The headline for this Op-Ed is such an obvious statement that it seems ridiculous for me to even write. Many have been following the news that anti-Asian racism during the pandemic has been on the rise. Recently, my Bothell community has been rocked by a horrendous attack that happened in the Chinatown International District to one of our Asian American high school teachers.
But I would argue that at a subconscious level, perhaps we tend to be more varied in our acceptance of the validity of the racialized experiences of our Asian and Asian American neighbors. Maybe, at a deeper level, we tend to dismiss the impact of racism directed at Asians and Asian Americans, or when we learn of it, we are at a loss for how to adequately respond.
During class, sometimes I ask my students to name common stereotypes associated with various racial groups in the U.S. There is usually uncomfortable silence in the classroom until we get to Asians and Asian Americans — then hands (or virtual hands) start flying up in the air. Students eagerly name positive stereotypes such as “good at math,” “high-achieving” and “wealthy.”
These generalizations reflect the model minority stereotype of Asians and Asian Americans that portrays them as all successful and possessing an exceptional work ethic. Another important element of the stereotype is the idea that Asians and Asian Americans do not experience racial discrimination, or at least not at the frequency and intensity of their non-Asian counterparts. Scholars have noted that both dimensions are important components of the model minority stereotype. These two related generalizations make it difficult for clear and productive conversations to occur about anti-Asian racism.
When powerful leaders, including former President Donald Trump, refer to the coronavirus as “China virus” or “Kung Flu,” and a typical response is one of indifference, dismissal or minimization — “Hey, it’s not that big of a deal. After all, Asian Americans have it good in this country, and their experience is not as bad as the __________ [fill in the blank with a non-Asian group]” — I would argue that this is a manifestation of the model minority stereotype.
When a local teacher who is Japanese American is violently attacked in our own neighborhood, and we are horrified at the atrocity but do not have the clear vocabulary to respond beyond sympathy, this is also a symptom of the model minority stereotype.
And what is the outcome of this individual or collective minimizing of anti-Asian racism, and also the lack of effective response when racism does occur? It is the continued suffering of Asian and Asian American communities, during and beyond the pandemic.
I believe that we can counter these trends through the hard but necessary work of effective allyship on behalf of Asian and Asian American communities.
Let’s be intentional about teaching our young ones about Asian and Asian American experiences of racism, both historical and contemporary manifestations.
Let’s teach our children about the considerable heterogeneity within Asian cultures, and at the same time, the importance of a pan-Asian identity for Asian American communities. Let’s grapple with the complexity of why “China virus” is offensive to all Asian and Asian Americans, but also why “Chinese New Year” as a description of the holiday is inappropriate in describing the celebration by many Asian cultures, and therefore it is better captured by “Lunar New Year.” These are nuanced conversations, but ones that we must have to practice to achieve a more effective allyship on behalf of Asian and Asian American communities.
Let’s educate ourselves about racial microaggressions as contemporary forms of racism, and how Asian Americans might be prone to experiencing specific types of microaggressions, such as the acts and messaging that incessantly question their American identity (e.g., “Where are you really from?” or “You speak amazing English!”)
It shouldn’t have to take a pandemic when racism against Asians and Asian Americans has reared its ugly side, but now that we are here (and have been here), there is a sense of urgency to make more intentional efforts in our families, neighborhoods and schools to better support Asians and Asian Americans.