Disclaimer: I’m sure everyone is done hearing about AAPI hot takes about racism in America, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be in terms of discourse and my smooth brain wanted a part of it.
The first point I wanted to address is that of course we should be past the point where I or anyone needs to explain what racism against Asians is. Just like police brutality has been ingrained in our understanding of racism against black people, I shouldn’t have to explain hate crimes against Asians as any type of new thing. There was an interesting Tweet by an academic today saying “That anti-Asian racism exists is just now making the rounds is the most meta statement about anti-Asian racism.”
I’m sure we’re all aware of the stereotypes and micro-aggressions that Asians have to deal with. The list goes on too long to make the point succinctly, but Wikipedia has a good start. Every Asian kid has to go through this, even in sheltered Asian communities. The dehumanization of Asians has happened in the U.S. ever since Asians were forced over to build railroads.
Fundamentally, Asians in America are not and have not been seen as actual people. We’re seen as tools. Hard working, won’t complain, don’t have feelings. We do weird things and can’t assimilate. Asian men are emasculated and Asian women are hyper-sexualized and cast as submissive. And its mainstream and totally okay to think this way, even The New York Times agrees! If we have thoughts that aren’t mainstream, we are ignorant, culturally insensitive, racist even. Asians aren’t passionate about anything, rather they do things mindlessly and committing to something means they have no life.
This type of thinking is exacerbated by antagonistic U.S. policy and rhetoric towards China. Of course the Chinese government does some terrible things, but for most Americans, decoupling the Chinese government from the Chinese people and Chinese Americans is somehow too tough of an ask. It isn’t just the New York Times. The Economist, Financial Times, Axios, The Washington Post, are all part of the problem.
This has affected my family and I on a personal level. Both my parents view the anti-China rhetoric with fear for themselves and their children, warning my sister and I not to go out alone to public places. I know several families that have been robbed and many others who have bought guns in the past year in response. I don’t want to live in a world where my family would ever need to defend themselves, or frankly even need to worry about needing to do so. When we hear stories about violence, when we see pictures of violence, we immediately see our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents in their clothes. I’m not sure if this a specifically immigrant experience, but for me this happens because the only older Asian people I see regularly are my extended family. I can’t help but get emotional when I read about Emily Tan because I can’t help but see my aunt in her face.
Building a family in America as an immigrant is tough. Being a foreigner sometimes, you just don’t have the time or ability to make friends. Your family isn’t around, and you really are just by yourself with people that don’t look like you. This can be very scary, and especially so when stereotypes cast you as socially awkward. Among many other reasons, this is why talk of banning WeChat was a big middle finger to Chinese Americans. I’m very lucky that my family can afford plane tickets to see my grandparents once a year. Losing another channel of communication would have been devastating not just for me but especially so for my grandparents.
I grew up in Baltimore, which truth be told is a diverse city. Still, I knew very few Asians growing up, and basically none of them lived nearby. My elementary and middle school was white and I was the only Asian boy in my grade. My high school was mostly black and I was one of two Asian students in my grade. In a city that prides itself on diversity, I never really felt seen until college where I finally had Asian peers. I felt the need to clarify things, dumb things down, and filter in order to avoid stereotypes and try to fit in. “Do you speak Asian? Oh actually I speak Chinese!“. Peers would assume my parents were racist or speak in an accent or force me to do homework or play piano. In reality, the only interaction my parents ever had with my studies were to pay bills and my parents both speak perfect English.
Very rarely would I ever talk about race (or want to), but during our unit on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it was basically unavoidable. From anti-Asian violence to affirmative action to the Tianamen Square Massacre, somehow I felt the need to play damage control and represent the views of an entire nation of people. As a teenager or I think probably at any stage in life, you don’t want to see ‘your people’ in the position of a scapegoat.
I think at its core, it comes from a desire to want others to see where you are coming from. Acknowledging the very real disadvantages of affirmative action on Asians does not make you culturally insensitive. Wanting to be proud of the immense technological and societal progress that China has made does not make me un-American or a Chinese nationalist. I remember one interaction about the increasing number of rap lyrics about robbing Asian businesses and the correlated rise in Asian hate crimes. The word for word messages that I got were that “Asians are fine” and “Asians don’t experience racism.”
These kinds of experiences don’t hurt me, but they could hurt people in the future if not corrected, and these habits are best corrected during school years. Unfortunately, while our high school had tons of work from authors who described diverse (minus Asians) American experiences like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and John Steinbeck, as well as the classics like Shakespeare, etc., the only required literature we ever read about Asians was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which is about the Cultural Revolution and is banned in China (many Chinese view it as an unfair/distorted Eurocentric view). I get why we would read this book (even though it was Summer reading and few people actually read the book), but it doesn’t offer any perspective on the immigrant Asian American experience, which is the experience of Asian people my fellow students will actually interact with in America. It certainly shouldn’t be my job or the job of other students who are the only Asians in their class.
One last point about the world that I currently live in and will live in in the future. So I’d consider myself an aspiring scientist, maybe even scientist entrepreneur. In these fields, there is no shortage of brilliant Asians. However, the apparent overrepresentation of Asians in academia allows silent hatred to be normalized. Asians very commonly come to the U.S. to train and do graduate school or post-docs. Immigrating in your 20s or 30s and leaving behind friends and family is tough, and academia is stressful enough on its own especially when you start reading all these papers in your second or even third language. Yet, there are tons of stories both in my personal experience and others demonstrating the verbal and emotional abuse that our fellow scientists face. We need to stop enabling people to treat our peers in a way that dehumanizes them, and instead of standing by we need to actively engage and help each other in these circumstances.
So to summarize, racism occurs when people aren’t seen as human and the recent shootings reopened the realization that many Americans still don’t see Asians as people. This problem is systemic and exacerbated by large cultural institutions that enable Asian bashing without appropriate pushback. The Asian experience in America on the whole is a uniquely rich, fulfilling, and happy place to be but these problems are not going away any time soon and will continue to cause pain if not addressed. Perhaps an echo chamber of hashtags, reposts, and yellow squares on Instagram won’t address the issue. But, we can make progress by including Asian Americans in the film industry, deepening cultural appreciation of the Asian experience during grade school, and speaking up at the local and personal level when appropriate.