I don’t fight individual racists–It’s their systemic narratives I’m after

It was just another day on Twitter. My feed, once populated with discussions on publishing, theology, and the upcoming election, was nothing but a dead scroll of Covid-19 updates. The rising confirmed cases. Celebrities who have contracted the virus. How to stay sane while quarantined. Some of the things I read are helpful. But other spaces of the Twitter-verse are filled with recurring onslaughts of anti-Asian racism, and every time something new happens, somebody takes it upon themselves to tell me and my friends to “go home” and that we, as Asians, need to own our complicity, somehow.

Sometimes, it’s just not healthy to be on social media. So, after making a few quick comments — to my friends, not the racists, mind you, about why people even use terms like “Asians” in the first place — I get off the phone and try to just go about my day. I feed my kids, do some laundry. But, later, I pick up my phone again and see that a family of Asian immigrants has been assaulted at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. My Voxer app explodes with messages. One of my friends got spit on; another — a mom of three who is half Filipina — is on her way to pick up her kids. Someone just made a joke about their Chinese father having the virus and dying soon.

The next day there’s more. A group of students in Belgium dress up in Chinese outfits and snap a picture with one of them holding a sign that says “Corona Time,” while another pulls her eyelids sideways. Another friend is on her way to the principle’s office. Kids had leveled taunts about deadly Asians at her six-year-old girl in the school cafeteria simply for bringing homemade Korean food.

Now my social media feed is lit up with the fallout from President Trump tweeting about the “Chinese Virus” and the “Kung Flu” and his legitimation of anti-Asian racism on a national scale. President of Bread for the World, Eugene Cho, tweets back: “Mr. President: This is not acceptable. Calling it the “Chinese Virus” only instigates blame, racism, and hatred against Asians — here and abroad. We need leadership that speaks clearly against racism; Leadership that brings the nation and world together. Not further divides.” The visceral replies to Cho’s tweet make it feel like nobody but fellow Asians seem to care about the spread of anti-Asian racism.

And that’s the thing. While I hate that the coronavirus has released an outbreak of xenophobia against Asians, it has also created new bonds of solidarity for a wide range of peoples. Because it’s not just Chinese Americans in the U.S. that are contending with growing racism. Indian Americans like me as well as Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, and others are facing this threat too. We are all lumped together by a group of people that can’t tell us apart. So, now we’re linking arms and bracing the storm together.

A Chinese American friend came over and, as I stirred a pot of chai over the stove, he told me, “I feel so helpless. It’s like there’s nothing I can do.” His sentiment captures the emotions of so many. All of us are tired. Weary. Hurting. The worst part: we know it’s going to continue. Winter for the coronavirus is coming. The longer we live in the time of COVID-19, the greater the xenophobia will be.

Many of us watched with horror a viral video of an Asian man being sprayed with Lysol on a train in New York. “I don’t want him under me!” the racist is heard exclaiming in an expletive-laced video. “Tell him to move!” While news reports described the incident as a possible hate crime, the rest of us were thinking, “That could have been me.”

So, I decide I’ve had enough. I tell my friend, “It’s time to fight back.” Not physically. But I’m tired of fellow Asians feeling so helpless and merely on the receiving end of these attacks. It’s time to start fortifying ourselves against anti-Asian racism and learning to call it out.

I hold a zoom training with Asian American leaders across our country and tell them that, when it comes to anti-Asian racism from the Coronavirus, we need to know that our battle is not for the hearts and minds of individual racists. Honestly, I have no desire to pick a fight with the guy on the sidewalk shouting “F*** you. Go back to Asia.” I’d rather fight the larger systemic narrative that racist behaviors like his are built into.

The narrative of white supremacy in our country, plain and simple, is a belief, a story, that white bodies and lives are more important and valuable than black and brown bodies. It’s this narrative that justifies and even celebrates harm against Asian Americans in the year 2020. It’s this narrative that fuels an ongoing onslaught of verbal and physical abuse against Asian bodies. We can’t stop every individual racist. But we can collectively start working together to change the dominant narrative in our country that white people (their lives, their standards, and their comforts) are more important than the lives and rights of black and brown people.

So, when a Mulan poster at a bus stop is graffitied with the words M and L replaced by W and H, respectively, I post on Facebook that our fight is not against the individual. Sure, we can try to find the person who committed this crime and tell him or her that what they did was wrong. We can also sit down with our neighbor or fellow classmate or coworker and have a long, hard talk about why their comments are hurtful and maybe even convince them to have a greater respect for Asians, so that if anything it’s easier to hang around him or her. But that alone won’t do anything to combat harmful tropes of yellow peril in the news, within institutions and pop culture that portray Asians, their food, and their customs as unsafe and unwelcome.

Not long after this, in San Francisco, a Chinatown pastry shop experienced a drop in business when an untrue rumor spread on WhatsApp that a bakery employee had gotten the new coronavirus. When I hear the news, I’m angry. But my response isn’t simply, “Wow, people are horrible.” Instead, I identify and call out the effects of this racism. In a subsequent article, I write: “The threats of the coronavirus have enabled discrimination against Asian enterprises in the U.S. But there is no basis for this kind of bias. The only thing we are doing is adding insult to injury, feeding into fear, and jeopardizing people’s livelihoods. That has to stop.”

There’s nothing wrong with posting about how angry a racist makes you feel. In fact, we should call that out. But there are also deeper narratives at work, and we need to speak up about the way racism negatively affects whole ways of life for Asians and Asian Americans. So, when someone shouts at us, saying we have the coronavirus because we coughed or just because of the way we look, we have to do more than rant on Facebook, saying, “This guy made me so mad because he wrongly discriminated against Asians.” Sure, do that. But then add: “Asian Americans deserve to be treated as equal citizens in this country. And the refusal to do so has impacted our mental health, job security, even our very livelihood.”

I woke up this morning to text messages from a Korean friend. She was asking fellow Asians to pray for a family in her neighborhood. Their 10-year-old son had been chased down the street by a group of white boys who were screaming, “Coronavirus!” and “Go back to China!” Thankfully, their son outran them and made it home safely. I feel relieved, but at the same time my stomach is twisting in a knot.

So, I put the phone down and roll out of bed. I take ten deep breaths. Then, in honor of my friend, I say a prayer, get up and go to get my baby girl from her crib. I don’t have to go to battle with every single person that says or does something horrible about Asians. Today, I’m saving my breath and guarding my heart. I tell myself, “Don’t fight the person. Fight the narrative.” I hug my baby a little tighter today. I text my friend and ask her how she’s doing. Then I go downstairs to make some coffee.




2nd Gen Indian American | Author, Speaker, Activist | Culture, Faith, Justice & a good cup of Chai

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Michelle Reyes

Michelle Reyes

2nd Gen Indian American | Author, Speaker, Activist | Culture, Faith, Justice & a good cup of Chai

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