By Michelle Miao, Talawanda High School
America, 美国, means “beautiful kingdom” in Chinese, but it’s been increasingly difficult to see much beauty in the country that I was born in and love. Since the start of the pandemic, hate crimes against Asians have spiked, with more than 3,000 reports in the past year alone. The racism has been exacerbated by xenophobic and harmful rhetoric from the highest levels of government. Donald Trump derisively labeled COVID-19 the “China virus” and the “kung flu,” gleefully telling a campaign rally crowd, “I can name 19 different versions of names.” During the height of the crisis, the most powerful person in the country not only made it acceptable to blame and hate us; he encouraged it.
However, racism against people of Asian descent is nothing new; it’s nearly as old as America itself. When Chinese workers first came to America in the mid-19th century, they were exploited for their labor and used to construct railroads across the west, but were shunned by white settlers and barred from becoming citizens. As “yellow peril” swept through the nation, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusionary Act, banning Chinese immigration to America. In 1871, a white mob entered Chinatown and brutally murdered 18 Chinese men and boys in one of the worst lynchings in American history. In this same period, and well into the 20th century, Asian workers in the fish-canning industry faced similar exploitation, discrimination and violence. During World War II, President Roosevelt designated the forced incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, labeling them all as threats to the nation. In 1989, five elementary school students in California were killed by a gunman in the Stockton shooting, targeted because they were refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
As a first-generation American, I carry these stories with me. My parents emigrated from China in the hope that their children would find greater opportunity in the United States. As part of an ethnic minority, however, I also have greater understanding of America’s painful past. In the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid racial slurs or other harms. Still, I live in fear that a trip to the grocery store might turn into a confrontation with an ignorant stranger. I worry constantly that my ten-year-old sister might be bullied at school, called “coronavirus” or accused of bringing the pandemic to America.
Asians tend to be perceived as a docile, quiet minority group. I get that; it’s in our community culture to minimize the harassment we face. We’re unused to speaking up about the pain of racism, and in many instances, we have felt the bitterness of our experiences being ignored or diminished. Even among the Asian people I know, there’s oftentimes a feeling of inevitability surrounding racism. Sure, a certain experience was horrible and unfortunate, but it was a misunderstanding that we should brush off and move on from.
This attitude has to change. Increasing Asian visibility and amplifying Asian voices should be a top priority in combatting hate. To begin with, the word “Asian” describes a huge community of people from (or generations removed from) a plethora of countries sprawling across half the globe, and covers a vast socio-economic range in America. Far from being the shining “model minority” of pop-culture stereotypes, Asian-Americans actually have a higher poverty rate than white households, and many new and first-generation immigrants face dismal standards of living.
The shootings in Atlanta draw our attention to low-income Asian immigrants who work at massage parlors, spas, and other jobs that put Asian workers at extra risk of sexual and racial discrimination. The Atlanta shooter claimed a “sex addiction” in defense of the massacre, denying he had any racial motive. Common sense tells us that he knew exactly whose lives he would be ending when he walked through the doors of Young’s Asian Massage. Moreover, his outlet for sex points to the lens of Orientalism, through which Westerners reduce Asian women to exotic sexual objects. The shooting shows every characteristic of an anti-Asian hate crime.
After every shooting or attack on minorities, America expresses shock and dismay and jumps to take action in ways that seek to alleviate symptoms without addressing the underlying diseases of racism, misogyny, and hatred. As a member of the Asian-American community, I’ve been tensely following reports of Asian hate crimes for the past year—a father and his children stabbed at the store, an elderly Asian man shoved down on the street, a Filipino man slashed across the face with a box cutter. Along this vein, the Atlanta shooting was almost predictable.
In its aftermath, I fervently hope that this marks a turning point. There isn’t a quick solution to resolving anti-Asian hatred. It means dismantling centuries of discrimination and violent oppression, but it can start with paying attention to the lasting effects of this history in today’s society. We must recognize and call out casual scapegoating of the Asian community. We must educate ourselves and others about America’s history of discrimination against people of Asian descent, have difficult conversations, and support the Asian community, because as long as one minority faces discrimination, no one can truly be free.
We also need the advocacy and support of our elected officials, who have the power to bring the Asian community out of the shadows. This week’s House hearing on anti-Asian discrimination was the first in three decades; it was both a necessary start and yet not enough. History will continue to repeat itself until the Asian community and its allies mobilize. By targeting the common enemy of systemic white supremacy, we can transform our grief and horror into meaningful action. This will hopefully not only prevent another Atlanta, but also truly make America a beautiful kingdom.
Learn more about the history of anti-Asian discrimination and violence in the United States, and what students can do to support the community:
And here are two of many Asian-American advocacy groups to consider supporting:
For the Georgia victims: https://actionnetwork.org/fundraising/support-georgias-asian-american-community/
Hate is a Virus: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/hateisavirus
This is an outstanding article Michelle and extremely well-written. It is of course very timely in light of the recent anti-Asian violence in Atlanta. I really appreciated how you put things within a historical context, showing us that the recent violence is nothing new. Job well done and you have a very bright future. Keep letting your voice be heard, we need intelligent, powerful young women like you speaking out and taking a stand.