When you hear about the ‘cost of living’, you likely think of the finances you need to live a life – for rent, education, groceries, etc. However, when it comes to living in the Western world, minority identities have an additional cost to pay. This cost is entirely different from paying a mortgage; it is invisible and acts as a continuous toll for those who are labelled as ‘different’, including but not limited to people of Asian communities. This invisible toll is paid in a variety of inequitable ways, and more times than not it must be perpetually paid in order to maintain a semblance of ‘membership’ in this society.
The question we need to ask ourselves is how is this toll paid, and why?
The most jarring example of this ‘invisible toll’ is the cost we have to pay to simply exist in the same space as those who belong to the dominant groups in society. I think back to this one day in high school when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was with some friends walking out of the school cafeteria heading to class. We walked past this group of guys who normally congregated at the exit doors; the next thing I knew my head became acquainted with a nearby concrete pillar. It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened – I had just been assaulted. My split forehead and the blood pouring down my face made sure I realized it; the scar that settled in over my right eyebrow made sure I never forgot it.
When something like this happens to you, especially at a young age, you ask yourself what you did to deserve it. Did I step on someone’s foot? Did I look at someone funny? The perpetrator was promptly expelled so I never got an answer as to why I was the target of his ire that day. Years later, I now recognize that there may never have been a real ‘reason’ for it.
Like many others who live in South Asian skin, my mere existence may have been enough to incur a toll that I had not agreed to pay. Nonetheless, I unwittingly had to pay it.
So how else is this ‘invisible toll’ paid? Look no further than the recent rise of anti-Asian hate and violence that has spiked in Canada and across the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2020, Statistics Canada reported that the proportion of visible minorities who experienced harassment or attacks based on their ethnicity had tripled since the start of the pandemic a mere 5 months prior. That number has undoubtedly continued to skyrocket in the last 9 months. In this climate, the ‘cost of living’ for people of Asian descent has become more apparent. Being subjected to racialized hate and violence is now their cost of living; Asian Canadians have to pay this toll just to be able to walk down the street, to go to the grocery store, or to simply exist. It’s not a cost anyone agrees to pay, but it’s a cost that some people have unilaterally decided they must pay.
Some of the largest increases in recent race-based harassment have been amongst those of South Asian descent. On March 17th 2021, in the middle of a nice suburban neighborhood in New York City, my cousin was attacked in her driveway. As she was returning home from work that night, someone came up behind her and threw acid in her face. She suffered all kinds of lifelong burns and injuries from something that took a stranger mere seconds to do. On March 17, someone unilaterally decided that my cousin’s ‘cost of living’, the toll she had to pay just for existing, was to have acid thrown in her face, and so that’s what they did. But this was no micro-aggression; nobody shouted at her on the street or spray-painted racist terms on her garage. This time, the ‘invisible toll’ was a life-altering act of hate that would change someone’s life forever.
The last question to consider is ‘why’ we pay this toll. Truthfully, I don’t know the answer, and I think that is the point. It’s not a toll we should be paying.
What I do know is that more and more people are becoming aware of the ‘cost of living’ of minority communities and recognize they have a part to play in reducing it. This is why non-performative allyship in every space is so incredibly important. Every time you recognize a micro-aggression and shut it down, every time you educate someone on racial justice, every time you meaningfully include someone who does not look like you in a room full of people who do, you reduce that person’s ‘invisible toll’ by a bit each time. Asian Canadians may be the group to make headlines lately, but we were not the first and we will certainly not be the last.
We all bear our own cost of living, but it is our obligation to recognize that others can suffer from an additional, ‘invisible toll’ as well and challenge ourselves to help them reduce it.