The March 16 shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent, has spotlighted the serious reality of anti-Asian violence and racism in the United States. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also been watching defenseless seniors of Asian descent senselessly assaulted on the streets by grown men — punched, knocked down, kicked, even killed. Other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been stabbed, had their faces slashed and been spat on. Since the pandemic started, there have been more than 3,800 reported incidents (likely many more unreported) of anti-Asian violence nationwide. Because of these tragedies, there now seems to be something of a societal reckoning about anti-Asian racism and violence: that they exist, that they have always existed and that they are serious.
In light of these appalling developments, I want to reflect briefly on the full meaning of anti-Asian violence and racism. My reflection is catalyzed by the fact that for the first time in the relatively friendly college town of Lawrence, Kansas, I have been walking around in fear, including fearing for my teenage daughter’s safety. (She was told by a classmate to “go eat a bat and get corona.”)
To be clear: I am no stranger to racially-motivated aggression. As an Asian American woman who grew up New York City, I have been the target of serious and casual forms of racially-motivated attacks all my life. These range from life-threatening street violence (for example, being punched and pushed while being called racist slurs, or having my hair set on fire while hearing more slurs) to more subtle forms of verbal and nonverbal microaggressions in every area of my life (including being subtly excluded and ignored). As a woman of Asian descent, I have also experienced sexual assaults and harassment of various kinds that have taken on specific, racialized forms: being harassed in that unique way that many Asian women know, meant to leave us feeling like the proverbial exotic plaything, sexually available for the taking — small, trifling, vulnerable.
As a way of surviving, I learned to deal with this over time. Out in the streets, I am hypervigilant, developing strategies to minimize chances of attacks and harassment. I am hyperaware of my surroundings. I avoid certain areas and even parts of the country, and constantly scan people for body language and facial expressions. Off the streets, I am not sure I have had many strategies. As long as I have the face that I have, I know that it doesn’t matter what I do. But for years, I have tried to diminish the chances of anti-Asian racism by reducing my “foreignness” as much as possible. For me, this including acting like I belong and deserve space. (After all, I earned it, I remind myself, as a productive professional and citizen).
These strategies become so ingrained that I mostly stopped thinking about them. And in a “nice” place like Lawrence, you start to believe that you will at least be spared overt physical violence.
But with the Atlanta shootings, a switch got flipped inside me. I experienced a jarring emotional and physical epiphany. Suddenly, all the self-delusions of safety fell away. It struck me that I have actually been living in profound fear of violence every day of my life, that I live every day in a heightened state of alert. This has been true in Lawrence as anywhere else I have lived. But as I allowed the lifetime of my mostly silently endured indignities to flash before me — all aimed to make me feel unwelcome, inferior and afraid — I realize that violence is but a spectrum, and that these everyday aggressions taken to their logical conclusion, at the wrong moment, is physical violence or death.
But there is something peculiar about the way our society has thought about and treated anti-Asian racism and violence that has made these self-delusions easier. Unlike racial violence against Black and brown people, anti-Asian racism and violence have always been minimized as if they don’t really exist — or even if they did, it doesn’t matter much. This racism includes the everyday verbal slurs designed to remind me that I don’t really belong in this country and never will (“ching chong” “go back to where you came from” “konichiwa, I likey”), as well as large-scale historic injustices such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the first and only race-based immigration ban) and countless anti-Asian mob killings and murders that history classes don’t teach.
This is bolstered by the unceasing message that people of Asian descent shouldn’t complain because we are doing so well (as the so-called “model minority”) and that what we should be feeling is gratitude. And we Asian Americans start to believe this fabrication. We fail to recognize the critical contributions we are making, and always have made to this nation. This is true whether we are talking about the Chinese workers who built the American transcontinental railroads without being given due credit (90% of the workers were Chinese), about immigrant Asian women toiling in sweatshops — like my mother — and in massage spas for substandard wages (and let’s not forget the Asian women doing these kinds of work overseas for the benefit of those in rich countries), or about Asian American teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, small business owners or scientists making amazing discoveries.
The United States is getting huge returns for their investment, but in the face of this gaslighting, Asian Americans are afraid to speak up and name all these despicable acts for what they are: anti-Asian bigotry and discrimination, and that they are real.
But let us ask: How much are these Asian American minds and bodies worth? The Asian American population can no longer be ignored, treated like they are invisible and left out of the anti-racism conversation. Over a century of rage can be suppressed only for so long.
Kelly H. Chong is the E. Jackson Baur Professor and chairperson of the Sociology Department at the University of Kansas.