. There is some truth in this. However, what I think is missing from this narrative is our common humanity. The shooting of the six Asian women in Atlanta was utterly tragic; but it wasn’t simply tragic because of their race, or indeed because of their gender or innocence. Their murder was tragic because each victim was one of us. They were part of our human family. They are us.

That’s not to say that I don’t find the events in Atlanta personally crushing, as six people belonging to my race were targeted and killed. Of course, my race makes me feel the devastation all the more acutely. But I think our mourning should firstly be because we have lost valued members of our human family- they were us, sharing in our common humanity.

Weirdly, Covid should have helped us see our common humanity. This single virus threatens all of our lives, around the world and across every part society. I have found myself marvelling at how I have had exactly the same conversations about lockdown, working-from-home and vaccines with friends in America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Surely if one thing could show us our common humanity, it would be Covid! And yet the pandemic seems to have done the exact opposite. Covid has heightened racial tensions, highlighted societal disparities and cultivated nationalism. Covid appears to have made us forget our common humanity.

Thus, rather than framing race issues as a fight between black and white, I think we should be instilling in our society and in our young people, the idea of common humanity- that we are all valuable, diverse and equal members of the human family. We should treat others well not simply because of their race, but because they are one of us.

Conclusion

I am grieving and praying for the families of those women horrifically killed in Atlanta, as I am sure many people are. These sorts of attacks should never happen and we have got to do all we can to stop them happening again. And we are seeing an epidemic of racial tensions and hate crimes against racial minorities that warrant the strongest condemnations.

So as the events of the past week make us take another painful look at racism, maybe we need to go back Western society’s Christian roots, and particularly to the idea that we are all valuable and equal parts of a human family. Perhaps we can take a step toward equality by re-instilling the belief in our common humanity.

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-51722686
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56218684
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-racism-hate-crime-south-east-asians-b1770177.html
  4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56433181