There has been a lot of soul-searching over the past week in the Asian American community as we try to process two back-to-back massacres of mostly Asian Americans.
There has been collective grief. Fear. Mourning. Frustration. Weariness.
Over three bloody days in California, 18 people were killed, 10 others physically injured and who knows how many more emotionally traumatized and terrorized. The dead and injured were elders and farmworkers.
When I woke up to the news of the first shooting in Monterey Park a week ago Sunday, like many others I watched with dread. Coming at the start of Lunar New Year, I feared it was a potentially coordinated escalation of the anti-Asian racism and violence of the past few years.
But when the identity of the shooter became clear, relief that it did not appear to be the start of a Lunar New Year string of racist attacks gave way to a new kind of sorrow.
The sorrow was compounded two days later when an unrelated second shooting at a farm in Half Moon Bay left even more dead. Both of the alleged shooters were Asian American, older adult men.
That two Asian Americans could do something so horrific to their own communities is hard to fathom. But in truth, it really shouldn’t be.
No race or ethnic group has a monopoly on violence. No group is immune to our society’s obsession and love affair with guns. No group is exempt from mental health challenges or despair. We are struggling with this complexity in the Tyre Nichols killing as well, with some having trouble understanding how Black cops could beat another Black man so brutally.
But one of the dangers of the Asian American model minority myth is that it flattens our humanity. In broad strokes it reduces a diverse, disparate group of human beings into statistics and caricatures. It erases our capacity for human flaws, complexity, struggles, trauma and pain.
On paper, Asian Americans as a whole have higher than average incomes, higher education levels and low levels of gun ownership and its corresponding harms. But those statistics obscure a very different lived experience for a lot of people.
Asian Americans have the biggest wealth gap of any group, with incomes at the top masking needs at the bottom. Many Asian American immigrants have experienced traumas such as war, imperialism and displacement. U.S.-born Asian Americans experience racism, discrimination and invisibility.
Chunli Zhao, who said he killed his co-workers at the farm in Half Moon Bay, was part of an Asian America we don’t often talk about. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Zhao lived for seven years in squalid conditions at Terra Garden farm. The county supervisor called the conditions Zhao paid $300 a month to live in “deplorable.”
Gun violence in the Asian American community is likely to rise as more and more Asian Americans arm themselves. A study by the University of Michigan found that Asian Americans who experienced racial discrimination during the first years of the pandemic were more likely to buy a gun and that 55% of Asian Americans who purchased a gun during that time period were first-time gun owners.
In addition, the gun industry has targeted Asian Americans as a potentially lucrative new market, according to a report by the Violence Policy Center, leveraging fears of anti-Asian racism and violence to advocate gun ownership for self-defense.
If “America is a gun,” as one poet put it, there’s nothing more American than to embrace gun culture.
But as we know, a greater access to guns is less likely to result in self-defense and more likely to lead to higher rates of firearm suicides, which already rose 14% for Asian Americans between 2016 and 2020.
As we grieve and process the killings of the past week, I hope we can start to complicate our national picture of Asian Americans. No, not to conclude that Asian Americans are violent, but that like all humans, we can cause terrible harm as well as be harmed.
Within the Asian American community we have people who are well-resourced and we have people who are barely making it. We have people who need mental health support and care, and people who are providing it.
The model minority myth, even when it pushes “positive stereotypes” on us, is just the flip side of a racist coin. We must reject it whenever it appears so our full humanity can be realized.