To Fight Against Anti-Asian Bigotry, We Need to Reshape America’s Perspective on It
Learning lessons is the first step of making crucial transformations for anti-Asian crime to not be unaccounted for ever again.
It’s difficult to write while steeped in disappointment and anger, but those were justified feelings when we hear the tragic, yet unsurprising story of eight people, six of them are Asian women, were being murdered by a self-proclaimed white evangelical “sexual addict” who believes his privilege yields him the power to take away the lives of others. His actions were perhaps the most deadly, most explicit, and most terrifying instance of the continuously rising incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes that had risen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout America, From California to New York, we have seen public, open incidents of Asian people, especially those were are older and more vulnerable, being physically shoved or attacked by strangers. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a rights advocacy group, there have been roughly 3,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reported to them.
Numbers do not tell the full story in this circumstance. Many hate crime data comes from statistics in the law enforcement of reported incidents. For reasons more than obvious, the numbers are under-reported because many do not trust the police as a viable institution to solve hate crimes. An example of why there is mistrust in the police could be traced to the recent case of Christian Hall, a 19-year old of Asian descent who suffered a mental health breakdown that resulted in him being shot seven times and killed by police officers in Pennsylvania who are unqualified to treat mental illness situations.
Being silent and timid towards hatred for Asians and Asian Americans overall living in the U.S., is submission and approval of centuries of abuse and outright discrimination vested against our interest and even livelihood. For many, these incidents act as the final wake up call to the grim reality that insufficient actions against oppression are no longer viable.
Some other ethnicities have faced even worse, even more endless debilitating and direct acts of exploitation against them from a system that, from the beginning of this country, was not built for them to succeed. They were subjects to cycles of recurring cycles of racist policies on education, housing, voting rights, policing, healthcare, justice, and employment. That is often not the case for Asians who moved to America, like me, who came to the U.S. to study at a private institution from a middle-class background in China. I am a person of privilege. It protected me from financial insecurities and other different and many discriminations that seemed to be related to wealth but actually to do with my skin color and my gender. But this is why more like me ought to stand up and speak for ourselves for our interests and basic rights to be respected, in a country that tries to champion equal opportunities.
In order to speak for ourselves and fight for our rights, we must point out something that has been said already by May Jeong in the New York Times: everything about these murders are tied to race, sex and class. In many parts of the United States, certain massage parlors perform illegal sex work under the name of massage, and many of the workers are Asian Immigrants, at times without the valid papers to legally stay in the country.
Jeong, who is a writer on the topic of sex work, have found other incidents of horrific murders targeted against Asians in massage parlors, which make it painstakingly clear that these events for men expressing their anger and frustration by exerting lethal violence against Asian women are not an abnormality but a pattern. This pattern comes from a long-held belief in the American culture and society that, en masse, sexually and socially fetishizes Asian women to stereotypical images of sexually aggressive, willing, weak, but also submissive playtoys. They don’t have their independent opinions and suit the needs of their men, without reservation. That was very far from the reality of most Asian women in America: most are working in service industries, with the lowest wages and most lack of respect.
Such a characterization may be the most poignant example of the Western culture’s prose of orientalization that most people do not realize or have yet to change their perceptions of, yet. Why? Because it hasn't been pushed back collectively harder. Similar to the movements of solidarity for the rights of Black Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women, it was massive social movements that change social perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable. This is probably why in the Atlantic, staff writer Morgan Ome and essayist Cathy Park Hong believes this may be the final turning point for public perception of the long, persistent anti-Asian sentiment in America. In Ome’s interview of Hong, Hong documented incidents of people of Asian descent that had been brushed off not as a particular type of discrimination, such the when United Airlines dragged off a Vietnamese American passenger in 2017 because the airline oversold tickets.
Just like how 9/11 made the American political and social environment instigated a massive campaign of antagonization and vilification of Muslims as a form of moral panic and revenge against the terrorist attack, the COVID-19 pandemic has done the same to Asian Americans, but especially Chinese people and those who look like them. Since early in the pandemic, incidents of hate have occurred, and conspiracy theories of the origin of the virus from fringe outlets and even some mainstream outlets have created a social environment unfriendly for the community.
It began to grow when right-wing politicians, with the most explicit example from former President Trump, who more than once blamed China to be responsible for the West’s ineffectiveness to control the pandemic, and even using racist names like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” to do nothing else but encourage his supporters to not only be adversarial to China, but its people and those they think who are Chinese. This also became a justification for Trump to enact a number of policies that specifically target Chinese people living in the U.S., including not lifting the travel restriction against China long after it had the situation under control, closing the Chinese embassy and limiting issues of visas, and a failed attempt to expel Chinese students by forcing ICE to deport foreign students taking online classes full-time in the country. This move leaves a painful legacy that no one could easily erase: according to Pew, fifty-five percent of respondents in a survey said they support limits on Chinese students in the United States, with one in five strongly support such limits.
Under the Biden Administration, the official sentiment has been more empathetic towards the sadness and sorrow the Asian community have been feeling after a year of blunt alienation. He directly condemned the attacks as “sinful” and “depraved,” and pinpoints Trump for direct responsibility. Unlike Trump, who seemed incapable of condemning racism when it comes from people who like him, Biden, despite being one a privileged background because of his identity, has acknowledged the reality of racism by saying in his remarks when visiting Atlanta that xenophobia and sexism have continued to exist in this country.
The right sentiment can lead to the right mindset propelling change, but it is obviously not enough. We have to stop the alienation and hate against the Asian community by doing way more. And by more, it means institutional change that could bring the social and cultural environment more protection and respect. However, the reason why hate crimes rise and protections and respect are not in place is because instead of that, many do not even have the proper recognition of their identity. Just like how orientalism created the fetishization of Asian women, the lack of outspokenness often found among the Asian community made them largely represented not by themselves, but by stereotypical myths created by others.
Among the most powerful of the myths is undoubtedly the phrase “model minority.” In 1999, political scientist Claire Jean Kim created the phrase “racial triangulation” to fight against this harmful stereotype, which is usually used in an explicitly racist way for right-wing politicians to compare Asians with Black, Latino and Native American communities when they fight for equality. The “modeled” are assigned with positive virtues like “diligence,” “discipline” and “self-sufficiency,” but the “underclass,” in comparison, carry “laziness,” “deviance,” and “criminal inclinations.” In this model, White people have a higher sense of respect over Asian Americans compared to Blacks, but will never accept them, unlike Blacks, as actually a part of this country.
Although the institution of white supremacy and many other institutions were designed to withhold the superiority of Whites against Black people who they bought from Africa through to cruel system of enslavement, racism isn’t monolithic, and we cannot understand the racism existing in American institutions only as a conflict between white and black.
What role did the Asians play in this conflict? They are the pawn for White valorization when needed to be compared to Blacks, but as the dominant group, the emphasis is always on “minority,” a term that heavily implies the impossibility of actual assimilation and integration. When they are no longer felt needed for the number of them stirs worry of the Whites no longer being a majority, then policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act will expel them.
The Asian community is not only not a monolith, but perhaps one of the least likely to integrate as one community among all socially constructed communities. most do not share the same political background, language, religion and cultural customs. They are also from different economic backgrounds because they moved to the U.S. under very different situations. That doesn’t mean community efforts should not stick together. Everyone’s voices need to be elevated in a fight against inequality and discrimination.
Reform comes from the change of collective memory and commemoration of Asian and Asian American identity. Discriminatory policies that had once been enacted against the communities from the U.S. government, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Internment of Japanese Americans must be taught in education and commemorated more publicly as a moment of shame. More social and political participation of Asians should also be in place: as 6.5% of the U.S. population, Asian Americans currently only have 11 Representatives and 2 Senators. When government policy and the legal system cannot reach the direct need for assistance, community solidarity and organizing, such as the current efforts we have observed to organize protests and professional organizations that have represented Asian interests, such as the Asian American Journalists Association, which condemned the recent attacks vehemently more than once. They are the beginning of change and a better future for all people living in this country and wishing for a safe future.