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Context on Anti-Asian hate from an Asian American perspective

Symbol of Anti-Asian Hate Crimes: yellow circle representing Asian people with a white X on it representing white supremacy.

I admittedly avoid keeping up with news. Yes, keeping up with the injustices of the world fulfills a civic duty, but at the cost of mental and emotional exhaustion. However, the recent wave of Asian hate crimes, especially towards elderly people, has me glued to my screens.

You might have heard about these recent crimes:

Anti-Asian hate crimes surface every day on Next Shark (Asian-specific news outlet), Instagram, and in reports to Stop AAPI Hate. Stop AAPI Hate is the leader in documenting and addressing anti-Asian incidences amid the pandemic, and they have released a press statement highlighting new data towards elderly (60+ years old) and total national incidents in 2020. Key insights include:

  • There were a total of 2,808 self-reported crimes in 2020.
  • First-hand accounts from elderly included verbal harassment, physical assault, being coughed or spat upon, or barred from an establishment.
  • “Elderly report being physically assaulted (13.5%) more than the Asian American population overall (8.7%)”.
  • “Verbal harassment (67.5%) and shunning (15.1%) make up the highest types of discrimination against elderly”.
  • “Elderly report more clear civil rights violations (12.8%) — workplace discrimination, being barred from establishments or ride-shares — than the overall AAPI population (8.0%)”.
  • “Elderly women are attacked 1.5 times more than elderly men”.

Read the full two-page report here.

Symbol of Anti-Asian Hate Crimes: yellow circle to represent an Asian person

Learning and Coping Process

This spike in anti-Asian sentiment is heartbreaking, infuriating, helpless, and personal. I am an Asian American — Chinese blood, Vietnamese culture. My parents immigrated from Vietnam and Cambodia. I can’t help but think, What if that was my grandparents, my mom, my dad?

When George Floyd was killed, I felt great empathy and anger (my awakening to systemic racism, to be frank) while simultaneously feeling powerless as I did not understand the Black experience, at least not well enough to speak to it. Yes, allies are encouraged but the cost of mispeaking felt too high with cancel culture and my fragile political courage. Now that the attacks are on my community, what am I going to do about it?

I discussed the crimes with my mom, and her response shocked me. First, she was unaware they happened because she watches mainstream media for news. These violent stories were initially only found on local and Asian-focused news outlets, taking extra time to show on popular platforms. Second, when I told her some are scared to speak up, she replied,

“What is there to be scared of? If you have money and power, there’s nothing to be scared of.

America is your country, your language. You have power. You need to speak up for those who cannot.”

Is this the same woman who tells me to stop posting on the Internet? Or the same woman who has mastered stoic suffering? Though our tolerance for injustice is often different, this is something we vehemently agree on. This was validating fuel to my fire.

The next few days were focused on uncovering more incidents of Asian racism. I watched an Al Jazerra documentary on how the pandemic and Anti-Asian rhetoric exacerbated pre-existing racism. I heard stories of a 36-year old woman in Milwaukee who was gangraped and killed by 11 teenagers last September, and an 89-year old woman who was set on fire in Brooklyn, also late last year. Activists China Mac and Will Lex Ham started a movement on Asian hate called #TheyCantBurnUsAll. They’ve held protests and rallies though not widely known nor publicized yet.

The response to the recent hate crimes started off quiet. I shared news and reactions from Next Shark and Asian icons like comedian David So, activist Amanda Nguyen, and actors Daniel Wu and Daniel Dae Kim. A couple friends told me they didn’t know these hate crimes were going on.

After discussing the topic with my Asian friends, I learned how complex the issue was for Asian Americans. They are tired, disheartened, angry, uncomfortable, and confused on how to proceed. It’s important to note that this news is not new. Crimes have been up 1900% since the pandemic (not counting unreported cases). However, these responses have become more nuanced.

Yellow circle in a white circle to represent an Asian person learning about the Model Minority Myth and white supremacy

Context

A New York Times Opinion piece by author and race scholar Anne Anlin Cheng analyzes its complexity by explaining the “Model Minority” myth and how it makes it harder to speak up.

Thanks to the “Model Minority” myth — popularized in 1966 by the sociologist William Petersen and later used as a direct counterpoint to the “welfare queen” stereotype applied to Black Americans — Asian-Americans have long been used by mainstream white culture to shame and drive a wedge against other minority groups.

They are always caught in a no-win position between whites and Black Americans. They are thought to be “white adjacent,” but of course they can never belong to the club. They are persistently racialized, yet they often don’t count in the American racial equation. The central, though often unspoken, question underlying all of this is: Are Asian-Americans injured, or injured enough, to deserve our national attention?

Cultural and Societal: Why is it so hard to talk about?

The Asian American response is complex because the Asian American experience is complex. Understanding the response requires education of the cultural context and learned acceptance of racism:

  1. Basic beliefs: Asian people are generally passive. This behavior stems from our Confucius and Taoist belief to accept suffering as it is believed to be an inevitable part of life. This is how you stay pragmatic, how you keep your head down to focus on building abundance, and maintain peace in a collectivist society.
  2. Connotations: Also, while a silence response equates to weakness in the West, its connotation is completely opposite in Eastern culture. One would be silent to someone who they think is lower than them, especially in character. Or one may think a response is not worth it, thus accepting the incident without debate.
  3. History of Injustice: To unpack this even further, “worth it” can mean the victim thinks they are above the perpetrator, or truly, the victim believes a response will not bring change or justice. This is what we are seeing when elderly people do not report crimes or call the police. This thinking makes sense as reporting on Asian hate crimes don’t have a strong track record of being seriously investigated. Another example is when Oakland responded to the elderly being pushed down in Chinatown with more police patrol. This was not encouraged by some as this does not solve the root problem of Asian racism.
  4. Importance of Elders: Asian elders are the top of our social hierarchy. It is our elders who we make sacrifices for and respect the most. This is why Asians tend to house their parents until they pass, refusing to leave them in a nursing home. This is why the attacks are especially personal and enraging. Hurting our elders is directly disrespectful to our culture.
  5. Clustering: “Asian” is an umbrella term. There are 18+ million Asians in the United States, representing over 30+ different types of nationalities ethnic groups, yet we are treated as a conglomerate. Not all Asian people speak the same language, thereby have trouble communicating to each other. This clustering rhetoric creates more invisibility and ignorance of their humanity.
Yellow circle in white circle turns into an eye to symbolize an asian person learning about their context and becoming woke

Lessons

I’ve learned a few lessons since the spark of the #StopAsianHate movement. At first, I was upset that Asian Americans were not speaking up as vocally as African Americans during Black Lives Matter. However, I soon learned that justice looks different for different people, and racial issues are not comparable. Instead, Asian people responded by doing what they do best — checking in with those most vulnerable by volunteering to escort, supporting businesses through donations, and spotlighting community organizations who are already taking action.

Another lesson was, the police and government will do what they are pressured to do. They respond when a mass of vocal, passionate people apply pressure to an issue. Representation in high places and powerful platforms also matter in creating movement momentum. It’s easier to carry a message when it is said by a person in power — again, an area to apply pressure.

Last lesson is on my own racial identity. A thought I had when learning about the crimes is, “This is not my America.” I had previously considered myself ‘Asian’ and not ‘Asian American’ because I wasn’t proud of America’s reputation. After letting those reactions simmer, I realized that it didn’t matter — I was born in America which makes me Asian American by default. I can continue denying this or accepting this ugly reality by focusing on the change I want to make.

eye with a yellow center and arrows for eyelashes to symbolize an Asian person waking up to the context and awareness and taking action

Next Steps

With time to process and infrastructure more established, more Asian Americans are organizing, holding rallies, and engaging in productive and difficult conversations on how to move forward. There are Clubhouse discussions between Asian politicians and community organizers discussing how to solve this systemic problem. More voices are emerging ending the initial problem of lack of coverage. Popular news platforms have picked up the stories. Allies are joining the coalition by speaking out against Asian hate. Businesses are sharing public statements denouncing the events.

Where do we go from here? How do we heal and grow from hate and pain? How can we make this a safer country which celebrates diversity through action?

If you want to lead

You can lead by joining the community, acknowledging your neighbors and helping local organizations build and repair. You can lead by engaging in difficult yet constructive conversations about topics like racism and racial identity, being courageous enough to be emotionally patient with those who may disagree with us. You can also lead through creation, by telling your story, organizing and creating space for connection.

If you want to follow

You can educate yourself on Asian and Asian American history, experiences, and the nuances of the different Asian nationalities and ethnicities, as well as cross-cultural solidarity (Black/Asian solidarity history here). You can also follow by sharing the efforts of those leading in this charge including Dion Lim / Next Shark for journalism, AAPI Women Lead for grassroots information and resources, and Amanda Nguyen for discussions. There are also many organizations to donate. You can start at Go Fund Me’s designated Stop Asian Hate page or Hate is a Virus’s Community Action Fund.

Change takes time and happens in strides. Think globally, act locally, and make a change where you can. Thank you for reading this article.

Additional resources:
Comedian David So’s recap and analysis on his podcast GeniusBrain
Necessary conversations with rappers Mistah Fab and China Mac

Caroline Luu is a product designer exploring life and design questions to better understand humanity. Read more on her writing in her Substack email newsletter called Designing Life or visit her design portfolio.

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