Selective xenophobia: What COVID-19 is teaching us about who we target when it comes to racism
MONTREAL -- Racist taunts and brutal acts of violence have accompanied the spread of COVID-19 around the world – but why are certain ethnic groups targetted, while others are rallied behind?
"I think the bottom line is people are racist and xenophobic and they're afraid. When they're afraid, those ideas, which can be suppressed, come out," explains Dr. Sandra Teresa Hyde, associate professor and undergraduate anthropology program chair at McGill University. "It feels like fear, particularly in the wake of Bill 21 [Quebec's secularism law]. There's a lot of prejudice and racism here."
Since the spread of the virus, there have been countless cases of documented discrimination aimed at the Asian community – and not just those of Chinese descent.
"A lot of businesses in Chinatown are run by Vietnamese people, so it's this funny irony that it's been boycotted," Hyde tells CTV News. "I don’t think there's any other way you can read the fact that Chinatowns around Canada are losing business and that people are being targetted."
The dire situation has forced officials to speak out, demanding that people stop bullying the Chinese community because of the virus.
"We definitely need to keep in mind that we cannot target certain communities based on where the virus has been stronger," Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante insists. "The Chinese community has been suffering for a long time now. I want to send a message of solidarity that yes, we need to be cautious, we need to be vigilant, but we are still a welcoming and warm place to be."
The situation has been particularly bad in Brossard, on the south shore, where a large portion of Montreal's Asian population lives.
"Sometimes you see these pages on Facebook that relay complete lies and then people start reacting and you read the comments below and you see that it's racism," adds Doreen Assaad, Brossard Mayor.
BUT THE VIRUS STARTED IN CHINA
For every epidemic, Hyde states, there is what experts call an info-demic; that is, people who misread, are misinformed and therefore misunderstand what is happening.
"They're completely misinformed about the virus," she said. "It is not about skin colour and it's not about ethnicity. I think people are just really afraid. It's not if you're a person of colour, if you're Chinese or Iranian, you'll be infected."
This double standard, purely based on looks, has become increasingly obvious now that there is an increasing number of cases in other countries around the world.
In Italy, one of the worst-hit countries outside of China, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was recently forced to put the entire country on lockdown.
However, despite the thousands of confirmed cases, those who live and work in Montreal's Italian community say there hasn't been the same type of backlash or reticence towards them.
In fact, many in the Little Italy neighbourhood say it's more or less business as usual.
"Why are Italians, why is Little Italy not seeing the same kind of avoidance that Chinatown is?" Hyde asks. "It comes down to misunderstanding, both of transmission of the virus and that it's not tagged to skin colour."
AND IF THE VIRUS HAD STARTED IN EUROPE?
Hyde notes that, if the situation continues to escalate in Italy, she wouldn't be surprised if people also started avoiding businesses locally – though she notes it probably won't be in as discriminatory a fashion as the backlash against the Chinese community.
"If Spain or Italy suddenly had this weird virus that came out of some food practice of the Italians, I don’t know, would people start boycotting Little Italy?" she muses. "I don't think it would be zero [in terms of discrimination.]"
She notes both the Chinese and Italian communities have large business hubs in Montreal, but there's one main difference that distinguishes them in the wake of the virus – the way the people look.
"I think there's a kind of a hierarchy in terms of the closer you read to a certain kind of 'whiteness,' the closer you are to 'whiteness,' the more you're read by other white people as being white," she explains. "You can't necessarily look at somebody and know they're Italian. Whereas, people think they can look at somebody and identify if they're Chinese – but that’s not true either."
There are currently thousands of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in dozens of countries, including in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.