‘Racist and sexist’: Young Asian women respond to video that’s rocked B.C. election

Candidates and advocates describe their pain — and determination to end the old boys’ club
Photo: Province of B.C.
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“Horrible.”

That’s how 26-year-old Tesicca Truong has felt since she saw the video of B.C. Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite making sexualized comments about North Vancouver-Lonsdale’s B.C. NDP candidate Bowinn Ma.

Thornthwaite made her comments during the B.C. Liberals’ virtual “roast” on Sept. 17 for MLA Ralph Sultan’s retirement. In the video clip, released over Twitter by podcast host Mo Amir Saturday evening, Thornthwaite described interactions between Sultan and Ma at a community event, suggesting that Ma used her appearance to charm her opponent.

The video clip has dominated political discussion in B.C. for the past 48 hours, less than two weeks from the Oct. 24 provincial election and on the eve of Tuesday’s televised leaders’ debate.

‘I just felt really disgusted’

"Bowinn is a very pretty lady, she knows she’s got it, and she knows how to get Ralph going,” Thornthwaite said on the Zoom call, eliciting laughter from the other B.C. Liberals present, including party leader Andrew Wilkinson.

“We were supposed to be networking and all this, but Bowinn knows how to get you,” she said. “There are these big couches. But Ralph would be sitting on the middle of the couch and Bowinn would be right up, next to him, cuddling, cuddling, cuddling, a little bit of cleavage there. And Ralph would be enthralled with her.”

Tessica Truong is running for the NDP in Vancouver-Langara.
Simon Fraser University - Communications and Marketing / Flickr

Prior to the video leaking on Saturday night, Truong — a first-time MLA candidate running with the NDP in Vancouver-Langara — said she was looking forward to the long weekend as a time of rest during a hectic campaign. But watching the footage has brought back memories of hurtful experiences in her long-time community advocacy and political work because of her identity as a young, queer, Chinese-Vietnamese Canadian woman.

“You could probably hear it in my voice. I cried last night and I cried this morning,” Truong said on Sunday afternoon, her voice quavering.

Most importantly, according to Truong and other young Asian women who have spoken to Ricochet, the video is a reminder of why people who share their identities don’t often enter or stay in politics.

Alongside the sexism that has been widely condemned, they pointed out how the comments also intersect with racism by hypersexualizing Asian women. Ma is of Taiwanese descent.

“I just felt really disgusted because a lot of the comments that were said are racist tropes that were made against women of colour, and specifically against Asian women,” said Paula Tran, a Vietnamese Canadian woman who used to be involved in student politics.

Nadine Nagakawa is a city councillor in New Westminster.

Nadine Nakagawa, a first-term New Westminster city councillor who is mixed race and queer, agrees. She said she often wears bright lipstick and flowers in her hair to push back against traditional expectations of authority, but she is aware that they can bring negative judgment.

“I'm sure that people do make judgment on me about my intelligence, my sexuality, how I got to these positions, what right I have to be there,” she said. “So it feels it's like a reminder of something that I try not to think about. … They really just dug into stereotypes that are both racist and sexist.”

Truong also noted the ageist component of Thornthwaite’s comment. Prior to the election, Ma was the youngest MLA in the province.

‘No other B.C. Liberals have reached out’

Beyond Thornthwaite’s comments, all three women also criticized those who laughed along on the call, including B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.

“It was just horrible to see not the deafening silence, but the laughter — not just people feeling uncomfortable about it, but people laughing,” said Truong.

“This is a society problem so we need to practise intervening in these moments and just trusting that what you're hearing is wrong without having the racialized person explain as to why it is wrong,” Nakagawa added, expressing the need for allies to step up.

Thornthwaite first tweeted on Sunday what many called a “non-apology” before following up in another post saying, “I unreservedly apologize for making these comments.” Wilkinson similarly tweeted an apology, acknowledging that “on reflection, those comments were inappropriate” and “never should have happened.”

However, other B.C. Liberal members who could be seen on the Zoom call — including current election candidates like long-time Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong, West Vancouver-Capilano candidate Karin Kirkpatrick and West Vancouver-Sea to Sky candidate Jordan Sturdy — have not publicly apologized. Ricochet reached out to these three candidates individually to ask why they did not intervene when Thornthwaite made her comments, but none of them responded by press time.

Ma confirmed on Monday that Thornthwaite has contacted her, adding that “no other B.C. Liberals have reached out” to her.

And while Ma said she would continue to work with Thornthwaite if they are both re-elected, she added that the harm is bigger than the video’s impact on her and that these kinds of incidents are not rare. Besides the video, the B.C. Liberals have also been facing criticisms about candidates accused of homophobia and transphobia.

“I appreciate the apologies that have been offered to me, but this frankly isn’t about me. Comments like those that were revealed in the video harm all women, girls, and non-binary people in this province,” Ma told the press in an appearance on Monday morning.

‘We don’t belong in these spaces alone’

This is especially because politics is still predominantly white and a “boys’ club,” as Tran described.

Before its dissolution in September, the B.C. Legislature had 34 women serving as MLAs out of 87 seats. Only eight were racialized women, including Melanie Mark, who is the first female Indigenous MLA and cabinet minister in the province. Very few are LGBTQ+ representatives. Mable Elmore became the first Filipina and out lesbian MLA when she was first elected in 2009.

But while these incidents and statistics can be discouraging, some who spoke to Ricochet said they are also motivated to enter or stay in politics to continue building diverse representation. And alongside pushing political parties to facilitate an inclusive environment, they stressed the importance of building coalitions instead of going in alone.

“It’s fucking hard, there’s no sugarcoating it,” said Truong.

“But that’s exactly also why we need to be there because it’s not that we don’t belong in these spaces. It’s just that we don’t belong in these spaces alone. I made sure that I surrounded myself with a team that is mostly women of colour, mostly folks who are queer, trans, two-spirit, young people. For so long, leadership hasn’t looked like us and that’s exactly what needs to change.”

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