The white elephant in the room: anti-Asian racism in Canada

By Dr. Henry Yu

An illustration of a white elephant crushing a house with people under it, while a Canadian flag sits broken on the ground. This symbolizes how white supremacy and racism is damaging people.
Illustrations by Katya Roxas / UBC Faculty of Arts

I have been thinking a lot about the surge in anti-Asian assaults and hate crimes lately. Partly it’s because I am asked regularly as a historian to explain the history of anti-Asian racism and how that history can help us analyze what is happening now. The connection between our past and present is challenging, however, for many people to fully grasp.

Perhaps thinking about elephants might help. Not real elephants, but the various ways we use the figure of elephants to say something we think is important; for example in English when we say, “the elephant in the room,” or in stories such as the parable about the “blind men and the elephant.” I have found over the years that people have difficulty talking about, let alone understanding the legacies of historical anti-Asian racism on the world we live in today, and so it might be useful to talk about it through elephants, and how that might help us understand the enduring power of white supremacy in Canada.

Note that I used the term “white supremacy” instead of racism. Why would I do that? For many people, the words white supremacy make us think of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis and angry mobs with flaming torches. Surely Canadians are not those people. We are a polite people, much better than that. And yet sheet music for the bar song “White Canada Forever” was a best seller in the early 20th century. And the political slogan “A White Man’s Province” helped a candidate win election as premier of BC. And we had a Ku Klux Klan in the tony Vancouver neighbourhood of Shaughnessy in the 1920s. That is pretty clearly white supremacy. So why would we continue to use the term racism rather than white supremacy?

The idiomatic saying “the elephant in the room” generally refers to a subject that people are avoiding in a discussion, but which is actually the most important issue. So, during a conversation about solving a problem, someone might eventually say “shouldn’t we deal with the elephant in the room,” and everyone else will know that this is the signal to talk about what everyone knows is the real issue. Like an actual elephant sitting in the room, the issue is too obvious not to notice, but for some reason people are too uncomfortable to discuss it, or there are terrible ramifications for even admitting the existence of this large beast in their midst.

Without dealing with white supremacy, however, racism makes no sense.

White supremacy is Canada’s elephant in the room. Many Canadians deny that there is racism in Canada or assert that there used to be racism but it is now gone. Others will admit that there was this history of racism but find it very uncomfortable to talk about the connection between white supremacy and racism. Without dealing with white supremacy, however, racism makes no sense. Those of us who feel the effects of anti-Asian racism understand that the generic category of “Asian” that defines us as the targets is not a definition in our control. It does not matter if you or your ancestors come from some specific place called “China” or “Vietnam” or “Pakistan” rather than some generic place called “Asia” or the “Orient.” It does not matter if you have grown up here and only speak English. It does not matter if you have a fancy haircut and wear expensive clothes. You can still be attacked as “Asian” and blamed for being the problem, whether it is being the scapegoat for housing unaffordability or corrupt money laundering or COVID-19.

The process of racialization defines you by making you a target — you don’t get a say in whether you want to be Asian or not. You might be like Dakota Holmes, an Indigenous woman who was violently assaulted on May 16, 2020, because the attacker thought she was “Chinese.” The attack on Holmes wasn’t some kind of mistake revealing the attacker’s ignorance or stupidity. But we also use terms such as “racism” because they describe the victims and targets of white supremacy — as in “anti-Asian racism” or “anti-Black racism” or “anti-Indigenous racism” — subtly switching the focus from the cause to the effect — the equivalent of referring only to “the sexual assault of women” as if the problem should be categorized primarily for its effects on women, rather than thinking about what is causing women to be assaulted.

The various kinds of racism that are the product of white supremacy may target people differently — to suffer from anti-Black racism is different from anti-Asian racism is different from the ongoing colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples — but they serve a common cause, to lump people together into categories called “race” that define them as the problem. At the same time, the people who benefit from not having a racial category are, logically, not the problem. You don’t have to think of yourself as “white” for racism to exist. Indeed, that is one of the benefits of the politics of white supremacy, the magical alchemy of creating categories that everyone else but you belong to — that is what is meant by the term “racialized.” Some people are racialized, while others get to believe and act as if they are not. The term “visible minority” is defined by those who get to be “invisible,” those who are the normal Canadians to which the nation belongs and for whom it was built.

One of the magical outcomes of the political success of embedding white supremacy into our institutions over the first century of our history is our foundational beliefs about who belongs in Canada (and who doesn’t), about who is deserving of wealth and comfort (and who isn’t), about who owns the land we live on (and who was already here).

One of the magical outcomes of the political success of embedding white supremacy into our institutions over the first century of our history is our foundational beliefs about who belongs in Canada (and who doesn’t), about who is deserving of wealth and comfort (and who isn’t), about who owns the land we live on (and who was already here). One of the great benefits of white supremacy is that those who benefit from that sense of normalcy of belonging and deserving do not have to consider themselves white. It is one of the singular accomplishments of white supremacy that those considered white can believe they are not. This is a luxury not afforded to those who are racially targeted as Black or Asian or whose continued existence as Indigenous peoples is constantly erased or considered irrelevant.

Illustration of a close up of a white elephant's foot stepping on a fallen Canadian flag to symbolize how white supremacy is dangerous to Canada.

The greatest legacy of the history of white supremacy in Canada is that it was so successful in defining every aspect of law and society for the first 100 years of Canada’s existence. And so when laws were changed in the 1960s to make racial discrimination illegal, the everyday practices of white supremacy were so normal and entrenched that just saying that racism was over could make it seem true. When racial discrimination in housing was outlawed, for example, how many people actually went to jail or paid a fine for continuing to benefit from owning homes and making money from land stolen from Indigenous peoples? When racial discrimination in employment was outlawed, how many people gave up jobs in industries that were all white because non-whites had not been allowed in those jobs? The structural effects of racial exclusion built around white supremacy had become the norm. And the normal remained, built upon the hierarchy of white supremacy and continuing to define who deserved to have more and who deserved to have less. But Canada could say that white supremacy had ended and claim that racism was now a thing of the past. 

Of course, it was not. But from now on, if you argued that the system was still unfair, the removal of the overt language of race from law and policy made it more — not less — difficult to point out the continuing effects of white supremacy. Announcing the end of explicit racism with the removal of overtly racist laws did not serve to end the inequities that had been built over a century, but to erase them from sight. The most insidious effect of this magical sleight of hand claiming the end of racism was that it forced you to have to prove that people were acting like Nazis or Ku Klux Klan members for people to believe there is racism in Canada. White supremacy seemingly no longer exists, other than a few bad apples. Racism was a thing of the past when we were racists. But now we are not.

The Devil’s greatest trick, it is said, is convincing people that he doesn’t exist.

The blind men and the elephant

White supremacy, around which Canada was built for 100+ years, continues to be the elephant in the room when we need to discuss the effects of racism. We might avoid using the term because some people feel uncomfortable, but not seeing the elephant in the room means that we are always “shocked” or “surprised” when we hear about some racist incident. The feeling of surprise, as if racism is abnormal and suddenly coming out of nowhere, is the product of white supremacy. Indeed, it is one of the most effective tools of white supremacy ever created in Canada. It works to silence and blind us to the elephant’s work. And so when you feel something isn’t quite right, for instance when you are passed over for promotion even though you know the person who used to report to you (and who you helped train) is not as deserving as you for promotion but they are white and you are not, you wonder, is it just me? Or when you are the only non-white person in the room and a decision is being made and no one seems to have thought about what it might mean for people who might not enjoy the luck of being white, you wonder, should I say something? Or when you see an elderly woman spit on or physically attacked for being “Asian,” you wonder, should I be surprised?

If you, or anyone you know, ever felt surprised or shocked to hear about some sudden incident of racism in Canada, you have been blinded so that you cannot see the elephant in the room.

If you are one of those people who have experienced something like that listed above and wonder if it was racism, then you are like one of the characters in the parable adapted from Hindu and Sufi teachings about the “blind men and the elephant.” The story, popularized in English through translations of the Sufi poet Omar Khayyam, tells of a group of blind men each feeling different parts of an elephant. They can each describe what they feel, and each of them think that what they have experienced is a distinct animal. But of course, they are each limited by their own perspective and none realize that there is actually a single elephant in the room. If you have ever wondered if what happened to you is happening only to you, it is because you can only feel one part of the elephant. If you, or anyone you know, ever felt surprised or shocked to hear about some sudden incident of racism in Canada, you have been blinded so that you cannot see the elephant in the room.

This is the greatest trick that a long history of white supremacy in Canada has wrought. The magical racism of Canada is that the elephant in the room seems invisible. We don’t see it even when one of the legs is crushing you or someone you love. Another leg may be crushing someone who is Black. Yet another leg is crushing someone who is Indigenous. But you can barely understand why you feel this weight on your back, or that it is somehow just another leg of the same beast crushing the others. You have been blinded to the huge elephant in the room, the one that stands on top of some of us but not others. The elephant has pulled some magical trick indeed — we literally cannot see what is crushing us.

But isn’t everyone racist, you might say. What about when a non-white person is racist? Doesn’t that mean that white supremacy is gone? No, you are mistaking the elephant’s effects for the elephant itself. Not all perpetrators of anti-Asian assaults need to be “white” for the substantive cause to be systemic and structural white supremacy. In fact, the so-called “model minority” myth is a great example of how the politics of white supremacy excel at pitting non-whites against each other. In the United States, when African Americans and Chicano/a activists were protesting for civil rights and equal pay, Japanese Americans were extolled in a New York Times story as “A Success Story” for seemingly overcoming racism “quietly” without protest, and a Newsweek article in the 1980s named Asian Americans a “model minority” for being highly educated and not requiring government support. The weaponizing of success pitted Asians against those who were Black and brown, splintering coalitions and making it difficult to see who benefitted from such “divide and rule” tactics. And so when newspaper stories claimed “reverse discrimination” because African Americans and other underrepresented applicants were being let into Ivy League schools with lower test scores than Asian Americans, what was forgotten was the large proportion of students, overwhelming white, who had long been admitted with far lower test scores and grade point averages. The pitting of non-whites against each other is one of the elephant’s best disappearing tricks.

If we use the term “model minority” to describe Asians in Canada, however, we risk confusing our Canadian elephant for the very different elephant in the United States (one that uses a different bag of tricks). Many Asians, as well as others considered non-white in Canada, have enjoyed socio-economic success. We can and do clamour for a piece of possessive belonging in Canada — for decades we have argued against racial exclusion by asserting that we also deserve to have a piece of the pie that has been denied us. We have fought and died for inclusion. We have remade ourselves in order to be worthy to belong. We can surgically remove as many indicators of our non-belonging as possible — stop speaking the non-English language of our mother, stop eating food that our grandparents love, change our name to something easier to pronounce in English. We can sacrifice and work extra hard to go to the right school, earn the best degree, work at the best job. We can invest in success and get the nice house in the good neighbourhood in the right school for our kids.

The paradox of anti-Asian racism is that our very investments in success are used as weapons against us.

We can invest in success as a tool for getting more of what we want. But it can also be weaponized against us. When anti-Asian agitators complained about Chinese and Japanese in the late 19th and 20th century, they may have complained that Asians were inferior, but it was the economic success and the “hardworking” character of Asians that was threatening. The looting of Chinese Canadian and Japanese Canadian stores in the Vancouver race riot of 1907 was born of economic resentment that scapegoated Asians. The dispossession of Japanese Canadians between 1942-1949 was more about their pre-war “success” in fishing, logging, farming and business than any wartime threat (we should never forget that Japanese Canadians were exiled from BC for longer after the end of WWII than during the war, when they were supposedly a threat). The paradox of anti-Asian racism is that our very investments in success are used as weapons against us. Our possessive belonging is provisional. If too many of us are in a classroom, when is that school “too Asian”? If too many of us move into a neighbourhood, when has it become “too Asian”? Our presence is not normal, our absence is.

One of the reasons that the surge in anti-Asian violence this last year has had such a visceral impact for many “Asian” Canadians is that these investments in success — and the sacrifices and losses that they often entailed — have come into question. My great job and big house and fancy clothes will not save me from being yelled at or spit on or shoved. My investment in belonging will not save me from racism. And that has been a difficult fact to process for many, especially those who must now question what they had to give up in order to earn this belonging. What if going to the right school and studying the right subjects meant the loss of your ability to speak to your grandmother in her own language? What if your drive to leave your family origins behind meant the loss of your ability to teach your own kids what it means for their ancestors to have come from a place far away? What if the cost of success is not knowing who you really are?

After a long terrible year of anti-Asian racism, it might seem like a victory to just walk the streets without fear, to not worry about your mother being shoved on the sidewalk, or your grandparents being spit on while food shopping. We might want to double down on our investments in success, buy some extra security with a little more education, a bigger dose of status and belonging in Canada. But what are we buying into when we want more of the pie?

The crushing cost to Canada of our white elephant

The particular nature of anti-Asian racism in Canada was built around scapegoating and exclusion. We are perpetually foreign. We do not belong. When things go wrong, it is always our fault. We might be tempted to simply argue for a better belonging, for saying that we have worked hard and yet never complain and therefore deserve to have our fair share. We have contributed to Canada. We helped build the railroad! We deserve to belong. But in fighting for a possessive belonging, for our piece of the pie, we risk mistaking the elephant’s leg for the elephant itself.

We often use the term “white elephant” to talk about some shining gift given to us that costs so much to take care of that it hampers us from doing other things that are actually more important. The donation of a fancy museum building that goes so over budget to construct that there isn’t enough money to run the actual museum programs. A gift of a fancy sports car that costs so much to constantly repair that you have to sell the other car you have to actually drive to work. The term comes from tales of clever Siamese kings who would give their enemies the gift of a sacred white elephant, seemingly a gift of great value as a token of respect and esteem. But because the elephant could not actually be used for work, and yet needed to be pampered and taken care of as a sacred animal, the ongoing cost of keeping the gift would bankrupt the ruler.

In British Columbia, we live on the unceded territory of Indigenous peoples who were here long before us. For all of us whose ancestors migrated to Canada over the last few centuries, we live as uninvited guests on the traditional and ancestral territories of Indigenous peoples who have been here for time immemorial. This is their house. We live in the nice fancy rooms stolen from them after relegating their communities to tiny rooms with locked doors in the attic and under the stairs that we call “reserves.” The foundational Indian Act of 1876, passed by Parliament soon after Confederation, unilaterally legalized this system of colonial dispossession, and we continue to live and thrive using the fenced goods of this original act of theft. This is the white elephant that Canada gifted all of us. This was the birthing of the elephant in the room.

If we understand the history of anti-Asian racism only as the series of exclusionary and discriminatory laws targeting Chinese and then other Asians, we will continue to be blind to the elephant and just see one of its legs. Disenfranchisement, the inability to testify or represent yourself in court, the economic restrictions designed to eliminate livelihoods, the immigration exclusions designed to keep Asians out of Canada, the denial of access to “pre-empted” land taken from Indigenous peoples to be given to white settlers — these are the stomping of the elephant’s leg trying to crush Asians. However, it is the last of these acts of denial and exclusion that we should be careful to consider when we try to understand the elephant in the room that stands astride us all.

White supremacy seemed to be a sacred political gift that organized European migrants into a powerful belonging in Canada. Historically, white supremacy justified the stealing of land from people who already had been here for time immemorial; white supremacy gave these as gifts to newcomers who were considered white, concurrently denying as underserving all those arriving at the same time who were seen as non-white. They did not belong, were perpetually foreign. White supremacy gave the best jobs to those who were white, reserved the best neighbourhoods and the positions for decision-making and power. White supremacy was the gift that kept on giving, even after the elephant played the magical trick of disappearing from the room.

Blindly chopping off one leg of the elephant is not enough. We must be prepared to commit to getting rid of the whole elephant, and not just the part of it that we can feel and see.

But white elephants are a costly, debilitating gift. For Canada, the white elephant of white supremacy has meant extolling ideals that we do not consistently practice in reality. At the worst we are revealed as hypocritical and blind to our own sins; at the best we are mocked as smug and self-delusional. If we keep feeding the white elephant in the room, if we continue to keep it alive despite those who are crushed under its weight, we will continue to pay the costs. If those who were formerly treated as “Orientals,” unwanted and unloved, want to belong by becoming fully “Canadian,” we need to be careful that we do not clamour merely for our own piece of possessive belonging in Canada. If we want to end anti-Asian racism, then we must not be blind to the white elephant in the room, for which crushing Asians is only one of its many tricks. If we believe in aspiring to live in a just and inclusive society, then justice for some cannot be at the cost of justice for all. That means finding alliance with others being crushed by the same elephant. That means rejecting tactics that divide and rule by offering shiny baubles to one at the cost of ignoring the cries of another. Blindly chopping off one leg of the elephant is not enough. We must be prepared to commit to getting rid of the whole elephant, and not just the part of it that we can feel and see. Otherwise, the elephant will survive to surprise us again in the future, crushing us suddenly on yet another day because of our choice to willfully remain blind.


Dr. Henry Yu is a professor with the Department of History and Principal of St. John’s College at UBC.
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