British Columbia Library Association

Preventing Another Crisis: Racism Against Asian Canadians and the Role of Public Libraries

By Kisun Kim

Introduction

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic posed and continues to pose threats to Canada’s public physical and mental health, as well as the economy. On top of these threats, Asians and Asian Canadians (hereafter both referred to as Asians) experience another threat — a threat related to their racial identity. According to Tessler et al. (2020), COVID-19 was initially staged as uniquely Asian, portraying Asians as the embodiment of the pandemic, which led to the rise of hate crimes against Asians. In fact, the Vancouver Police Department reported that there has been a 600% increase in reports of hate crimes against the Asian community (Gill, 2020). According to a survey conducted by Angus Reid Institute and the University of Alberta (2020), many Chinese Canadians have been “called names or insulted as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak” and “been threatened or intimidated.” It is evident that racism against Asians must be interrogated, and that a simple diversity statement will not do. This paper proposes tangible and systematic actions public libraries can take to fight racism against Asians in our society. These actions will allow public libraries to address the root cause of such racism. 

Racism Against Asians

Racism against Asians is nothing new in Canada. The pandemic simply brought forth the racism that already existed in our society to the surface. Nonetheless, racism against Asians is often disregarded because Asians experience a unique and complicated type of racism. In Canada, Asians are considered a model minority (Tessler et al., 2020; Pon, 2000). The model minority myth suggests that Asians have ‘succeeded’ in Canada and therefore do not face significant racial barriers and experience racism (Chou & Feagin, 2010). When measured by socioeconomic indicators — occupation, income, and education — there is no doubt that Asians seem ‘well-off’ compared to some other racial and ethnic groups. However, as Iris Marion Young (1990) demonstrates, there are multiple faces of oppression, and socioeconomic status is merely one of many indicators of oppression. 

Asians are seen as perpetual foreigners (Tessler et al., 2020; Reny & Barreto, 2020; Lim, 2018; Escobar, 2020), who do not fully belong in Canada simply due to their race. Asians are constantly othered. However, as terrible as the concept of perpetual foreigners is, it is often not applied intentionally. One may be a social activist who champions equality and diversity, and yet somehow unconsciously view Asians as foreign. This is an example of an implicit bias, which Holroyd et al. (2017) describe as an automatic association that we cannot really control. Discrimination caused by implicit bias is unintentional, unendorsed, and perpetrated without awareness. Therefore, implicit bias does not necessarily translate into an active form of racism, but into microaggression, microinsults, and microinvalidations (Torino et al., 2018). Due to the aforementioned model minority myth, these forms of micro-racisms are often overlooked, which consequently fosters an environment that tolerates a more blatant form of racism against Asians. 

Should the implicit bias against Asians not be addressed, hate crimes targeting Asians are bound to reoccur again in times of crisis and disaster. In other words, it is critical to address this underlying institutional racism within our society to ensure one racial and ethnic group is not discriminated against in times of upheaval. 

Role of Public Library

Public libraries have the responsibility to fight against racism, which stems from their values and commitments. IFLA/UNESCO’s Public Library Manifesto (1994) identifies the following as their missions: “promoting awareness of cultural heritage” and “fostering intercultural dialogue and favouring cultural diversity.” Public libraries’ policies and statements echo the manifesto. All public libraries in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland have a statement and/or policy that reflects their vision of being inclusive, respectful, understanding, and tolerating (NVDPL, n.d.; RPL, n.d.; Surrey Libraries, n.d.; VPL, 2010). Furthermore, public libraries are community anchors that empower marginalized groups and actively influence their communities (Gibson et al., 2017). In short, public libraries are actively promoting themselves as the champions of diversity and inclusion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is widely expected that the public libraries will fight misinformation and disinformation about the virus and Asians as a part of their duties (Shoenberger, 2020; IFLA/UNESCO, 1994)[1]. Such a response, although critical, does not resolve the aforementioned implicit bias against Asians — the root cause of the problem. The next section will offer tangible and systematic actions public libraries can take to address the root cause. 

Actions to Address the Racism Against Asians 

To dismantle the implicit bias that views Asians as foreign, it is important for public libraries to adopt a forward-looking approach. A forward-looking approach does not focus on blaming and shaming those who unconsciously perpetrate microaggressions, but rather on fixing these problems by holding them accountable for their future actions. It allows people to recognize their implicit bias and wrongdoings, whereas suppressing and shaming implicit bias can have a rebound effect (Holroyd et al., 2017). People may resist the critique and recommendations, failing to prevent future acts of microaggression. As Holroyd et al. (2017) write, “the emphasis should be on the fact that bias is pervasive and as individuals within institutions we should seek procedures that make those institutions robust against the influence of implicit bias.” The forward-looking approach is applied to all the recommendations presented below. 

  1. Hiring and Retention 

Before attempting to address the implicit bias prevalent in our society, it is imperative that public libraries address the bias within the institution. Public libraries, a white-dominated field (Sonnie, n.d.; Hudson, 2017b), are very passive — they have accepted the status quo that there will only be a handful of minorities in the public library system (Larsen, 2017) and do not prioritize diversity projects. This is especially problematic because it creates a cycle. People, including librarians, tend to hire a person who fits the work culture due to implicit bias (Larsen, 2017; Lim, 2018), which in the case of public libraries, is predominantly white. Minorities who do not ‘fit’ the culture will face disadvantages in hiring and promotion. It is thus critical to redesign hiring criteria to actively hire a diverse workforce (Sonnie, n.d.; Larsen, 2017).  

Unfortunately, diversity is increasingly becoming an empty buzz word (Larsen, 2017; Hudson, 2017a; Mehra & Davis, 2015). Hiring a ‘diverse’ workforce alone cannot and should not be the anti-racist tactic (Hudson, 2017a; Hudson, 2017b) because every race has different experiences. Hence, in order to fight the implicit bias against Asians, it is vital for public libraries to actively seek to hire Asian librarians who can represent Asian-specific concerns and issues. Nevertheless, hiring alone does not guarantee meaningful inclusion (Hudson, 2017a). As Lim (2018) contends, Asians struggle to be included in the middle-management level, and such a glass ceiling (or “bamboo-ceiling”) pushes Asians away from public libraries. To retain Asian librarians, promotion criteria need to be evaluated and redesigned. This can be done through on-going training and fostering cultural competency in existing library staff. They will allow library staff to retrain their cognitions (Holroyd et al., 2017) and build capacity (Sonnie, n.d.), ultimately transforming the institution (Torino et al., 2018). By doing so, Asians will have a chance to be represented on multiple levels, which is also critical in removing implicit bias among the non-Asian library patrons (Xiao et al., 2015).

  1. Partnership with Local Asian Communities 

Gathering information about local Asian communities is a critical step in addressing implicit bias against Asians within and outside the institution. When gathering data, librarians are discouraged from relying on traditional data gathering methods because they tend to focus on numbers and dismiss a lot of critical information (Pugh & Doyle, 2019). Instead, public libraries should identify local priorities by engaging with (Sonnie, n.d.) and building relationships with small organizations representing the local Asian communities (Williment & Jones-Grant, 2012). Through honest and unbiased communication, public libraries can survey and identify when and how local Asians feel othered in Canada. It will reveal the areas the public libraries can work on. In addition, this step again highlights the importance of having a staff member representing the Asian communities. Those familiar with the communities will have positive implications for the ways library patrons articulate their needs (Helton, 2010).

Public libraries must also incorporate strengths-based approaches. Privileged groups often unintentionally practice a deficit-based approach, which assumes that marginalized communities have shortcomings and need to be “fixed” (Hutchinson & Dorsett, 2012). A strengths-based approach, in contrast, focuses on the assets the marginalized groups have. Williment and Jones-Grant (2012) demonstrate that the strengths-based approach can “shift service planning from a primarily internal activity to one that includes and involves community members throughout the entire service planning process.” In other words, it creates meaningful inclusion. 

  1. Programming

After gathering information on how implicit bias against Asians is manifested through microaggression, microinsult, and microinvalidation in the local context, libraries can plan for programs. Local Asian communities must continue to play a significant role in the process. After all, collaboration is the key to creating effective programs (Jackson-Brown, 2017). Only then the public libraries will be able to offer programs that “allow for exploration of microaggression experience […] from both an intellectual and emotional point of view” which will “strengthen the community and build pathways to change” (Torino et al., 2018). It is impossible to list the types of programs that may be offered, considering that each program will be unique due to varying local needs. That said, librarians can engage the public by providing educational programs that inform them about cultural, social, historical, and current contexts (Gibson et al., 2017). For example, public libraries in British Columbia could host a lecture series during Asian Heritage Month about Chinese railway workers, Japanese Internment Camps, or the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act to discuss historical roots of implicit bias. They could also host a session where community members openly discuss their experience to start a dialogue about bias against Asians. 

  1. Collection Development 

Developing a collection that reflects Asian communities is another important step to remove implicit bias. This short article cannot fully explore the importance of library collections but will briefly discuss their ability to represent communities. As Larsen (2017) demonstrates in her article, the lack of diverse collections reflects systemic racism. When the library collections do not include books about Asians, it sends a message that Asians do not belong in Canada. Howarth (2002) writes, “through the continuous and complicated processes of relating others to self and self to others, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the novel to the accustomed, the child builds up a stock of social representations.” This suggests that a child may not acquire implicit bias against Asians, which is prevalent among the adult population, by familiarizing themselves with topics about Asian Canadians in libraries. It is also important to note that the collection should include not only books about Asians but also books written by Asians. Only then can these books truly target systemic implicit bias against Asians (Sonnie, n.d.). 

Conclusion 

While many Canadians often pride themselves on living in a multicultural country that achieved equality, the increased number of hate crimes against Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic proved otherwise. The implicit bias against Asians — seeing Asians as the Others who do not belong in Canada — created an environment that allows such hate crimes to occur. Therefore, it is necessary for the public libraries — the champions of diversity and inclusion — to prioritize diversity projects that address implicit bias against Asians. This article recommends tangible and systematic actions public libraries can implement to fight implicit bias against Asians. To be truly effective, all the recommended actions will have to occur continuously and simultaneously. With this forward-looking approach, the implicit bias against Asians may be eradicated and should a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic occur again, Asians will not have to fear for their safety. 

 


Kisun Kim is a DUAL MAS/LIS student at the iSchool, University of British Columbia. She is passionate about Asian and Asian Canadian history and has an MA in history from the University of Western Ontario. By working in libraries or archives, she hopes to connect people with history, which she believes can help people better understand the society they live in and themselves.


[1] For further exploration of the COVID-19 infodemic and its impact on the Asian population, see Zannettou, Baumgartner, Finkelstein, and Goldenberg’s article, “Weaponized Information Outbreak.”

 

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1) Angus Reid Institute & the University of Alberta. (2020). Blame, bullying and disrespect: Chinese Canadians reveal their experiences with racism during COVID-19http://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020.06.22_Discrimination_Chinese_Canadians.pdf
2) Pugh, C., & Doyle, B. (2019). Equity, diversity, inclusion: Seattle’s “Loud at the library” collaboration. Children & Libraries, 17(3), 27. https://doi.org/10.5860/cal.17.3.27

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