It’s been two weeks since the Atlanta spa shootings. Are you still outraged? Or are you tired and need a break? If you’re tired, that’s normal, and you’re not a bad person, but recognize that’s privilege at work. Some of us can retreat to the comfort and distraction of our homes. Others can be asleep at home in the middle of the night and systemic racism will still find them like it did Breonna Taylor. Racial trauma is inescapable. As mainstream media’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) flavor-of-the-month coverage starts to wind down, the conversation is far from over. And I, for one, still have a lot to unpack.
I want to talk about how discussing Asian-related hate does not take away from other racial injustices. It is not a zero-sum game. We can talk about bigotry toward Asians, Black Lives Matter, migrant children being detained and many more inequities at the same time. Racial conversations demand nuance and we can’t resort to binary thinking. The secret to this dialogue is – wait for it – multiple things can be true at the same time!
I want to talk about how declining to immediately classify the Atlanta shootings as a hate crime is a slap in the face, not just for Asian Americans but to the whole notion of hate crimes. Investigators initially said the suspect’s motivation was sex, not race. But the optics play out differently: Six of eight victims are Asian women. The accused shooter chose three spas, two of which he allegedly had frequented. He would have known they’d be predominantly occupied by Asian women and may have conflated those spas and Asian women with sex. As Trevor Noah said on The Daily Show: “Don’t tell me that this thing had nothing to do with race. Even if the shooter says that he thinks it has to do with his sex addiction, you can’t disconnect this violence from the racial stereotypes that people attach to Asian women. This guy blamed a specific race of people for his problems, and then murdered them because of it. If that’s not racism, then the word has no meaning.”
I want to talk about the stereotyping and fetishization of Asian women as exotic, hypersexual, submissive beings. While the “me love you long time” image is pervasive in modern media, the stereotypes are embedded in American history. The Page Act of 1875 essentially restricted women from “China, Japan or any Oriental country” from entering this country for “lewd and immoral purposes.” Asian women (more specifically Chinese, but it’s laughable to think anyone at the time was making a distinction) were characterized as prostitutes and promiscuous, as part of a smear campaign born out of general xenophobia of Asians known as the yellow peril.
I want to talk about how it’s important to make clear distinctions between hate-related incidents against Asians and crimes where the victims happen to be Asian. They are not synonymous and creating false equivalencies is not just irresponsible, but damaging to all Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), as it can pit communities of color against each other. That said, the surge in anti-Asian sentiment is real and the statistics don’t tell the full story. Historically, anti-Asian attacks go underreported for various reasons, including language barriers, distrust of government and law enforcement, and fear of systemic racism.
I want to talk about how proud I am of the AAPI community for this racial reckoning. We are demanding inclusion when it comes to race conversations, which too often default to Black and white. There are many factors to this outcry, including a generational shift from the immigrant mentality of working hard with your head down, to second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans less concerned about assimilation, as well as the strength in numbers that comes from being the fastest-growing racial group in the country.
I want to talk about how the AAPI community often complains about not being heard, but there have been people advocating for us the whole time. Organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund have been doing the work. Just because we didn’t have an Asian Al Sharpton doesn’t mean we weren’t there. While cultural norms play a significant factor in perceptions of our activism, we are now witnessing an inflection point with the collective AAPI voice.
I want to talk about why our voice has been minimalized in education, politics and pop culture. Similarly to how Black history was erased (how is it I found out about Black Wall Street from Watchmen?), what did you learn about Asians in America in your required curriculum growing up? Two paragraphs on the people who built our railroads? How many Asian elected officials could you name? What did you hear and see about us in the media? That we love kung fu? Have buck teeth? That Asian women are geishas and concubines? If that’s the messaging you receive and you don’t have the firsthand experience to debunk those myths, how do you separate those stereotypes from the truth?
I want to talk about the insidious consequences of minimalization. It manifested in many ways for me, from refusing to learn my parents’ language to openly calling myself “c—k” or “twinkie” (yellow on outside, white inside) just to show I was “cool” and not overly sensitive. These are not examples of victimhood, but stories of miseducation. I have countless more examples and I’m not alone. All these microaggressions have macro effects. It led me to reject my culture. Asians who spoke with an accent, dressed differently or played the violin were the problem. I wanted to be included within the majority and would exclude my own people to defend my status. Many white people don’t have these malicious intentions, so it’s difficult for them to hear and interpret. This is why these are called systemic issues. We don’t realize it’s happening, we are just products of it.
I want to talk about Asian division. Let’s not sugarcoat it: Our countries of origin often have tremendous contempt for one another. And those prejudices run rampant in America. We also sow division by ranking our Asian Americanness. A common response to Asian xenophobia is: “I was born here.” We need to stop that. I can’t even compute how many times I’ve said that to prove my patriotism, but that comment negates the experiences of our parents, grandparents and all the immigrants who had the courage to come here chasing a better life. They deserve much more credit for their sacrifice and are certainly just as American as whichever xenophobe is provoking this question in the first place. Thinking otherwise is one of the results of binary, oppressive thinking. You’ve been in this country longer? Congrats, here’s your participation trophy.
I want to talk about the biggest Asian stereotype and how it was used to drive a wedge between Asian and Black people. The model minority myth was created after World War II as a propaganda tool to create infighting among nonwhite people. We Asians were patsies to downplay the systemic racism in place to keep down a surging Black power movement. A reminder: Just years before Asians were “promoted” to model minorities, we were the yellow peril, banned from immigrating to this country and thrown into internment camps. Are you catching a theme? White supremacy, like Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is behind so many evils.
I want to talk about the failure of much of the AAPI community to speak against all racial injustice. As loud as we are about what’s happening now, we need to replicate those efforts for all injustice. Not that we haven’t been there – and if you know names such as Yuri Kochiyama (who held Malcolm X after he was assassinated) and Bruce Lee, you know how deep Black and Asian solidarity runs. But while many in the Asian community are repeating Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” it’s not coming from enough of us.
I want to talk about colorism in the Asian community. Fair complexions traditionally conveyed wealth and status, as those with darker skin were laborers. Also, countries in Asia are racially homogenous, so they are vulnerable to the same mass media stereotypes and generalizations of others. We must be honest on how those values embedded in Asian cultures can affect attitudes toward the Black community, and we must call it out.
I want to talk about Black allyship, which you can run back to the days of Frederick Douglass denouncing the Chinese Exclusion Act to Rev. Jesse Jackson calling out the racist murder of Vincent Chin to something as simple as Damian Lillard wearing a Stop Asian Hate T-shirt at a Portland Trail Blazers-Orlando Magic game. Some recent social media videos show elderly Asians attacked by Black assailants. The lack of context has created an inaccurate narrative in some Asian communities scapegoating Black people for anti-Asian hate in the same way Asians have been scapegoated for the pandemic. For the people in the back: This is too complex an issue for binary thinking. We need to identify the hypocrisy and understand that these tensions are rooted in white supremacy. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist within BIPOC communities. It absolutely does and we need to confront that. When our friends and relatives start sounding like a Karen at the grocery store, we have to hold them accountable. Hear it? Challenge it.
I want to talk about what’s next. Many well-intentioned people are asking how to be a better ally. Click the hyperlinks above to learn more, find resources and connect to AAPI organizations. Take an implicit association test to learn about your own subconscious biases. Don’t just lean on your one Asian “friend” to provide all the answers. Be proactive. Because allyship and anti-racism aren’t just about listening, it’s about changing. And that’s on you.