Written by Step Above Stigma’s Photo/ Videographer, Jade Courchesne
(content warnings: racism/ racial violence)
At the height of the pandemic, a young man pointed me out to his group of friends and coughed loudly in my direction. He called me “dirty”, and uttered a slur that most East Asians know to be abhorrent and derogatory. The next day, I heard that the vulnerable members of our community — our elders and children — were being targeted by racially-motivated assailants who knew that their victims couldn’t possibly fight back. All around the world, activists and allies took to the streets to protest the rising cases of racial violence, to speak out against the growing anti-Asian sentiment. Our trauma was thrown into the limelight, offering a small shred of hope that things were seemingly starting to change, as our stories were finally given a more visible space to exist outside of our community. It is a brutal and heart-breaking revelation, then, that just over a week ago on the 27th of June, a large group of people attacked three Asian students in Brisbane, Queensland. They were robbed and kicked, and dragged by their hair.
Yet again, many members of our community are left to grieve — feeling anxious, and alone.
These hateful acts weigh down on the AAPI community and prompt us to navigate our everyday lives with a heightened sense of awareness. We realize that our lives are seen to carry less value than others — that we must protect each other where our institutions have failed to do so. We worry about our families and tell them to be careful, and we avoid situations that can render us vulnerable. With the pandemic offering a limited amount of in-person resources for the community, discussions of anxiety and fear can be swept under the rug. Here at Queen’s University, a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, Clarissa de Leon, set up a number of virtual community care sessions in response to the increasing violence and exposure to traumatic news stories online. Inspired by a similar care session following the 2021 Atlanta Shootings on March 16th, 2021 (held by the Asian Mental Health Collective), Clarissa fills a gap in the mental health support network at Queen’s, eventually gaining institutional support from Angela Sahi (AMS Social Issues Commissioner), Yellow House, and Dr. Arunima Khanna, a cross-cultural advisor at Queen’s working with Student Wellness Services.
Named the Queen’s Asian Community Care Drop-Ins (QACCD), the community care sessions are open to Asian-identifying and mixed-race students looking to receive and give care to others who may be experiencing a lack of support during this time. They aim to provide validation and healing for their attendees, and to ensure that issues of any kind can be discussed with open-minded individuals barring any fear of judgement. While the personal details within QACCD will remain confidential, I hope to make a point about how spaces like these can become a valuable resource for marginalized students.
Respecting the Diversity of the ‘Asian’ label
The drop-ins create a safe environment for students to both speak and listen to individuals from a variety of pan-Asian backgrounds. To foster an accountable space, participants agree to respect the experiences of those around us, to react to others’ opinions with empathy and to interrupt our own prejudices by actively engaging in self-reflective conversations. What immediately came to the fore at my first meeting was the willingness of the attendees to be open with the specific details of their experiences. There were new conversations about how the Asian identity intersects with queerness, or with gender; how certain microaggressions hurt more than others; how we learn to cope with lapses in mental health due to the persisting stigma surrounding the subject in many communities. By allowing the space for these discussions to happen, we are encouraged to articulate our experiences within our existing social systems, to understand that privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive. Those who live with multiple layers of marginalized identities can be seen and included, with their experiences used as a frame of reference to address the wide spectrum of systemic injustices that can intersect with the Asian identity.
Providing Empathy and Validation
At my second meeting, I shared a personal experience that had been bothering me for some time. Days after the first reports of an assault in Toronto, a stranger followed me home for four blocks while I was out on a walk. I made a mental note that it could have just been a coincidence, or that my gender gave me away as a vulnerable target, regardless of my race. Either way, I dismissed any feelings of fear, but as I sped up my footsteps, so did he. I stepped into a Shoppers and lost him at the exit. A couple of days later, I confessed to a friend that I had feared I would be verbally harassed or pushed, just as I had seen on the news. That my hair would be pulled and my arms grabbed by a stranger.
They told me that I needn’t worry, since I was young and strong — I could defend myself if I needed to, since the attacks were only perpetrated on the elderly. So it became a source of anxiety that I didn’t feel entitled to feeling — for what if it had been a coincidence, and I was merely overreacting?
I can’t tell you how relieved I was when another attendee revealed that they had experienced something similar; that they understood the need to overexplain, to clarify and to apologize for their stories. I learned that my self-doubt is a built-in consequence of our social structures, so our marginalizations seem like uncommon and isolated incidents; when in fact, they are more frequent and uncomfortable than we might imagine. Within QACCD, I was met with an immediate level of understanding as participants are united by their collective experiences on the margins of a society that sees them as perpetual outsiders. It’s an incredibly affirming and validating feeling — to know that the people listening have every reason to trust in your experience because they themselves have lived through it.
Offering the Means to Heal
Something that many outspoken activists and allies recognize is the sense of emotional fatigue from a constant exposure to anti-oppressive and anti-racist discourses. An important addition to QACCD is the element of de-escalation at the end of the sessions. We take the time to acknowledge that our own risks in sharing our experiences — despite feeling vulnerable — since our perspectives can serve as valuable references for those who may feel alienated or alone. Lead by Dr. Arunima Khanna, we engage in the practice of mindfulness and guided meditation. This addition offers a series of crucial reminders: that our bodies deserve care and healing on its own terms; that we can remain grounded and connected to our mental wellbeing; and, that when we find ourselves in heightened moments of stress, we can be compassionate and self-aware. We are taught to slow down for a moment, to process our experiences within a healthier headspace.
Community care is grounded in a collective mindset that prioritizes the exchange of empathy, meaning that our relationship to those attending the session is a two-way street. In our roles as community members, we aim to both mitigate our own symptoms of trauma while giving ourselves up as resources to others who need this form of support as well. Clarissa offers up this space not as a figure of authority, but as a friend and educator looking to empower racialized students to learn new ways of understanding others. Committed to prioritizing an ethic of care, Clarissa’s work in anti-racism and decolonization sets a lovely example for the rest of us to show up for other marginalized groups outside of the Asian community — whether or not their identities intersect with ours — because every person is deserving of a support system that treats them with kindness, dignity and humanity. Like links on a chain, by spotlighting these community care drop-ins, I hope to connect this resource to anyone who may be seeking any form of emotional support — whether it’s for themselves or to share with a loved one. An unfortunate truth of the Asian/ Asian diasporic community is that this form of communal support in relation to mental health continues to be stigmatized and underrepresented. As we take the step to gain more knowledge about identity, race and health, we have the chance to make that information more accessible to others so that the barriers surrounding mental health can become less daunting to overcome.
Search Queen’s Asian Community Care Group on Facebook.
To access the Group directly, use this link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/825129284766943
Or, feel free to contact me privately through firstname.lastname@example.org
The Asian Mental Health Collective Website — On the barriers specific to the AAPI community:
The Asian Mental Health Collective — Facebook Page:
Subtle Asian Mental Health — Facebook Group:
Showing up for other BIPOC groups: Healing in Colour
A Directory of BIPOC therapists in Canada that offer remote sessions:
Read our blog posts about personal experiences and stories with regards to mental health. Posts written by our team or those passionate about mental health.