This past March, a man attacked a two-year-old child, her six-year-old sibling and their father in a Texas grocery store, believing the family to be Chinese. And most recently, again in New York, two people assaulted an elderly Asian woman on the street and set her on fire.
These cases are just a few examples of the broader grim reality of prejudice, hate and verbal abuse that Asian Americans have faced during this pandemic. By developing a deeper understanding about the racial bigotry that we as Asian Americans have faced, we can and should develop a larger consciousness about racial injustice in the country at large. Moreover, even for those who are not Asian American, learning about and grappling with our community’s struggles can enrich and strengthen the call for racial equity for all communities — and for Black Americans in particular.
During the American expansion west, Chinese American immigrants helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad. But these very same workers were later barred from naturalization, only to be massacred, pillaged and exploited, such as in the Rock Springs massacre of 1885. In World War II, when tens of thousands of Japanese Americans enlisted in the U.S. military to defend their country, their families were rewarded by being imprisoned behind barbed wire in concentration camps and stripped of the very same freedoms their family members sought to protect in the army.
But the history continues until today. Now, when countless Asian Americans are rushing to the frontlines to support the fight against COVID-19, these very same people are being cursed at, spat on, ridiculed and attacked in the streets.
This is the duality that plagues Asian Americans — they are expected to support a country that consistently inflicts harm on them. These unfair expectations are rooted in a perverted American conception of Asian Americans as both desperate to achieve high social status and praise, while also being parasitic and foreign, silently sowing discord in American society.
Although there have been protests and expressions of solidarity in response to the recent events I described above, the problem is that many Asian Americans have given into America’s warped expectations. One view, championed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, argued that in order to combat racism, Asian Americans needed to “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.”
Many Asian Americans criticized this opinion scathingly as insulting and attacking the community in its time of greatest need. The problem with Yang’s argument, and the entire set of beliefs underpinning anti-Asian racism, is that it essentially boils down to Asian Americans defeating racism by donning an American flag.
But Yang’s hasty call to action only reveals a deeper issue. Asian Americans need to assert their voice in the fight for racial justice. And there’s evidence to suggest that some of us are simply afraid or unwilling to speak up. In the case of the elderly woman being set on fire, the woman didn’t tell her family or the police about the incident until the next day because she “didn’t want her kids to worry.” Vocalizing our own struggles and calling attention to the hate we face can be very difficult: It can force us to relive those experiences, can draw unwanted attention to ourselves and can produce worry about retaliation from the same perpetrators.
But it is this hesitation that precisely explains why the Black Lives Matter movement should speak so loudly to us. As we see Black Americans raise their voices to demand racial justice, we can both draw inspiration from them and add to their chorus.
How we, as Asian Americans, respond in this time of crisis will shape the future of our community and other racial minorities. We must stand in solidarity. The power of Asian Americans supporting Black Lives Matter is that it sends a clear message: An attack on one minority is an attack on us all. The Band-Aid must be torn off, and the blood behind generations of racial wounds must be seen. Black Americans, Asian Americans and all people of color can no longer be satisfied with enduring hate: We must rise above it and thrive.
ETHAN KWOK is a sophomore in Saybrook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.