An Interview with Chandrima Chakraborty

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

MCKAY: Professor Chandrima Chakraborty is professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, and director of the Center for Peace Studies.. She has published extensively on historical memory and Indian nationalism, including a major study of the commemoration of the Air India disaster in 1985.[1]

Thank you, Chandrima, for joining us today. You’ve written a lot about the ways the “model minority” stereotype has been applied to Asian Canadians. Is it, in a way, the flip side of the old yellow peril theme of the period before the 1960s? [Iyko Day recently argued that] the “yellow peril” and the “model minority” stereotypes function as complementary aspects of the same form of racialization, in which assumed economic efficiency is the basis for violent exclusion or assimilation.[2] Can you elaborate on the connection between what might appear to be very contradictory sets of stereotypes about Asian Canadians? And to what extent has this contradictory discourse worked to divide the racialized themselves, with a so-called model minority encouraged to pride itself on its supposed superiority over others?

CHANDRIMA CHAKRABORTY: Thanks very much for this opportunity to have this conversation… I think, on the surface, the yellow peril and the model minority seems like oppositional categories or stereotypes, but [they are] complementary aspects of the same form of racialization. And the racialization of Asian Canadians as the “model minority” is intimately associated with the relative historical and social positions of Caucasian Canadians, Black Canadians, and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

If you look back in terms of the 19th century, you have the first Chinese settlement in Canada in British Columbia as a result of the gold rush. You have large [movements of] Chinese immigrants, recruited to perform much of the labour-intensive agricultural work, or other local industry and commercial work,  … that the white labouring classes were not willing to perform. Then, with the Canadian Pacific Railway, you have the government actively recruiting Chinese labourers to come in. But soon after the completion of the CPR, agitation began in terms of the Chinese [not being] quite “right for citizenship.” There is this momentum to get them out, or at least stop their immigration….

The Chinese are not, in the late 19th century, seen just as an economic threat (with the typical argument: “immigrants, they’re taking our jobs.”)… They are seen as “too different,”   in terms of their bodies, …their cultural practices, living habits, etc…. The Chinese are seen as diseased bodies, as a public health risk. The racialization of Chinese Canadians was not simply a matter of legal exclusion or labour exploitation. Public health policies played a key role in the racialization and the stereotype of the Yellow Peril.

With the 1960s, you see the shift from the “Yellow Peril to the “Model Minority,” the discourse that we are most familiar with… It’s in the 1960s, with the 1965 U.S immigration act, [and the 1970s,] when you have the liberalization of immigration policies in Canada.  You have this new stereotype emerging as the “model minority”….These are new groups of immigrants coming in, often not [from] the labouring classes [but] middle-class and upper-class Asian. Also, the 1960s is the era of Civil Rights. So, there are African Americans demanding greater rights, demanding an end to discriminatory policies.  You have the “model minority” now being defined against the “bad minority.” The assumption is that, if you work hard enough and you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can rise up to the surface. [According to this interpretation], Black Americans are not working hard enough, [or] they are not doing what the “model minority” is doing. So, you have this racialization and hierarchization within the racialized minorities.

…I was looking into some of the first articles that mentioned the term “model minority” in the 1960s and all of those articles always end by comparing either Japanese Americans or Chinese Americans to Black Americans…. You’re being defined against, not just white Caucasians, but other racialized minorities.

MCKAY: …In a crisis like this, these fault lines are coming to the surface. If we don’t realize the depth of this history, the weight of this history – we’re always going to be just responding to superficially to a crisis…  Yet, I think some people would ask:  “What evidence have you got that this is really still up and running the same way?”

CHAKRABORTY: Well, read the news!

MCKAY: One of the things I really liked about your piece is how the term Asian American or Asian Canadian is, in a sense, a confection of the 1960s itself… Remembering that Asia is a vast area with a huge diversity of cultures, in the eyes of a xenophobe,…there is no distinction between one Asian and another.

CHAKRABORTY: Absolutely. Think of the 1982 beating up Vincent Chin, right, which most folks are aware of.[3] He was beaten up by white autoworkers, …a Chinese American who’s constantly called a ‘Jap.’ So, to the white gaze – Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino – it doesn’t matter. To the mainstream gaze, [a person just] seems “Asian.”

With Covid-19, the discrimination [and] the exclusions that we saw with the global pandemic are not just against Chinese Americans…. All Asians are viewed as a monolith. You forget the class differences, you forget the geographical differences, [you forget] age, gender, all of that. There are so many intersectional identities that create this sort of “Asian subject”…

MCKAY: …You touch on Sinophobia, the heightened fear of China or things associated with China, and you write: “Heightened western anxieties around China’s large population size, global economic growth, and rapid technological scientific innovation are compounded by China’s political system that is considered antithetical to the democratic West. Thus, even in the early coverage of the pandemic, numerous articles noted that China’s lockdown and quarantine measures, while effective, could never be implemented in western liberal democracies such as Canada.” To what extent do you think anti-Asian prejudice has been fed, not just by age-old “Yellow Perilism,” but ny the new Cold War that is coming upon us, in which the Chinese are depicted as a monstrous “Other” – and not just their regime, but Chinese civilization as a whole?  

CHAKRABORTY: …A global competition between two superpowers… involves episodic confrontations and shows of might and power. So, the US administration introduces tariffs on Chinese imports, saying that the Chinese are stealing U.S. technology and intellectual property. China retaliates with its own tariffs. The Trump administration, as we know, has asked that foreign-made telecommunication equipment should not be used because it threatens national security. We know that a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, without any evidence, claimed that the US military have brought the virus to China. Trump claims it’s a Chinese virus, repeatedly, even after the World Health Organization’s best practices [seek to] dissuade us from assigning viruses to places and ethnicities. And then we know … the effects of that in terms of the intense escalation of anti-Asian racism … both in the United States and in Canada….

MCKAY: I’m really taken by how much metaphors of war and militarism are suffusing even discussions about the virus itself, which is seen as an invading force. It’s really interesting to watch how even supposedly objective reports about the virus start drifting into a very militarized vocabulary. And I’m also wondering about the lab leak theory that’s been broadcast all around the world, claiming the virus leaked out of a “Chinese” lab… Yet, the lab in question had extensive American funding. Covid-19 is a story in which national boundaries don’t matter as much as global supply chains.  Had Wuhan not been [a key centre within]  global supply chains, we would probably never have experienced Covid-19 globally.  In the zeal to make it all about warring nation-states, we’re misrepresenting reality.  It’s happening within an interconnected world.


MCKAY: I really liked what you said about the race-baiting of Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer.  Derek Sloan, the Conservative candidate, actually asked, “Does she work for Canada or for China?” in his most ominous tone of voice.  You critique the mass media’s admiring comments about Dr. Tam. They kept playing up how graciously she responded to this race-baiting. You write: “Such reporting of the graceful response to racism works to successfully downplay concerns about structural racism, individualizes racist experiences, does not prompt calls for structural change, [and] does not encourage Asian Canadians to publicly express their anger, grievance, or suffering.” … Can we expect less polite responses to such race-baiting in the future?

CHAKRABORTY: I’m glad you brought this up.  To me, reading the media coverage brought up the image of the ideal minority, the “model minority.” [A member of such a minority] does not only work hard, but works hard, keeping their head down. Theresa Tam’s response to that was something like, “I’m just not distracted by noise. I have work to do… So, I’m not going to get into this. I have work to do.”

…But anger can be marshalled for justice to create multi-racial alliances and solidarity. One of the essays that I read a long time ago (for a very different project that I was doing on India and the cultivation of hate and anger against minorities) was by Audre Lorde, queer feminist theorist, [whose] 1981 essay was called “Uses of Anger.”[4] In it, she… made a distinction between anger and hatred…. The object of anger is transformation. Hatred is about destruction – about death – and it is taken up by those who do not share our goals. I find that really instructive [in terms of] thinking about building alliances and prompting structural change.

What structural change… could be the focus for our anger? I have multiple responses… For me, personally, the first thing would be an overhauling of the educational curriculum… so that we see our own privileges and complicities [while] educating new immigrants to Canada about Canada’s racial history, so that we don’t buy into white supremacy and perpetuate colonial mythologies and racist stereotypes.

Perhaps in terms of terrorist attacks and sort of the coverage that I was looking at [in Remembering Air India],  I would say the [need for a] more diverse press room, so that diverse stories are told, and told not just from the perspective where Asian Canadians or racialized minorities are always victims whose plight is being depicted, but [including] stories of activism, of advocacy, of triumphs. of survival – those kinds of stories, too. And for that, you need a diverse press room.

I would also say, perhaps, resource- and knowledge-sharing among different racialized communities and groups, so that they can share their experiences of anger and grief, learn from each other, as well as engage the wider public in calls for solidarity and alliance. So, I think there are so many different things we can do to bring about changes in the structure. There’s a lot of work to be done.

MCKAY: I thought some of your most striking evidence… was drawn from some Angus Reid polls, which showed that majorities of Asian Canadians are changing their daily work patterns so that they steer clear of racism, over 60% report having experienced racist comments.  Some have been spat upon. You write: “The threat of violence is always lurking under the surface for Asian Canadians.” Have you experienced any of this yourself?  

CHAKRABORTY: Well, I’m privileged by class. I’m privileged by education. I’m privileged by religion. I’m privileged by heterosexuality. So, I’m protected in many, many ways, right, and I have had the privilege of working from home throughout the pandemic. Not the same for, say, small businesses, which had to close their doors…

So, my experiences are not the same as sort of the work that I am doing. At the same time, my experience of racism is different because my research and public advocacy (over more than a decade) as has been on the 1985 Air India bombing. I’ve written lots of op-ed pieces, public-facing works critiquing Canadian multiculturalism, and all of that. So, I get my share of hate mail, saying that I should be the “grateful immigrant.”  I’m not the grateful immigrant that I am expected to be. I get my share of that. And then, of course, in the classroom, I teach materials which are bringing up inconvenient histories (both for my Canadian-born students but also for South Asian students) who grow up with particular versions of histories. So, my takes on the Partition of British India …or the Air India tragedy often does not match up to the stories that they have told to them within their families or their communities. And at those moments, of course, my gender, my age, my brown skin… produce difficult encounters.

MCKAY: I think one of the major themes that we’re seeing from this Covid-19  pandemic has been the intersection of class and race, and I’ve been really struck by the “Color of Coronavirus” project in the US, which keeps coming up with these startling statistics of how many more Black Americans are contracting the disease [and] are dying of the disease. Huge numbers of them don’t have health insurance.  Basically, Black and Latinx Americans are three times as likely as their white neighbors to become infected, and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus.  

There are very similar data coming out of the United Kingdom. In Toronto, racialized residents accounted for 83 percent of cases, although making up just 52% of the population. A major theme – and you’ve already alluded to it, but maybe you could say a little bit more – is just the power of class and the job market, one so structured that many of the highest-risk occupations (like PSWs, meatpackers, migrant agricultural workers) are made up of racialized minorities. So, I was wondering, as your study of race and Covid-19 goes forward, how much importance will you yourself assign to class as well as race as an element in the subaltern experience of the pandemic?

CHAKRABORTY: That’s a great question. I don’t think we can talk about the differentiated effects of the pandemic without talking about class or even gender… The pandemic… has unfolded differently for lower-class, racialized or minoritized communities…. Class and race are enmeshed in the context of the global pandemic. So, I don’t think we can talk of one without the other. It’s not just the “racial subject” but “classed, racial subjects” who are bearing the burden of the global pandemic.

MCKAY: So much of scholarship buried class as a category of analysis sometime in the 1980s…. To be interested in labour it was no longer fashionable.  That’s likely going to change after this pandemic…

CHAKRABORTY: I hope so.  We are designating particular groups of people as essential workers, but those essential workers are the ones who are in precarious employment,  bearing not just the burden of contracting the virus but also discrimination, racism, no sick benefits, all of it.  The transportation industry, manufacturing industry, as you said meatpackers, Mexican immigrants who are doing much of the work in Niagara, all of those are “essential.” So, I hope so, because I don’t think you can talk about just race, because that would not give you a full understanding of the context unless we bring in class…

MCKAY: My last question. You’ve pondered the politics deeply of commemoration and really focused especially on the public memory in Canada of Air India Flight 182 in 1985, which blew up with 329 people on board, and yet came to be sidelined in Canada, never really considered a “Canadian event.” It… never got to be considered a Canadian disaster. It was always something happening to the “others.”

I sense a kind of parallel – not a precise one – between that tragedy and the tragedies that we’ve been experiencing this year.   Such events are intrinsically global.  They transcend the boundaries of the nation state. Yet so much of the apparatus of public history and commemoration remains firmly in the hands of public nation-boosters (we might say) who have very atavistic (often very atavistic) ideas about race and belonging. Have you ever seen so many references to “Churchill, our great hero,”  never pondering his ideas about race and belonging…. He’s just, unqualifiedly,  our hero. They’re trying to drum up a nationalist feeling around the pandemic….

So, I wonder if you have considered how Covid-19 could be appropriately commemorated? Must these commemorations be inevitably bound up with the complexes of myths and symbols particular to particular nations, or can we imagine a transnational form of commemoration around Covid-19?

CHAKRABORTY: … Even at the level of the Air India tragedy: yes, it’s a national tragedy, but it is also a transnational tragedy, because on the Air India plane, the bombs were put in in Canada but the plane… blew up in Irish airspace. So, there is an Irish memorial and Irish investment in the tragedy.  Some of the Indian family members who were Canadians just could not live in Canada anymore, after they had lost their entire family. Many have gone back to India… So, it’s a Canadian tragedy; it’s also an Indian tragedy; and it’s also an Irish tragedy. And on that plane there were also other people; there were some British, some German, etc. So, it is a national tragedy, but also a global tragedy

And I think the same could and should apply to this pandemic.  This is a global pandemic. We can see similar kinds of treatments of minorities across …North America and beyond. And I’ve been deeply interested in questions of public memory and cultural history.  What gets scaled up to the level of the national or the global, and what always stays at the level of the local?

With the global pandemic, I think the losses are multifaceted. Many have died quietly, many have been grieving in isolation, many families have not been able to perform last rites and rituals that provide solace to the families, many have not been able to see family members who died in another city or died in another country. It will be important to remember those losses – all those who died without an appropriate funeral or memorial service, and their families and friends.

But there have been other kinds of losses too. Losses of jobs, losses of employment, housing, and …the loss of national belonging (if you think of the anti-Asian racism that we are talking about, and the effects that has on mental health:  the racial grief of non-belonging, feeling non-secure in your citizenship.) Those are losses too – and deep losses.  They are not just bound within the family but spill over into communities and children and transgenerational memories. So, the losses are multiple. I think it is a public health crisis that has demonstrated the inequities in our societies, and we have to acknowledge all these different kinds of losses if we are going to learn from this critical movement of history. There cannot be one way to commemorate this…

MCKAY: One very optimistic reading of the crisis we’ve gone through is: maybe it’s been a harsh lesson in global citizenship. We have to acknowledge the humanity we share with people all around the planet, because … national boundaries don’t make the same sense that they used to make, make even 40 years ago….

CHAKRABORTY: I keep saying that, if there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught us or perhaps should teach us, is how interdependent we are. I can be well if my neighbour is well. I can be well if the person I’m sharing the public transit is well. I can be well if the person that I’m working in the office with and who shares the cubicle with me is well. Interdependence has become so critical.  A better understanding of our  interdependence and our shared coexistence –perhaps that could be a lesson.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE. Vaccine nationalism is so intense. Could you comment on that?

CHAKRABORTY: I am thinking of India, …where there’s not enough vaccines. I have close friends that I have lost as a result of Covid-19 because there were not enough beds, not enough ventilators. And they were living the capital city, Delhi….I don’t think there will be a willingness to share [vaccines[ until countries have made sure their own populations have been vaccinated – even though, until everybody’s globally vaccinated, we are not safe.

MCKAY: It reminds me that not only is class coming back into analysis, but so is imperialism. So much of what happened in India was reminiscent of the imposed famines by the imperial power of the past century.

CHAKRABORTY: Also mis-governance. We can’t just blame imperialism. There’s been intense mis-governance by the Indian government. Complete mismanagement….

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: You made a few comments earlier in your talk about needing to modify our teaching. We have a lot of international students…In introductory history classes, we have lecture halls full of 200 students, and you’re hoping to get students to interact with each other, or even in their tutorials with 30 students. But, they’re often all going off in their [particular separate cultural] groups. Do you have any thoughts or recommendations on how we as educators in the classroom can combat that? So that we’re actively working not to promote those kinds of divisions?

CHAKRABORTY: … Unless the structures on the outside change, can you as a TA in one classroom do that change?…One way of doing that might be, [to look at] what kind of materials are we using in the course. Can we have a conversation space, for example, between Black Lives Matter and Asian Anti-Racism? …If we can build in those conversations throughout the course, so that we’re not replicating those divisions that we see in the classroom, and if we can bring out those intersections, then the students might also see those intersections…I might not have racial kinship with somebody, but I might have class kinship. Or I might have the same kind of immigration history…

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: …Even in the darkest of times [in Hamilton], I’ve seen the development of this truly impressive, amazing interconnected analysis, coming mostly from youth activists. Health justice is houselessness justice, is disability justice, is defund-the-police, is Palestine, is land-back… Activists are seeing connections. I’ve seen it in this city. The moment of despair – and the anger that produces change. Your thoughts?

CHAKRABORTY: I am a pessimist who’s also an optimist. I take a lot of lessons from Roger Simon, the political scholar, who was doing this amazing work on historical memory and trauma. But he kept holding on to hope – hope of the possibility of justice from public education….I see the classroom as a site of radical possibility…. There’s a lot to be hopeful about…. There are seedlings there that will mature into big trees, that will shade themselves, and us.

MCKAY: …I think we’re in a moment of deep crisis, in which so many of our presuppositions and assumptions about the world around us have been shaken. And many conventional ideological grooves have been upset. What emerges from that is going to decisive in the next years. Will people retreat back to their quest for normality? Do they really want to go back to the way the world was? Or, can they retain [insights into] the deep structures of racism, the deep structures of class? Can they retain those insights? This is what Gramsci called an organic crisis of the ruling order…a tremendous moment of opportunity, and of danger.

CHAKRABORTY: …We seem to be moving from crisis to crisis….It’s overwhelming. We seem to be constantly moving from grief to grief to grief. It’s a crisis in so many different ways….The question also is, is the past the past? …For some, the past resides in textbooks, and monuments, and museums. But, what if the past is your daily present? …The long history of racism, the long history of classism, the long history of sexism, all need to be grappled with, as disturbing and inconvenient as they might be. Unless you acknowledge those histories, and recognize them, I don’t know how we can move beyond them. 

MCKAY: Thank you, Chandrima, for a wonderful discussion. I hope your optimism is borne out in the year to come.

[Chandrima Chakraborty spoke to Syndemic on 15 July 2021].

[1] Ed., Remembering Air India: The Art of Public Mourning (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2017).

[2] Iyko Day, “The Yellow Plague and Romantic Anticapitalism,” Monthly Review, 1 July 2020, Link to source.

[3] 27-year-old Vincent Chin, a Chinese American draftsman, was killed outside a club in Highland Park, Michigan, by three white men who evidently assumed he was of Japanese descent and in some way responsible for the success of the Japanese auto industry at the expense of the American.

[4] Audre Lorde, « The Uses of Anger : Women Responding to Racism,” BlackPast, 12 August 2012,