Even Progressives Don’t Understand Anti-Asian Racism. Here’s What You Need to Know.
I was so excited to be starting my first year in college. I remember walking into the university bookstore to buy what I needed for my classes. I walked up to the cashier, laid out my items, and saw the total on the register add up and up and up. I had never spent so much money on books before.
As I was getting rung up, the cashier and I started some casual small talk. I said that I was from one hour away in Massachusetts. I shared how nervous I was to be beginning classes in just a few days. Midway through our conversation, the cashier, a white woman, paused and cheerfully proclaimed, “You have no accent at all! How long have you been here?”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“How long have you been in the United States?”
I replied, “Oh, I was born here.”
“Really? That makes sense now. I was wondering why you speak English so clearly.”
With no hesitation, I enthusiastically responded, “Thanks!” The cashier finished packing my bags. I walked out the front door.
At the time, I didn’t exactly know what to make about her comment. Muddling my way through discomfort and surprise, I took her remarks as compliments. She probably meant them as compliments too, as though speaking with a non-white ethnic accent were a speech impediment.
Looking back, I now understand that my response was borne out of an instinct to minimize my racial difference. It was probably a survival tactic.
Later in my first fall semester, my Vietnamese American friend had the message, “Go home, Gook” written on her bathroom mirror. The Asian American community leapt to her defense, organizing speak-outs and op-eds in the school newspaper.
I deeply internalized these experiences. I never had a friend victimized because of their race. I had never been to a demonstration before. I watched and learned from Asian Americans and other students of color how to strategize. I read books like The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and Strangers from a Different Shore by Ronald Takaki. Eventually, my journey seeking knowledge and community bloomed into a passion for racial justice. My racial consciousness awakened.
Within a year, I became an Asian American studies major. I joined the student movement to bring Ethnic Studies to my campus. I studied the history of exclusion of Black, Indigenous, People of Color throughout American history. I learned about contemporary stories of resistance.
On the evening of March 16 this year, my Zoom meeting was interrupted by a notification in the top right-hand corner of my laptop. The horrific headline was about the mass shooting in Atlanta. I was shocked. I was saddened. Any loss of human life is debilitating for me to take in, but particularly when it’s on a mass scale.
Since then, what has struck me about the tragic loss of life of the six Asian American women is how little Americans know about Asian Americans. Still.
This comes as no surprise.
Our public education system teaches hardly anything about the experiences of Asian Americans, even though the total number of Asian Americans nationally totals nearly 23 million people. Mainstream media barely portrays Asian American stories, let alone three-dimensional human experiences as lived through Asian bodies.
It’s no wonder that basic information about Asian American experiences are unavailable. Furthermore, education about the ways in which Asian Americans have endured racism is few and far between.
Here are three things we all need to know.
1. The term “Asian American” encompasses a range of ethnicities from East Asian to South Asian to Southeast Asian. In spite of these differences, all Asian Americans share a common experience of being dominated by white supremacy.
Since the modern-day lynching of George Floyd in May 2020, the conversation about race in America has changed. The term “white supremacy” has become part of the national conversation. And white supremacy is now understood to not just be the KKK. White supremacy is structural. Structural white supremacy includes the entrenched beliefs, attitudes, laws, and policies that create a hierarchy of human value based on race.
The most irreversible and vicious form of white supremacy leveled against Asian Americans is murder. I was only 6 years old when Vincent Chin was murdered by white supremacists in Detroit, Michigan in 1982. His killers mistook Chin, a Chinese American, for being Japanese. The killers harbored anti-Japanese sentiment.
I was 23 years old in 1999 when the hate killings issue came much closer to home. I opened up the front-page of the New York Times to read the story of Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American like me. Joseph was a postal worker killed by a white supremacist who, on that same day, shot and injured four children and one adult at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
I was 36 in 2012 when a white supremacist killed 7 people at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The killer was a member of the Northern Hammerskins, a violent neo-Nazi group in that region.
I was 44 years old when 8 people in Atlanta were killed by a white man. The killer claims the attacks were not-racially motivated even though 6 of the victims were Asian American women.
Perhaps to non-Asian Americans, these events seem disparate and disconnected. But for me, as an Asian American, I see the unfolding of these racist events tied together. They are different chapters of the same book about how Asian Americans will never be accepted as fully American or human.
To be completely honest, I am bracing myself for the next chapter to be written.
Besides murder, white supremacy takes many other forms in its repression of Asian Americans. One of the main ways is by making the experiences of Asian Americans virtually invisible. In other words, Asian Americans are often overlooked in the pressing issues of the day, from criminal justice and immigration to labor and poverty. In each of those instances, it is imperative to understand that every progressive reform — from ending mass incarceration to legalizing the undocumented to increasing the minimum wage to universal basic income — will lift up Asian Americans just like it will Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.
2. Every form of racism is dehumanizing.
Racism can take brutal, violent forms. It can also take more subtle forms, like pernicious racial stereotypes. Both forms of racism are degrading and dehumanizing.
Racial stereotypes about Asian Americans run the gamut. They range from unassimilable (“why can’t they learn English” or “why do they only hang out in public with each other”) to hypersexualized (the “dragon lady”) to terrorist (particularly potent against South Asians of any religious background). They even include so-called positive stereotypes such as “hard-working” and “naturally academically gifted”.
Racial stereotypes are a form of racism because they reduce a person’s human experience to either overbroad generalizations or slices of hyper-narrow aspects of their identity. These stereotypes then form the basis for policy or legal choices that exclude Asian Americans or, worse, people of color more broadly.
In corporate America, this can look like the following: Chris works hard, but he just doesn’t have that charismatic leadership quality that we need in order for him to lead this team. I don’t think he’s ready for this promotion.
Another example may look like this: the neighborhood where Chris lives has a lot of families that don’t speak English. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to translate the availability of that new government service into all those Asian languages. I just wish we had more resources, but it can’t happen yet.
Finally, an example from education: people like Chris do so well academically. I mean, UCLA really stands for “University of Caucasians Lost among Asians,” am I right? That’s why we need to get rid of programs like affirmative action because Asians show other people of color how they can overcome their race and get ahead, if they just worked harder.
Racist stereotypes are fruit of the same poisonous tree as murder and denigrating laws and policies. There are no forms of racism, whether against Asian Americans or any other people of color, that we can continue to tolerate.
3. Uplifting the experiences of women of color, including Asian American women, will help solve the problems of women and people of color once and for all.
Here I’d like to lift up activist, MacArthur Genius, and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-jen Poo, who recently wrote:
“Long standing narratives in our nation defining whose life has value and who does not, are deeply rooted in white supremacy and misogyny. Narratives take lives, they shape our economic realities, our health and our safety. They allow for the work and contributions of Asian and other women of color to be perpetually devalued. If we accept that women of color are less valuable or more disposable, we also accept violence against them…
A nation where Asian women — and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women — are safe and valued in their homes, at work and on the streets, is only possible if we commit to building it. There is much work to be done, and we all have a part to play in making this a reality.” *
If we look to transforming the conditions of women of color — including Asian American women laboring as domestic workers, nannies, maids, caregivers, restaurant workers, massage workers, nail salon workers, sex workers, and other roles in the informal economy — we will find the long-elusive solutions to true gender and racial justice for all.
It is clear that white supremacy impacts Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color.
It is clearer than ever that white supremacy negatively impacts Asian Americans.
What is slowly being made clear is that white supremacy negatively impacts white Americans as well.
White supremacy teaches us that the lives of some of us are worth more than the lives of others of us. When we concede that this is ok and passively accept it, even whites are negatively impacted. Ibram X. Kendi outlines a number of these instances in his groundbreaking work, How to Be An Anti-Racist.
Kendi recounts how white supremacists opposed the Affordable Care Act, even though millions of white Americans have improved health outcomes because of Obamacare. He cites another example of how white supremacists rail against affirmative action even though white women, not people of color, have been the primary beneficiary of these programs. **
But on an even more fundamental level, white supremacy hurts white people because it concedes that there is a hierarchy of human value based on race. Unless we all speak out against white supremacy in all its forms, we will all continue to suffer from it.
Last weekend, I appreciated my neighborhood more than I ever have in the last 8 years since I moved there. I live one block away from San Francisco’s Japantown, one of the few remaining in North America. This Japantown, unforgettably, was a community forcibly removed to internment camps by Executive Order 9066 80 years earlier.
On this day, my son and I set off for something to eat. I took in happy, smiling faces enjoying ramen and freshly made mochi. I passed by a vending machine that only sold snacks like wasabi peas and Hi-Chews.
We finally arrived at our destination, a hidden gem of a bakery, Yasukochi’s. We purchased a delectable coffee crunch cake sold by a Japanese American senior. She was delighted to see my son as well as sell me her cake, deemed one of the best in San Francisco.
We sat down in the plaza to enjoy our snack. As I watched my son play, I experienced an unfamiliar emotion. I felt safe. I felt like I belonged. After a year of hardship and fear, it felt okay to hope again. A little bit, anyway. I was surrounded by Asian Americans of all backgrounds and all generations as they patronized the storefronts. Even though in those same establishments there were signs emblazoned with “Stop Asian Hate,” a stark reminder of the recent events, it was almost a normal day.
We all deserve the right to have normal days. We all deserve the right to be seen and to be heard. We all deserve the right to be admired and respected. We all deserve the right to be free from racial discrimination. However, many of us Asian Americans and other BIPOC do not enjoy these basic human rights. How much longer will we have to wait?
Christopher Punongbayan is a lawyer and Executive Director of ChangeLawyers.
*Poo, Ai-jen. “Enough.” Message to National Domestic Workers Alliance email list. 24 March 2021.
**Kendi, Ibram X. “White.” How To Be An Anti-Racist. New York: One World, 2019. p. 132.