Written by Erik Zhang, Linda Cui, Lily Deng, Ying Loo, Natalie Qin
This year, February 12th marked the start of Lunar New Year. It is a time meant for reuniting with family, honoring our ancestors, and ushering in luck and prosperity. Traditionally a time of festivities and hope for the new year, this year’s celebrations were marred not only by the challenges of COVID-19, but also by a string of violence against the Asian/Pacific Islander American (APIA) community. While we, as individuals of East Asian descent, recognize that the perspectives conveyed in this piece may not and cannot capture the entire range of experiences within the broader APIA community, the reality of the situation is that violence against Asians in America occurs regardless of ethnic boundaries. In instances of discrimination, the vastness of the Asian diaspora is reduced to one.
Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting database documenting the escalation of xenophobia and bigotry during the COVID-19 pandemic, received over 3,800 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide since its creation in 2020. We were sickened to hear stories of people who were simply walking down the street and fatally slammed to the ground, pushed on the sidewalk, slashed across the face on the New York City subway, attacked with acid outside their home, and robbed and assaulted. It has been horrifying to see so many accounts of violence emerge, each depicting cruel and vicious assaults on members of the APIA community. Unfortunately, these attacks have not come as a surprise.
This recent wave of racist rhetoric and actions is neither isolated nor the only problem affecting our communities. Although COVID-19 has brought a unique set of circumstances that has pushed discrimination against Asians into focus, anti-Asian sentiment is not a novel phenomenon in American history. Among many other Asian stereotypes that have created the conditions necessary for people to act on their prejudices against Asian people, the current attacks must be placed within a context of:
(1) broad cultural acceptance of the “model minority myth”: The term “model minority” was coined in 1966 by William Petersen, a white sociologist, to applaud Japanese Americans for becoming “exceptionally law-abiding alien residents” despite facing discrimination and internment during World War II. Perpetuating the model minority myth ultimately groups all Asians as one homogenous entity, discounts the vast cultural diversity among Asian Americans, and neglects how immigration law has been used to discriminate against certain types of Asian immigrants that do not fit into the model minority framework. Initially used during the Civil Rights Movement, this concept remains in use to justify the oppression of Black Americans and obscure the effects of systemic racism in the United States.
(2) tropes labeling Asian people and practices as vectors of disease: Many Chinese immigrants arriving after the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were “misrepresented… [by public health authorities] as diseased carriers of incurable afflictions, like smallpox and bubonic plague, as a means to justify anti-immigration policy and to drum up hysteria against Asian immigrants, who were perceived as a threat to white Americans for jobs.” Recent references to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “kung flu” are derived from the same fears and fit directly in this inaccurate stereotype.
(3) the historical and contemporary legacy of xenophobic messaging: From centuries of political propaganda depicting anti-Asian sentiments to films such as U.S. made film Minari not being considered “American” enough for Golden Globe eligibility outside of the foreign-language category, APIAs are continuously perceived as perpetual foreigners and never as true Americans.
If we fail to address racism against Asian communities and the communities of our non-Asian allies, similar events in the future are inevitable.
On the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic in his first prime-time address to the nation, President Biden condemned the “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.” Although labeling these attacks accurately – as hate crimes – is an important first step towards any substantive action, this vague and unspecific show of support leaves central questions unanswered: How will official sources protect our communities against targeted harassment, discrimination, and violence? Will these attempts help our communities or will they be corrupted and leveraged against us as they have been many times before? Will there be any attempts to address the deeply ingrained overt and covert rhetoric that has led to the current conditions? And will any attention be paid to the health, education, and income inequalities that Asian American groups face even in the absence of direct attacks against our community members?
Although it may be tempting to call for increased policing and punitive measures, we want to call attention to how state-sponsored policing and surveillance has historically harmed our communities and other communities of color. Over-policing in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the treatment of Muslim and South Asian Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, among others, could only have been conducted in the context of overtly pro-police rhetoric and the deliberate, targeted enforcement of anti-Asian policy. More recent examples, including the tragic deaths of Angelo Quinto and Christian Hall, show that policing continues to stand in direct opposition to the safety of our communities. The fatal results of police raids, unintended consequences of implementing additional anti-racism task forces, and observation that increasing police budgets have not prevented anti-Asian racism in the first place have all resulted in calls for a decrease in policing.
What options are available to us if the only support we will receive are a few sentences of recognition? Asian communities – past and present – have implemented strategies that address the needs of our communities more directly than ineffectual, misguided, or simply antagonistic state-sponsored solutions. Drawing from the influence of the Black Power and anti-war movements of the 1960s, Pan-Asian movements such as the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and Asian Americans for Action (AAA) organized robust coalitions that provided social services and affordable housing, fought for community education and labor rights, and established multi-ethnic cultural institutions. More recently, the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes has prompted the creation of community-led safety initiatives such as Compassion in Oakland in addition to amplifying several long-standing mutual aid efforts. There is so much more to be said regarding AAPI issues that cannot be covered in a single blog post. The links embedded here offer a variety of resources that provide a starting point for supporting our communities.
As Lunar New Year celebrations have come and gone, we are reminded of the cultural values that define the holiday, particularly those surrounding the importance of family. We compel the Larner community and beyond to expand their definition of “family”and urge our readers to take anti-racist actions within their capabilities:
- Amplify the voices at the forefront of our communities speaking out against anti-Asian violence
- Actively protect others by interrupting instances of racist speech and behavior
- Directly support our communities by engaging with mutual aid initiatives across the country
- Pressure representatives at all levels of government to pass comprehensive anti-racist policies and follow through with any commitments they have made
Despite the acute and chronic issues of anti-Asian discrimination, we hope this call for awareness, education, and other similar efforts leads to concrete changes that keep APIA individuals safe.
Addendum: This is an ongoing crisis – during the editing process for this post, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were murdered at massage parlors in Atlanta. We want to recognize the intersection of gender, class, race, proximity to sex work, and fetishization of Asian women, that represents the salient features of this tragedy. As this story develops, we urge readers to read coverage written by APIA writers and journalists, and be wary of biased reporting that ignores any of these converging components at play.
We want to honor the memories of:
Xiaojie Tan, 49
Daoyou Feng, 44
Soon Chung Park, 74
Sun Cha Kim, 69
Yong Ae Yue, 63
We also send our hopes and thoughts to Elcias Hernandez Ortiz, who is currently in the ICU, and his family.