Disclaimer: The following contains language that may be uncomfortable or not suitable for all audiences. Reader discretion is advised

I know. You want me to tell you that the Atlanta shooting was not racially motivated. I know. You want me to say, “He was a psychopath or a sociopath or had mental health issues, or just plain evil, but it had nothing to do with race.” It seems like being a “racist killer” is more taboo than being a killer at all. I mean, who would have thought that we rank our killers now. “Oh, he just killed eight people just because he bat-shit crazy” seems less inflammatory than “Oh, he killed eight Asian women because he’s a racist white supremacist.” Why is that? Seriously, ask yourself: Why does it bother you so much the “type” of murderer this man is? Why is it that you’re triggered when one says his crime was racially motivated but cringe less when you hear that his crime was because he is mentally unstable? Because to say that it was racially motivated makes you uncomfortable. Sure. But why? There’s no shame in admitting that it makes you feel awkward hearing that a “white” man killed eight people, six of whom were Asian. It’s part of the process of digesting information. Every time I hear news of ISIS, I stir uncomfortably and wish for a minute I was some Atheist from Sweden. This is because we each represent a larger group of people with whom we share common elements, whether physical, spiritual or intellectual. Whether we know it or not, like it or not, we’re part of these groups. Some common groups include race, nationality, gender, religion, and the list goes on as the groups get smaller and more specific. Most of us aim to be the best representation of our “group.” And so when a member of our group makes us look bad, we try to:

  1. Justify it to soften the blow.
  2. Distance ourselves from it.
  3. Default to the famous phrases, “but not all of us are like that,” and “this doesn’t represent us.”

On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long shot and killed eight people at three spas in the Atlanta area, six of whom were Asian. He was taken into custody later that day, alive and unharmed. Instinctively, you want to say that this was so random. But a serial murder at three spa and massage parlours should hardly be taken out of context and considered “random.” It’s common knowledge that most spas and salons are managed by people of colour, Asian (women) in particular. Do you still think it was just because he was having a bad day? Do you still want to pretend that white people don’t have a racism, intolerance, and hate problem? Let’s take another example: On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the name of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant). You didn’t have to think twice about this being a hate crime. Robert Aaron Long going on a shooting spree at spas and murdering these Asian women is just as much a hate crime. It doesn’t matter if he killed one Asian or 100 Asians; Long’s crime was racially motivated. It’s interesting how easy it is for the media to take to the narrative that crimes committed by Muslims are terrorist in-nature, that Black people are thugs, and that Hispanics are part of drug cartels; however, the moment a white person commits a crime, it’s because they were [insert justification here]. Who decided these narratives? The Media.

The media is not your friend

He who controls the media controls the minds of the public

Noam Chomsky

I can’t speak to Asians’ experiences. And so, I’m going to draw on my experience with racism, hate and intolerance to help you understand and empathize with the amount of hate they have been receiving for decades, if not a century, and especially this year.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks – inside job or not, although we all know it was definitely the former – was one of the most devastating events (if not the most) to happen in the United States. It’s been almost 20 years, and it still hurts deeply to think about it, whether or not it directly impacted our lives. This attack changed the course of every Western Muslim then, now and later. The media decided that day that we were all terrorists. A Muslim woman protested her right to wear a hijab in a Quebec court? Terrorist. A Muslim man decides to pray in a mosque on Fridays? Terrorist. A Muslim kid stole a chocolate bar at the M&M store? Terrorist. Somehow, it wasn’t just some kid shoplifting; we were tied to a terrorist group.

I was 12 years old when 9/11 happened. I was walking back home early for lunch from school and witness the second plane as I walked into the house. My mother was standing about three feet from the TV, holding my baby sister, staring with wide eyes and jaw dropped. She let out a little scream when the second plane hit the towers. I went to stand next to her, scared and confused. At the time, I wore a hijab. Little did I know I would soon be a visible target for years to come. Shortly after the events, kids at school would pull off my hijab to see “if I had hair.” They would taunt me with questions like, “Does your dad wear a turban? Is your dad a terrorist?” One time, I was walking back home with a Palestinian descent friend, and this one jerk kept chanting Paki behind us. Children don’t simply know how to harass other kids; they learn this behaviour at home. I was traumatized by this experience. At 12 years old, I had already experienced different forms of harassment and had been dismissed and told I was lying, exaggerating, or that it was my fault. The last thing I needed was for people to group me with terrorist groups because of my religious beliefs. 

I was 20 (2009) when I joined the Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) student summer program. This was the most exciting job I had ever held, and at 20, I knew how important this role was and appreciated the trust the CBSA instilled in me to help manage the border at Pearson International Airport. There were about 30 or so of us students working the primary line that summer. There was a white male student who called me “sketch bag” instead of my actual name. He would gather a few students and walk by my booth and cough “sketch bag,” and then he and his friends would laugh. The context was that my clearance was taking longer to process because I lived in another country within the five years I submitted my clearance application. However, this individual decided that it was because I’m Arab/North African, so they had to make sure I wasn’t a terrorist. In retrospect, I should have asked him to stop immediately. Instead, I shrugged it off and laughed because I was afraid of making it uncomfortable FOR HIM to work. I made myself uncomfortable, so he didn’t have to.

I was also scared of getting in trouble because it wasn’t clear whether or not this was considered harassment at the time. Eventually, the student officer harassing me started to push the boundaries further and asked rhetorically, “Who in their right mind would hire a Muslim to work in an airport?” I mustered up the courage to tell him to stop at this point, but he didn’t seem to understand how uncomfortable it made me or cared. Finally, the last straw was when he called me over and said, “Hey Hazar! Would you O* if Osama Bin Laden blew up WestJet right now?” Interestingly, that wasn’t even the worst or most painful part of my experience. The worst part of all was watching my colleagues, people of colour, laugh with him, ever so nervously, but still standing there… laughing.

Microaggressions are seeds that reaffirm and validate our biases. We’re all guilty of this. When you call someone a “sketch bag” and they don’t tell you that that’s NOT OK, you take the win and see if you can push the boundaries; increase the dose if you will. It’s no different than a traveller smuggling an ounce of drugs and getting away with it the first time; they increase the amount the next time they travel because they got away with it the first time. The media is a microaggressive machine. It decides for you who is good and evil and how you should perceive a group of people. They don’t care who gets hurt in the process because they’re a capitalist conglomerate. Their message in 2001 was ever subtle but received as it should have by White America: 9/11 was a Muslim terrorist attack; therefore, all Muslims are terrorists. They don’t have to spell it out for you. They provide you with the dots, and you connect them the way you want to

Asian hate is real

Asians have been belittled, disrespected, harassed, and assaulted for decades, if not centuries. It’s not just white people that treat them so poorly, by the way. There’s a deep-seated postcolonial prejudice that has poisoned our compassion towards one another. He who divides shall conquer even after he appears defeated. We’re so fixated on “what about me?” that we project all our frustrations and anger on others. Asians are known to be a quiet, hardworking and patient group of people. These are qualities that represent strength and willpower but have been mistranslated to weakness and tolerance, unfortunately. This last year has been very challenging for the Asian community as the media portrays them as the cause and carriers of the virus. The monster that killed eight people in those spas didn’t need the media to spell it out for him; they provide the dots, and he simply… connected them.

My ask from you today is that you choose to practice compassion and empathy every day. Ask yourself what you can do to better yourself? Check your language. Acknowledge your biases. When watching or listening to the news, challenge yourself and pay attention to the narrative’s bias. Finally, pay it forward and educate others, show kindness to others, and be the best version of yourself. You don’t need to donate money or – my personal favourite (sarcasm alert) – hijack a movement. Respecting others, listening and saying nothing, smiling, and showing that you care, is what makes all the difference. You can’t change or save the whole world, but you can definitely change someone’s world even if that someone is just you.

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