When someone is unfriendly to you, how often do you attribute it to your race? How often does the possibility cross your mind?
Since I was a kid this has always been in the background, and it was worst in elementary school. Second and third grade stand out: Kids would pull the sides of their eyes up and down, chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees,” or make fun of my name: “Ching-Chong-Cheng.” In high school one boy in particular referred to me as “Cheng,” and always said it with a sneer. It could have been innocent—I found him generally sarcastic and antagonistic in the most annoying way. When I told him how it made me feel uncomfortable his demeanor changed immediately; he apologized and never did it again. Looking back, he and his friends referred to one another by their last names, and often in that competitive, confrontational, adolescent male way. So maybe that was actually his way of including me? I think he harbored no specific malice, but his impact strayed far from any benign (ignorant?) intention, I think based on my own past experience. I remember the encounter vividly, and to this day appreciate both my own courage to bring it up, and his willingness to accept the feedback and change.
I think my family and I experienced minimal direct racism as I grew up. But I have always felt self-conscious whenever bad news comes from China, like when babies were dying from melamine-tainted formula, and when thousands of dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai. I hesitate to even mention these stories here, for fear of negative stereotypes they may incite or confirm in readers’ minds about Chinese people. We humans generalize about and denigrate groups we perceive as different from ourselves, often based on minimal information (and these days, more and more disinformation). When these events occurred I asked my friends, and they reassured me that the news was inconsequential.
Not so with coronavirus. A close family member was verbally assaulted in the mall a year ago, by a white adolescent girl. She just walked right up to him, two generations her senior, and started yelling, “This is all your fault!” How entitled, how arrogant, and how brazen—to think you can just attack an elder stranger like that with no fear of consequence. That is the privilege of membership in the dominant culture. Hard for me not to feel defensive and alert to threat, not to mention rageful, after that.
For the past several years, and especially the past year and the last two weeks, acute awareness of what makes me visibly different, and thus a potential target of prejudice and racism, occupies increasing space in the front of my mind. Our family just road-tripped to Colorado and back. Driving through the rural Midwest, I found myself thankful that Husband wore his university hospital, orthopaedic surgery logo jacket into the gas station stores. I spent as little time inside as possible, made sure to be friendly, and felt noticeable relief every time someone smiled and treated me with kindness, or even just common courtesy.
This hesitation–the vague and disconcerting paranoia I feel–is justified. It’s not debilitating, but I’m frustrated, annoyed, and angry about it.
* * * * *
How important is it to you that all people, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, indigenous and other marginalized groups, feel accepted and welcome, and treated with respect and dignity, everywhere they go? How can you help? Below are my suggestions. I’m tired, friends. Whatever you can do in your spheres of influence is much appreciated.
Educate yourself. See links below to multiple articles and a very well-done video (I recommend the video most) to familiarize yourself with current and historical aspects of the Asian-American experience(s). Talk to your Asian-American friends, if you have that kind of relationship. But understand that they may not want to rehash their experiences just for your benefit. Look for published stories to foster your empathy. Then, if you can muster it, find ways to tell your friends and any other marginalized folks, “I see you.”
Seek diverse perspectives. Asian-Americans are not a monolith. Despite some overlapping aspects of culture, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and all other groups have divergent histories in and out of the United States, and each individual in any group manifests their own unique experiences. If you’ve met one of us, you’ve met one of us. Resist the urge to oversimplify and overgeneralize.
Look at your own biases with self-compassion and accountability. Biases are human. We all have them. It does the oppressed no more good for you to self-flagellate over yours, than if you ignored them altogether. What matter are your awareness and self-management of your biases, and then your ability to help others do the same.
Commit to doing the work. This does not mean expecting perfect words and actions from yourself all the time. We will all open mouth and insert foot; we will all fall into old habits of thought and assumption. But we must persist; abandoning the work helps no one. Every failure teaches us, if we let it, and this helps everybody.
Find a supportive community to hold you up and accountable in the work–friends, tribe members who love you through your struggles to reckon with yourself. These will most often be people who have committed to doing the same work themselves. Hold them up in return. This is a group project; we all depend on one another to succeed.
- We Need to Talk About Anti-Asian Hate, video produced by Eugene Lee Yang, of the Try Guys. 00:00 – Introduction 04:10 – Yellow Peril 08:20 – America At War 11:57 – Model Minority 19:06 – Vincent Chin 22:55 – Black & Asian Communities 31:11 – Policing 36:01 – Hate Rhetoric 46:10 – Monolith & Media 51:49 – Generational Divide 58:29 – Voting & Representation 1:04:39 – How You Can Help
- The long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.
- Anti-Asian hate: ‘Eating bitterness’ and the role of empathy—my emergency medicine colleague’s personal story
- Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different—interview with Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings
- 2 Immigrant Paths: One Led to Wealth, the Other Ended in Death in Atlanta—Asians have the widest income disparity of any racial group in the United States
- Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here—an excellent piece on the complex relationship between politics, economics, and cyclical anti-Asian racism