Editor’s note: We run occasional pieces by young people in the Puget Sound area, giving their perspectives. This essay is by Yoon Lee, a 16-year-old Bellevue resident and sophomore at Seattle’s Lakeside School.
The Asian American community has long been calling attention to the invisibility of racism, microaggressions and hate crimes against Asian Americans. As such, when news of the Atlanta spa shootings gained national attention in March, my first responses were those of shock, and then fatigue. I had heard reports of Asian Americans victimized by hate crimes throughout the previous year. I followed the Black Lives Matter movement’s arduous battle for change. I have lived in the shadow of gun violence since my first lockdown drill in the fourth grade. I felt that little progress would follow the Atlanta killings even if I wanted change. I believed that another Asian hate crime would not be categorized as an act of racism, but instead be chalked up to something more “palatable” in the eyes of the American media cycle, such as sexual frustration or mental illness.
However, I was grateful and surprised to see that movements arose almost immediately. Awareness regarding anti-Asian hate crimes began circulating, Stop Asian Hate gained traction and rallies spread nationwide. Although not nearly as widespread as the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year, the issue was brought into the modern media cycle and political discussions. I felt an obligation to educate myself and get more involved. My parents had a background in civil rights in Korea, have experienced the invisibility of Asian American activism in mainstream American media and wholeheartedly supported my endeavors. We attended two Stop Asian Hate rallies, one at the Bellevue Downtown Park and another at Seattle Center, where we listened to speeches from local community leaders.
The speakers talked about their journeys, focusing on the importance of overturning “model minority,” “submissive,” “perpetual foreigner” and other harmful stereotypes. These ideas were supported by the speakers’ stress on unity, perseverance and participation; the need for the varied and unique Asian American communities to cooperate, put aside differences and realize that anti-Asian hate affects all Asian nationalities and ethnicities. They encouraged a collective persistence in making change.
This call for unity and perseverance against stereotypes and the marginalization that follows them was important for me to hear. Throughout my life, stereotypes of Asian Americans cast me as part of a “virtuous” minority, one that is successful, rich and hardworking. This stereotype raised me to believe that I was lucky to be Asian American and that I should be grateful to be above problems faced by other minorities. Even though this concept is blatantly outlandish, I saw it impact the actions of many of my — Asian American or otherwise — friends who were vocal for Black Lives Matter but did little or nothing for Stop Asian Hate. In one extreme case, I heard students at my school believing that anti-Asian hate had only existed for a single year in the pandemic, and was inexplicably degrading of Black Lives Matter. I have a relative who thought the problem “did not apply” to them in the same way as it did the six Asian women in Atlanta who were repeatedly lambasted for being “prostitutes” despite the baselessness and sexism behind this declaration.
I have only recently been able to unpack all of the times when I internalized this sense of “virtuousness” and “success” to wave away microaggressions comparing me to Chinese stereotypes (despite being Korean), or the week in elementary school when I slept with my eyes toward the wall to push my “monkeylike” ears against my head.
I am grateful that Stop Asian Hate helped me and many others to consider our place in movements for social justice and how we can advocate for positive change. I am grateful for the chance to learn about the growing number of local Asian American leaders and activists, such as Grace Chung, who organized a rally in the Chinatown International District in April to both denounce hate and celebrate diverse cultures; Julie Kang, who managed events such as a Seattle Center rally in March that I attended; and Pastor Michael Lee of the All Nations Community Church, who encouraged the audience at that Seattle Center rally to continue fighting for change beyond a singular event.
I am grateful that I have started to reckon with my own identity as an Asian American teenager and that I feel more confident confronting stereotypes and microaggressions I had buried beyond immediate memory. I am excited that the U.S. Senate near-unanimously passed a bill designed to combat hate crimes in response to the steep rise in attacks against Asian Americans. However, I realize that Asian Americans being a marginalized minority is a novel concept for many, and too many people are incredulous of the fact. I know that Asian Americans are still far from true equality, and our struggle is often an invisible one. This reality is unacceptable, and I hope to continue shedding light on this topic both for others and myself.