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Racism, classism, sexism and the lore of Asian Americana

You’ve heard of it by now: On March 16, eight people—including six women of Asian descent—were murdered in a mass shooting across several Atlanta spas. The immediate aftermath was whiplash drenched in ripened unease. 

In the year prior to the shooting, there had been a steady trickle of alarm regarding the rise of racial attacks on Asian Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and incendiary rhetoric—“China Virus,” “Kung Flu”—from political  leaders and media personalities. Quiet enough an alarm to not yet grasp national attention but steady enough a stream to render us unable to look back and say this came out of nowhere.

The tragedy in Atlanta was, to some eyes, a smoking gun. Six Asian women working in Asian massage parlors had been shot and killed. What was this if not a traumatic, dramatic and deeply American piece of proof of brutal anti-Asian racism and the need for reckoning? Calls began for the shooter to be charged with a hate crime.  Yet officials have refrained from citing race as an inciting issue, publicizing instead the shooter’s given explanation: that his sex addiction—in conflict with his religious values—pushed him to “eliminate” his desires. In relaying this info, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County sheriff’s department noted that it had been a “really bad day” for the shooter.

The “bad day” comment has been sufficiently panned, and Baker was removed from the case. But the debate over hate crime classification—and more broadly, motive—rages on. The legal crux of the issue is this: to prosecute a hate crime, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that a crime was motivated by bias. But how exactly can motivation be proved unless a perpetrator testifies precisely so or there is a record of explicitly biased language? The bigger issue is that motivation contains multitudes, and it’s impossible to disentangle it from entrenched cultural assumptions.

I say this  because the discrimination and stereotyping of Asians that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime—save this past year—has been trivialized, normalized or dismissed. Anti-Asian racism has often been relegated to the sidelines of race conversations in America for a number of reasons.  Stereotypes—we are good at math, driven by “honor” and filial piety, practice some sort of martial arts—are “flattering” ones, we’re told; at worst, they’re innocuous. But any caricature is dehumanizing and this one has burrowed so deeply in our cultural assumptions that it is often not even recognized as racial.

The two following statements, then, can both be true. The Atlanta shooter may genuinely believe that racism played no role in his violence. And anti-Asian racism was, in fact, at the heart of the attack.

The traumatic rise of pan-Asian identity

Discrimination against Asians has roots long before my lifetime, but this rich, violent, institutional history goes largely untaught. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—driven by the idea that cheap Chinese immigrants were responsible for economic depression—was the first law to exclude a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned immigration of any individual who by virtue of race or nationality was ineligible for citizenship. Because laws passed in 1790 and 1870 excluded people of Asian lineage from naturalizing, this effectively banned all Asian immigrants.

In 1887, 34 Chinese gold miners were ambushed and murdered in Hells Canyon, Ore. No one was punished for these crimes. In 1907, white laborers in Bellingham, Wash. violently  rioted against a growing South Asian population, who they found responsible for stealing jobs and wages. Within days, the South Asian community had been “wiped off the map,” according to a beaming local newspaper.

Following the events of Pearl Harbor and the official declaration of war between the U.S. and Japan,  Japanese Americans—many of whom were in fact citizens—were forcibly relocated to detention camps from 1942 to 1946 given the government’s suspicion-without-warrant of loyalty to the Japanese government.

Then in 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Michigan by two white men using a baseball bat. The men, one of whom recently lost his job, believed the thriving Japanese automobile industry was to blame for their economic challenges and wanted to exact revenge. Chin was of Chinese descent. The perpetrators were fined $3,000 and served 3 years’ probation.

Chin’s brutal murder is frequently cited as a catalyst for the solidifcation of a pan-Asian American identity and voice. After all, the use of “Asian American” in a vacuum is meaningless. As Jay Caspain Kang wrote for the New York Times: “ Nobody grows up speaking Asian-­American, nobody sits down to Asian-­American food with their Asian-­American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-­America.” 

Asian Americans hail from over 20 different countries at different points in time; we speak different languages; we have different customs and beliefs. The entire continent of Asia is not one big happy family, and factions of the diaspora do not necessarily associate with or relate to or even like each other. A personal note:  I have always felt exceptional unease identifying as or speaking for Asian Americans. I qualify—I suppose—by virtue of being Chinese and American, but beyond my personal anxiety that I will never be Chinese enough nor American enough to feel a right to “belong,” I have never quite understood what this great technicality should mean.

But for Asian Americans in 1982, if a Chinese man was attacked over the success of Japanese automakers, it no longer mattered whether we felt common ground because we were subjected to common terror. That terror manifested in protests, civil suites and, for some time, a growing political voice. I’m no expert on this community of “mine,” but my perception is that between the 80s and my birth, this sense of solidarity and desire for a voice has hushed. With the growing myth of model minority, perhaps we were convinced that Asians do not face common terror—or terror at all.

And here we are now, in a reboot frenzy. If a Thai grandfather from San Francisco can be shoved and killed in a driveway;  a Filipina woman beaten on a Manhattan sidewalk with the assailant shouting “You don’t belong here!”; and a Burmese family of three—including two children ages 2 and 6—stabbed with intent to kill in a Texas Sam’s Club because a perpetrator thought they were “infecting people with the coronavirus”  all over a virus that  originated in Wuhan, China and was addressed poorly on global scale, then there is a renewed and reliable consequence to this phantom identity, and it is the trauma that binds us.  

Crazy Poor, Crazy Rich Asians

The 2018 release of the film Crazy Rich Asians—the first major studio film with an all-Asian ensemble class since 1993—was a splintered cultural moment. On one hand, the film was celebrated as an important step in Asian recognition; its commercial success, an indicator that there was something to gain in telling Asian stories.  But as important as the film was, was it really good? 

As Mark Tseng-Putterman wrote for The Atlantic, the film boiled down to “affluence-porn”: “Take the opening scene, whose drama hinges on Eleanor Young triumphantly distinguishing herself—in the eyes of a white hotel manager—from the kind of Chinese who might stay in London’s Chinatown. While viewers are compelled to cheer these moments as subversive, such scenes stage a certain kind of respectability politics for a presumed white audience.” 

Young, the audience is told, is the “right” kind of Asian—one who fits the image so that we may sympathize with her.  

The emergence of the “right” and complementary “wrong” kind of Asian in the Western eye is intertwined with the onset of the model minority myth. That is, the naive idea that Asian Americans are universally well-educated and well-off because they universally  work hard. (A radical swing from previous characterizations of the group as cheap, disposable labor.)  

This concept is further extended by racist mouthpieces to claim: the Asians are proof that America is indeed a meritocracy. With this glowing reputation, how could Asians credibly claim to suffer racism? And moreover, how could any minority group? The argument goes like this: any minority raising concerns about oppressive practices should simply work harder.  

But the model minority myth is, in fact, a myth. Asian Americans may in aggregate be the highest earning ethnic group in America, but to look at an average without looking at the range is missing the entire story, as Asian Americans also experience the highest degree of income inequality in America.

The six Asian victims of the Atlanta shooting were working class. The victims of viral anti-Asian attack videos have mostly been elders. The stories and livelihoods from these vulnerable states of Asian America have little place in the Asian image at the forefront of American imagination.

So the consequences of the model minority myth are pernicious and varied: it dismisses Asian achievement, erases the stories of non-conforming members of the community, is used as a tool to more directly other minority groups, and ultimately obscures the idea that anti-Asian racism can exist.

A fever pitch

The six Asian victims worked at massage parlors—which, in the Atlanta area, is an industry linked to sex work. It is irrelevant whether the victims were sex workers or not, because the shooter’s ability to reduce them to objects or temptation—and law enforcements subsequent ability to sympathize with this idea—is what’s really troubling.

Certainly, misogyny and objectification, but the history of sexualization, exoticism and assumptions of subserviency that has plagued Asian women makes race impossible to ignore here.

Like the history of discrimination againt Asians, that against Asian women in particular is vast. For the sake a space and my sanity, I won’t delve too deep, but the highlight reel runs from the Page Law of 1875 to Orientalizing prose such as “Madame Chrysantheme” (“They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing,” wrote Edward Said) to high school students Trang Pak and Sun Jin Dinh fighting over their sexual relationship with a white Coach Carr in Mean Girls (2004). Funny!

Asian fetishism in our current times has a clever—and in many cases, supposedly funny—new name: Yellow Fever. It seems innocent, and almost sanitized, now, and there is a great deal of pressure to be flattered or at least amused that so many non-Asian men “prefer” Asian women. 

But however we call it,  this is a concept predicated on the idea of Asian women as sexual and subservient, which opens us up to a slippery slope: sexualization to objectification to dehumanization to the view of Asian women as nothing more than a source of temptation to be eliminated.  What Atlanta makes clear is that the lines between Yellow Fever and Yellow Peril—”desire” and dehumanization—don’t really exist. 

A fun fact: In 2000, The Carletonian wrote about a group of Carleton students protesting against the band Bloodhound Gang for their song “Yellow Fever,” which they felt dangerously sexualized Asian women. Then in 2003, The Carletonian reported on the “hardcore ultimate IM” final coming down to two teams: Yellow Fever and Fickle Chinese Mistress. Yellow Fever, the article noted, included players from Cut, GOP and Syzygy. Fickle Chinese Mistress was a mostly freshman, male team. I can’t and won’t make additional assumptions about the make-up of these rosters and intentions behind these names, but even the most optimistic view leaves me deeply uncomfortable.

Back to Atlanta

This backseat concoction of racism, classism and sexism that has systematically dehumanized Asian Americans, specifically undercut the plights of vulnerable Asian Americans and offered up Asian American women as objects of lust set the foundation for the shootings in Georgia, no doubt. 

It’s not enough,  probably, for a hate-crime conviction, and I question whether that legal designation really matters. What matters, I think, is that we begin to recognize anti-Asian racism as real racism, and we challenge The Narrative of Asian Americana that has stripped members of their individuality and the ability to share their stories.

In the aftermath of Georgia, these conversations have indeed been happening. And it’s an optimistic and jarring sight.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder how long this energy and attention will last. And whether someday, my grief, disbelief and rage from the last year might atrophy, and I will  settle back into The Narrative. Whether I will look back on this piece with regret and embarrassment, wishing that I had kept quiet and let things blow by the way I taught myself to early on. I really hope not.

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