Anti-Asian Racism: Q & A with Grace Churchill

As the pandemic continues, we have seen anti-Asian racism and hate crimes continue to persist. There has been enhanced media coverage of recent attacks on people of Asian descent, including the recent shooting in Georgia, the stabbing of a Korean man in Montreal, as well as countless other reports of verbal and physical assaults.  

With the heightened media coverage of these attacks, The Foundation has recognized this as an opportunity to listen, learn and share our learnings with the Oakville community.

We spoke with Grace Churchill, a former Board Member of The Foundation, who answered our questions about her own experiences with anti-Asian racism and the importance of holding space for educational conversations to build allyship.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I feel responsible, now more than ever, to own my heritage, my culture and my beliefs and share it in the world.

Q: What was your experience living in Oakville?

Grace:  Before moving to Oakville, I lived in Vancouver where there was a lot of Asian influence and being in a biracial marriage, I felt a sense of belonging as there were many biracial couples in our community. When my family moved to Oakville in 2000, I was a little nervous because I had heard that Oakville was a very white community. At the time, I was the only Chinese person on my street and my kids were the only biracial people in their classes. While I noticed my minority, I didn’t sense any kind of oppression. Being an immigrant family, my parents had taught me to assimilate well into Canadian culture and I think, looking back, that I was too busy trying to fit in to even notice.

Q: What has your own experience been with anti-Asian Racism?

Grace: It’s been saddening, enraging, activating. I have certainly felt it and it has heightened over this last year but has existed all along. I remember a number of years ago, I got involved in a little fender bender and the man who hit me came out screaming a whole bunch of anti-Asian insults like “YOU people can’t drive.” There were a number of micro-incidences like that.

Since Trump’s administration in the US, I certainly felt more racial behaviour, both directly and micro-aggressively enacted, against myself and my family. I vividly recall an incident while we were at our family’s winter home in Sarasota, Florida. We were at one of my kids’ favourite soup and salad bar restaurants and I was standing in line for some soup. The very tall man in front of me turned around, looked down at me and said, “we don’t serve won-ton soup here.” I was shocked and at a loss for words. My response was “it was a good thing I wasn’t wanting won-ton soup then isn’t it?”

Still to this day, I wish I had a stronger response.

Now with the Pandemic and with phrases tossed around like the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu”, my family has experienced more anti-Asian micro-aggression. At the beginning of the Pandemic in April 2020, my daughter, who lives in Vancouver, was walking on a busy street and someone walked by her and spat on her, with a gesture of “YOU people.” It was infuriating and we had a sense of hopelessness about it. It happened so quickly and she was shocked; she had no time to think about a reaction.  

Here in the City of Toronto where I live now, I have neighbours up the street who are an elderly Chinese family and I always like to stop and say hi to them and ask them how they’re doing. I stopped there last week and I asked one of them how she was doing and she said “Grace I’m so scared of the hate. I felt safer going out to get my groceries during the pandemic than I do now. Because I see what’s happening to us Chinese people.” The fear is very real and I do my part to allay her fears by picking up groceries for her every now and then.

I reflect on these experiences and am so cognizant of the underlying racism that is born from fear. For many, there is still a foundational belief that diversity is bad and the non-acknowledgement that comparisons to a white standard for “normal” is actually a form of white privilege. That kind of thinking must change now.

Q: What advice do you have for people who experience anti-Asian Racism?

Grace: Our Asian culture isn’t the kind of culture that protests when we are oppressed. I think while we’ve experienced racism and aggressive racial behaviour against us, we have been trained by generations before us to just suck it up and just do better. An important part of our culture is respect for our elders and for authority and we have been conditioned to say nothing out of respect, even when we don’t agree.

Now, I think we have a responsibility to speak up and have our allies speak up with us because we have not been well trained in that space. In fact, in my coaching practice, I work with several executives who are Hong Kong born or China born executives and the primary focus of our coaching is about finding their voices and speaking their truth.

It’s a stretch for both me and my clients – finding our voices while honouring a respectful relationship. I think this important sweet spot is where we can truly embrace diversity.

We need to teach ourselves how to be in the world and have a voice. I feel responsible, now more than ever, to own my heritage, my culture and my beliefs and share it in the world.

Q: What is something you wish people knew about anti-Asian Racism?

Grace: Asians are often seen as the “model minority.” , the ones who are “head down, get the work done,” smart and have a great work ethic. This term is an important one to understand because while it’s true for a small percentage of Asians, it actually diminishes the anti-Asian hate that still exists for the population. The phrase implies that we’re not speaking out because we don’t have anything to complain about and that oppression does not exist compared to other minority groups; that’s simply not the case.

We know the oppression is different. But it doesn’t mean that ours doesn’t exist.

Q: What advice do you have for those who are looking to be allies against Racism?

Grace: Get curious, watch language and let go of assumptions. I had someone ask me at the beginning of the Pandemic, “Have you ever been to one of those wet markets where they sell bats? How can people even go there?” While I’m sure he was being curious, I would have really appreciated a different tone and a consciousness about the language he used. A better approach might have been “Grace, I’m curious about wet markets in Asia. Have you been and what’s it like?” Our language matters.  

Reach out to your friends who are of Asian descent. Wendy Rinella, CEO of The Foundation  did just that. She reached out to me and she asked how I was doing. It’s important to take the time and ask people to share their stories. It was such a novelty to talk to someone, other than my family, about anti-Asian hate and I appreciated having the safe space to do that with her.  Creating a safe space to have these conversations for your Asian friends and colleagues is a really great start. My husband, who works for Global News, just aired “Hidden Hate” – a special covering the anti-Asian hate reality in Canada. 

Educate yourself. Read, watch the news, understand what is happening in your communities.  Ignorance is not bliss here. Silence is complicity. I would encourage everyone to get educated and get activated.

More about Grace:

Grace was born in Hong Kong but has spent most of her life living in Canada. She served as a Board Member of The Foundation from 2009 to 2011, as well as Chairing the Grants Committee and the Marketing Committee beginning in 2000.

Grace is the CEO of enSpire Coaching Inc, a coaching and consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders Show Up, Lead Big and Do Good in the world.  She is also the co-founder of the Do Good Collective, a social start-up with the mission to help amplify the voices of those who are oppressed and under-served in our communities and to create meaningful connections between women who are hungry to change the world.

You can follow the Do Good Collective on Facebook or Instagram.