Most Asian Americans have encountered racism before, either wielded against them in public or spat hatefully over social media. As a Chinese American, I certainly have, and so have my friends and family. But this year, instead of the usual slurs or comments about Asians’ eyes, culture or skin color, racists have broadened their vocabulary with new COVID-inspired terms. Some choice terms I’ve heard are “China virus,” “Wuhan virus,” “kung flu” and “bat-eaters.”
Anti-Asian American sentiment has surged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet I rarely hear anyone outside of the Asian American community talking about this problem. Beyond brief acknowledgement from politicians and the news media, there is hardly enough discussion happening within personal communities or social circles.
Many media accounts focused specifically on Asian-related news, such as @jackfroot and @nextshark, call attention to hate crimes against Asians all the time, but none of my peers continue discussions of these incidents by posting about them, let alone by even talking about them in general.
In an era where nearly everyone I know uses social media to post about a variety of issues concerning politics and human rights, I am surprised to see that not one non-Asian I know has brought up one of the thousands of hate crimes directed at East and Southeast Asian Americans during the pandemic. Since it is entirely possible to stand up for multiple issues without denouncing one or the other, it is clear to me that people could be using their social platforms to spread awareness about anti-Asian racism — they just choose not to.
That isn’t to say that no one cares about the rise in hate crimes against us, however. In order to properly understand this lack of coverage, people need to first reexamine the way that history has shaped underlying biases about Asian Americans.
Originally, Asian immigrants were viewed as threats to the white working class. White Americans believed that foreigners were going to rob them of their jobs. These fears prompted the first of a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts beginning in 1882. However, the United States overturned the Chinese exclusion at the start of World War II in order to appeal to their Chinese allies. By this point, Chinese Americans in the United States were trying to perpetuate the idea that Chinese people are well-behaved and obedient. They believed that popularizing that stereotype would protect them from the perils of being punished for illegal immigration.
At the same time, Japanese Americans were still struggling to recover from their experiences in internment camps after World War II. The U.S. government capitalized on post-war Japanese assimilation in order to prove that minorities could peacefully integrate into American society despite any previous hardships. Asian Americans became a symbol of political cooperation, of the idea that minorities were and should be capable of assimilating into society without protest or complaint. This model minority myth was mainly used against Black people and Black movements.
Asian Americans are often viewed separately from other people of color because of the model minority myth. They are seen as too economically and racially privileged to associate with other minorities and are not perceived as having similar struggles. However, because Asian Americans are not white either, they often inhabit the crudely defined area between being a “person of color” and being a “white person.”
These identity crises are not limited to just the divide between those two racial groups but also the divisions that non-Asians fail to perceive within the Asian community. Many Americans don’t even realize that there are over 40 countries in Asia and even more ethnic groups. This lack of socio-geographical awareness makes it difficult to discuss Asian American issues with non-Asians, when many Americans either group all Asians together or don’t even know what constitutes an Asian identity.
For example, one popular stereotype about Asians is that we don’t suffer financial hardships because we attain academic success. This stereotype, while superficially complimentary, disregards the truth that many Asian Americans still lack sufficient resources. It especially marginalizes the struggles of specific ethnic groups, such as Cambodian and Hmong Americans, who experience particularly high rates of poverty.
It’s imperative to understand the historical reasons behind why anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic may not be receiving as much coverage as other race-related issues. While the model minority myth has created the assumption that Asian Americans have all historically stayed silent instead of voicing their concerns, a lot of Asian cultures also value silence and obedience over speaking up. We have not been unified or vocal enough to make an impact on those outside of our own ethnic communities, even though the model minority myth also severely hinders that progress. For these reasons, Asians have politically and socially lacked the presence needed to draw attention to the issues targeting their community.
However, this lack of presence doesn’t mean that people should continue to stay complicit in the face of the massive onslaught of anti-Asian, xenophobic and racist incidents following the pandemic. In such a precarious time post-election, minorities must stand up for each other now more than ever, and those who do not identify as people of color need to have difficult conversations about the anti-Asian racism present in their communities and other communities.
Regardless of the historical reasons for why the Asian American community has lacked presence, it is now up to those who are aware of anti-Asian sentiment to stand up for their marginalized peers.
People also often forget that it is still important to stand up for marginalized groups regardless of whether those groups have been discriminatory in the past. While some Asians have contributed to racial division by staying complicit to the discrimination against other minorities, this does not mean that racism against Asians does not exist or that it shouldn’t be stopped.
However, the Asian community is also complicit in failing to address the racism within their own community. Even though Asians have historically protested for other minority groups during movements like Yellow Peril Supports Black Power, anti-Blackness and colorism still run rampant within the Asian community. This inherent racism divides people within the Asian community and distances non-Asians from that community.
I’ve seen a lot of people on social media suggest that other minorities should not support Asian Americans when, in turn, many Asians do not openly support other communities or even directly oppose them.
While non-Asians should use their platforms at home, online and at school to bring awareness to the hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians, Asians should also strive to address and reduce the racism within their own community. Not only do we lack unity within our own community, but we also lack unity with other minority groups. Unless we learn to mend bridges between ourselves and the people we need to help us fight, our concerns for our safety will only be degraded or pushed aside.
Beyond staying home and following the other guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There is, however, a way to stand up for the community that has been the most racially targeted because of the pandemic. Spreading awareness of anti-Asian hate crimes through social media is a good place to start. Even following social media accounts centered around Asian-related news can help prompt individual awareness of the sheer extent of racism targeting Asian Americans because of COVID-19.
Standing up for the Asian community does not take away from other movements or issues, but it does help to strengthen awareness of racism within communities. The only way to make change and stop more hate crimes from happening is by first acknowledging that they are happening.
If someone has the social power to stand up for a marginalized community, they should absolutely do so. Especially for those who hold multiple privileges, it is their responsibility to actively combat discrimination when other communities are struggling or can’t be there for their peers. It’s imperative to fight against racism and xenophobia, regardless of which community is the target, and Asian Americans will continue to suffer in silence unless more people start paying attention and speaking up.
Jadyn Lee SC ’24 is from Monterey Park, California. She is very excited for winter break.