It’s Past Time to Talk About Asian Americans and Racial Justice

I.

My aunt runs a nail salon. 

It seems to do very well. The Yelp reviews are great (5 stars from over 3/4 of the reviewers). 

I’m not all that surprised. My aunt is legitimately one of the most authentically positive people around. She’s never toxic about it or trying to perform positivity; she simply exudes it. It’s infectious; I’ve seen it pull my dad and his siblings out of moods countless times. It’s the perfect personality for this kind of service-industry job. And it’s provided me a front-row seat for her steadily improving English skills over the last two decades.  

I’ve spent a decent amount of time in that nail salon. I rejected a job offer (over the phone) from the back once, the first time I’d had to do so. More recently, I’ve often been there along with my grandfather, her father, who has severe dementia. It’s been years since he’s recognized me, but my aunt often shines through for him. I’m not surprised.

These are not stories that I’m telling because I feel that it’s important to humanize the victims of the Atlanta shootings last night. Indeed, it should be unnecessary to do so. But in this moment, there’s a combination of doomscrolling indifference and a persistent lack of clarity about what the narrative should be about Asian-Americans’ privilege, or lack thereof. I’ve seen (and been subject to) enough anti-Asian hate to know how buried some of these feelings are and how difficult it is for people to recognize or acknowledge their own biases.

So starting with the story it is.  

II.

2021 has not been a good year for claiming that our society is anything but broken. And there are a lot of different ways in which that’s true. These shootings tug at many on their own, and the fact that listing them feels redundant demonstrates how much work we have yet to do.

But I’ll tell you one thing that won’t fix this: hate crime laws

It is simultaneously true that we are extremely reluctant to refer to things as hate crimes in The Discourse, while being too punitive in the way we handle hate crimes. Virtually everything that needs to be referred to as a hate crime, rather than just as bigotry in action or discrimination of some form, is *already a crime*. 

And even if you don’t believe this about all crimes (and you should), it should be particularly obvious here: hate crimes are illustrations of the failings of an entire society, not a single person. 

This kid was born in 1999 or 2000, based on his age. You cannot possibly convince me that he needs an enhancement to his sentence to ensure that in the year 2050, he will remain in prison. There is no justification for that. Does anybody think that Kyle Rittenhouse would have stopped and reconsidered what he was about to do if the penalties were marginally higher? (In fact, there is plenty of research to show that deterrence has nothing to do with the penalties imposed.)  

The press conference by police this morning, simply parroting the shooter’s purported motives and saying that “he had a bad day”, doesn’t help. I’ve often said that police exist to maintain a particular social order. In this case, the order they were maintaining was one that amplifies and validates the anxieties of white men, no matter how racist, sexist, or otherwise unreasonable they may be. 

Indeed, what we need to do is turn the magnifying glass on ourselves. How have we gotten to the point where this is not only possible, but also reported by major outlets as if they’re scared to mention Asian-ness at all

III.

It’s easy to attribute a rise in any kind of hateful activity over the last 5+ years to Trump. Indeed, he’s almost certainly an indirect cause of general environmental normalization of hate. But to pin this all (or even mostly) on him would be an extreme cop-out, and not only do your Asian-American friends deserve better, you yourself deserve better as a member of society necessarily affected by this mess. 

COVID doesn’t directly explain this either. While nativist agitators still insist on using the Chinese origin of the virus as a cudgel, the motivation of this particular shooter, as apologetically offered by the police this morning, was a completely separate anti-Asian trope. 

There are a whole raft of these stereotypes that have gotten by because they don’t get called out in day-to-day life. Perhaps because folks are not as trained to spot them as we’ve become regarding anti-Blackness.

Perhaps that in and of itself is borne out of a perception that anti-Asian rhetoric isn’t so much punching down. I wrote a while ago, in the context of the racist attacks against Lebron James, about the very wrongheaded idea that financial stability or success makes racism trained at rich people not a big deal.

And even as I’ve sat with those words over the last four years, I’m realizing only now that I’d never extended this logic to Asians as a whole, perceived by broader society as Doing Okay in Life. Even I myself have a ways to go.

Of course, people are going to have to take a long look at themselves and their actions and do self-reflection and the whole deal. But while it seems like this solution should be easy, blaming The Other Side isn’t true reflection here. I’d actually argue that part of what anti-Asian rhetoric, and ultimately action, so plausible is that the party that generally provides the backstop against bigotry in the national conversation tends to talk sloppily about Asia. 

I wrote back in April 2020 about a shockingly offensive Joe Biden ad that implied that Chinese private citizens were to blame for the first COVID wave. This was, of course, factually incorrect in multiple ways. And of course, in that way, it was almost a perfect mirror of the fearmongering in the 1940s that led directly to Japanese internment. 

Do I think Joe Biden hates Asian people? No, I do not. But while people in my circles have largely talked through the myth of the model minority and the damage that it causes, much of the country hasn’t had the opportunity yet. Nobody with a large enough platform has led a conversation about this in any meaningful way. Perhaps nobody with a large enough platform has the background, the chops, the understanding, the will to do so. 

I’m just scratching the surface here. There are plenty of things that Asian-American communities need to speak up about internally. There are far more that can form the basis of a reframing of the stereotypes that are almost automatically assumed to this day. I, as a largely assimilated person who grew up in a 98% white town, often play some of these stereotypes off in order to ingratiate myself in certain circles. 

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the immigration component of all of this. The plurality of new immigrants comes not from Latin America, but instead from Asia these days. Careful rhetoric was already a necessity, but this should underscore why. The original person I saw tweet the racist Biden ad tried to defend it as an anti-CCP ad, despite the fact that the Communist Party wasn’t mentioned a single time. A critique of an authoritarian government regime cannot be allowed to be imputed to the people who live (and often suffer) under that government. But enough about police in the United States

In any case, all of this is just to get our own house in order. Not that the left has necessarily figured out anti-Blackness, sexism, or any number of other issues any better, but in looking back upon my own experiences with anti-Asianness in left settings, it is striking to me how often people don’t even have the words to grapple with it. 

There is so much work left to do. 

IV.

Perhaps part of the issue is that it is often easy for people to cast Asian-Americans as a monolith. (Chances that this is at least a little related to the “all Asians look alike” trope: not zero.) The default body that springs to mind when we say “Asian” is probably either a sexualized East Asian woman (I got a lot of “Lucy Liu”–related grief as a child) or a short, sexless/effeminate, and bookish East Asian man (even despite the “Bruce Lee”–related grief I got as a child). If y’all want to talk about intersectionality, you could do worse than to start with the fact that Black women and Asian men are far and away the two worst performing demographic groups on dating apps

But even putting those stereotypes aside, Asia is much more than East Asia. The Facebook megagroup Subtle Asian Traits, which is now approaching 2 million members, continues to see posts from South Asians, as it should. But those posts generally wind up with lower engagement and even outright hostility from time to time. 

And even setting aside South Asians, the assumption that Asians are disproportionately professional-class high earners from Korea, Japan, and China has multiple problems. The population of Southeast Asia is roughly double that of the United States, and the Asian-American population is actually pretty close to an even split between East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian populations. 

And while many second-generation East Asian–Americans do work in white-collar jobs, this often erases the blue-collar jobs their parents have taken to support their family: dry cleaning (like my stepmother), nail salons (like my aunt), restaurants (like my uncle and his family), and so on and so forth. My father has a master’s degree from a tech school in Korea, and for several years during my young adulthood, his job was “helping run the cleaners.” 

But even still, Korean immigrants and their children are generally in a better place than Southeast Asian immigrants and their children. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, when affirmative action seemed in danger of being struck down in 2012, wrote an amicus brief debunking the reductive (and untrue) claim that Asians are hurt by affirmative action. These points are worth chewing over today as you consider how your perception of Asian-Americans might be incomplete, but one matters here in particular. (Full disclosure, I worked on this case as an intern at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.)

Consider: Southeast Asians are typically underrepresented minorities in the classroom and elsewhere. AALDEF pointed out that 40% of Cambodians and Laotians in CA do not have a high school diploma or equivalency. (And, I mean, try to name one Southeast Asian actor that isn’t Henry Golding.)

And people from Southeast Asian or other culturally invisible countries are typically the ones who are all the way at the bottom of the totem pole, including at places like spas and nail salons. The vitally important 2015 NYT exposé on the exploitative hierarchy of nail salon workers in New York, with Korean salon owners at the top and folks from Laos, Tibet, or Mongolia stuck at the bottom. 

The reports of a monolithic, coordinated force are greatly exaggerated. And what a shame, as it would make the concerns of Asian-Americans harder to ignore. 

But the United States has always been good at one thing above all: breaking up multiracial and multiethnic coalitions, and finding ways to pit people against each other based on persistently narrow interest groups. Asian-Americans are no exception to that rule. 

We, too, are only human, even if our media depictions might portray us as awkward boys or sex objects to be seen and not heard

V.

I placed an intentional nugget in my description of my aunt. While she, like most Koreans, took English in school, her English skills when she first got to the United States were middling at best. I, as a second-generation kid whose Korean comprehension skills were way better than his Korean speaking skills, would have stilted bilingual conversations with her. I found them painful as a teenager, but she was so genuine in her joy that I gladly suffered through it. I always remember her daughter (my cousin), quicker to pick up English but still learning, fumbling “microwave pizza” into “Microsoft pizza”…which my aunt then gleefully adopted for months before being corrected.

But this does not make her any less American. 

She’s an integral part of the community now. People know who she is (and by her American name, not by her Korean given name). They flocked to her store when it reopened after the last wave of COVID shutdowns. 

But even that doesn’t make her any more American. Using any of this as a test for American-ness is generally viewing the problem through a white supremacist lens. It’s a test with no standards, one that can be twisted in any way you want. 

So let’s go with something a little simpler: If you’re here, and you want to be here, and you intend to stay here, you’re a part of this community. (At least as a starting point. We should also talk about the issue of stolen land.)

News outlets continue to report that the Korean consulate has confirmed the Korean ethnicity of several of the victims. I’m still confused as to why a consulate has to be involved in ascertaining the ethnicity of a person. Again, there are a number of anti-immigrant and dual-loyalty-style tropes at play here, but we are not talking about random interlopers here for a visit during this pandemic. 

The women were Asian-Americans, targeted because of a stereotype that is all tangled up with colonialism, wartime sexual violence, and a whole lot of other baggage. There is no more reason that a Korean consulate should be involved in the reporting of this story than an Irish consulate if an Irish-American were killed.

Eight Asian-American women were killed, and they deserve to be discussed as Americans.

The response must be something other than an eye for an eye. It must be a reckoning. I sort of worry that the groundwork doesn’t exist for that reckoning to happen now. But we have no choice but to make it happen. There are so many different things that need to occur if we’re going to have any chance at reducing the incidence of hate crimes, let alone eradicating them altogether.

But we must start by acknowledging that this was an anti-Asian hate crime perpetrated against Asian-Americans and that each of us will have to do more than simply donate to victims or advocacy groups or tweet a hashtag in order to protect these members of our society. Full participants in our community, one and all. 

These conversations will be hard. I’m sure they will be hard for me as well.

But we only have our blind spots to lose. 

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