A Conversation with Nora Angeles: Anti-Asian Racism and Community-Based Response

UBC President Santa Ono recently published a statement regarding the profound effect of rising racism and hostilities towards Asian communities; particularly about how “statements are not enough”. Also in light of these issues, our own Associate Professor Nora Angeles gladly had a conversation among colleagues, and agreed to share it here.
Nora Angeles is of Asian heritage and is cross appointed to the UBC Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice.
How are you feeling today? Where were you when you learned of the eight people killed in northern Georgia, a majority of which were women of Asian American ancestry?

Thank you. I am feeling much better than last week. I was listening to CBC News as it played in another room, so I barely heard the details from my desk. All I remember overhearing was “mass shooting” and “Asian American women.” You could imagine how my heart raced while I used my cellphone to search for details online. The news was really disturbing, considering the tragedy came at an already terrifying moment in history for Asian communities in Canada and the global Asian diaspora.

Would you like to elaborate on how you’ve been personally affected by all this and what these events mean for us here in BC?

I remember in April last year, before mask-wearing and social distancing protocols, a white man coughed directly at me in a narrow grocery aisle. Days later, as I was crossing the street on a green light, the male driver of a car trying to beat the yellow light shouted loudly back at me, “Bubblehead!” as it sped away. These are common forms of microaggressions we disproportionately experience. From violent attacks to verbal harassment, hate crimes experienced by members of the Asian community in Canada have exponentially risen in 2020. Live data alone from Fight COVID Racism registered 975 reported incidents of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in Canada, as of today. Such crimes have risen in Metro Vancouver by 717% since the pandemic began.

Violent events in the news are very common, and another has already happened since this one. Can you tell us about why people are speaking up about this one in particular?

While any death is a tragedy, when a death happens specifically because of contempt for someone’s race, gender, or other protected class, a community-led response is both possible and necessary. While flashpoint atrocities are horrific, and solutions can seem overwhelming to consider, our first crucial steps address the root causes of these events. Increases in racially- and sexually-motivated violence do not happen at random, and echo the normalized words and actions in the community. Thankfully, this truth is beginning to be heard and believed more broadly than ever before.

How do you frame these occurrences from the lens of a feminist Planner of colour?

We must explain this from a structural lens or systems lens informed by history. True, racist xenophobia towards Asian peoples reached new heights since the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has always been there, resurfacing with every major crisis. From the “yellow peril” and “Oriental menace” morality panic in the late 19th century to the “Asian flu” financial crisis in the 1990s, Asians have been historically scapegoated for stubborn structural issues and the consequences of institutionalized racism, misogyny, patriarchal white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, and exclusionary immigration policies.

It appears the killings were hate-driven, race-inspired, and gender-specific, targeting Asian women in particular who work in the so-called intimate economy or libidinal economy of spas, strip clubs, and massage parlours; sentiments regarding which, along with mainstream representation of Asian peoples, have contributed to Asian Canadian women’s hyper-sexualization. Their sexualized exoticization and racialized erotization play into the popular imagination, as in the case of the perpetrator of the Georgia massacre, and magnify the vulnerabilities Asian women and other examples of othered racialized bodies feel and experience from “consuming the other” in our erotic/eroticized industries. Whorephobia and racialized and sexualized stereotyping of bodies of colour are also at the root of discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization against sex workers in our cities.

How can Planners address these issues? What can SCARP do in response?

As you know, we have many SCARP faculty members of Asian ancestry. We also have multiple cohorts of students and alumni with Asian heritage – many working as professional Planners around the world – who refuse to remain silent.

As a Planning School that takes pride in “knowledge into action through partnerships”, these exceptional times demand our collective reckoning. Neutrality, silence, and inaction are not an option for Planners in BC and across Canada, which have been sites of collective action against racism and injustice.

In SCARP courses, it is important to have deep discussions into why and how cities worldwide regularly exhibit racialized, gender-based violence towards Indigenous, Black, Asian, and other Peoples of Colour, historically and today. Learning from feminist geographers, we can examine why and how cities and social media platforms have become profit-driven sites of marketable desires. In studying place-making, safe-city, or healthy-city discourses in big cities like Vancouver and in spaces such as strip clubs, spas, massage parlours, and personal ads, we see the gendered nature of the informal economy, especially in the intimate economy and libidinal economy.

We must include many under-represented voices and lived experiences in city Planning engagement, from urban design to transportation Planning. Our teaching, research, and public engagement at SCARP must remain relevant, indignant, vigilant, responsive, and responsible. We need to continuously engage in respectful dialogue, welcoming conflict, but always endeavouring to understand the sources of our conflict. This will help us talk across our differences, never past each other, and always, always striving to listen and find common ground.

We need to stress our history and our responsibilities, especially during and after a global pandemic. Planners could be included in revolutionizing, Planning, and enforcing systems that have always tolerated and reproduced injustice, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and gender-based violence. Professionals of all ideological stripes, ancestries, and disciplinal backgrounds have helped enforce the large-scale internment of Japanese Canadians, as well as the post-9/11 surveillance of Muslim Asians to support the US-led Global War on Terror.

Planners and the Planning profession might have been unwittingly part of these problems, but we have also been part of their solutions.

We as a society perpetuate these problems in varying degrees, and we all remain responsible to make change – big and small, incremental and radical, institutional and cultural – for our common good.

What does this all mean for the Planning profession, moving forward?

All members of a community, but especially Planners, are curators of that community and have an opportunity to help create an inclusive environment. Hate, stereotyping, and discrimination require constant vigilance to oppose, and require a willingness to listen to and learn from those who experience systemic discrimination.

Finding and recognizing what is in our common good, instead of making all these differences further divide us, is another important step. Our collective grief and stress when processing atrocity must remind us of our common humanity and future on our only planet. We must not make enemies of all the potential allies we have, and if we have potential enemies who see things differently, we should bring them even closer in dialogue with us.

Post-pandemic, the Planning profession will play an even more important role in reimagining and realizing what kind of public spaces, cities, and society we want, and in keeping them safe, healthy and livable. In planning inclusive and welcoming cities, public safety and urban design, the nighttime economy and intimate labour, immigrant integration, gentrification and housing justice, and food and transportation justice, our profession has become more cognizant of the intersectional forms of oppression the most vulnerable in our society experience, and more comprehensively aware of actionable support for ethno-racial and cultural communities.

We can support ongoing efforts by Indigenous, Black and People of Colour working within and outside their communities, including efforts of sex workers organizing for better work conditions. We can work with allies from all races, ethnicities, nationalities, gender identities and expressions, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds to stand with communities experiencing various forms of injustice and oppression in every corner of the world.

We must remember our profession and our cities thrive well and are stronger because of diversity. However, celebrating and paying homage to diversity is not enough.

Diversity planning, participatory planning, and equity planning need to address the systemic sources of poverty, oppression, vulnerability, marginalization, and sexualized racialization and exploitation, particularly in urban places and spaces.

I remain hopeful. I take my own advice to heart, because neutrality, silence, and inaction are not an option for me, not while I am still alive and kicking.

UBC Applied Science has compiled a list of resources for anyone who has experienced, is concerned about, or may witness discrimination and harassment at UBC.