Politics

“A Racist Was Always Going to See Me as Asian”

Two weeks after the Atlanta shooting, Asian Americans who never spent much time talking about their identities are reckoning with themselves and reaching for one another.

Hands hold a sign reading "Stop Asian Hate."
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On March 16, I was riding high on the beautiful spring weather and the previous night’s season finale of The Bachelor. It was only that night that the first headline of a shooting in Atlanta reached me. The story I read before going to bed said that a white gunman had shot and killed eight people, including six Asian women. I slept horribly that night, but I didn’t know it was about to feel even worse. I woke up to learn that even though they knew a white man had driven to three different Asian-owned businesses during his attack, Georgia officials had determined the crime was not racially motivated. Despite the gunman’s targeting of three Asian-owned businesses, the issue was that the murderer had a sex addiction, they said. He’d had a “bad day.”

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At first, I tried to make sense of my grief, anger, and fear alone. I napped, I angry-tweeted, I cried, I responded to check-in texts from friends with little emoji hearts. I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I was fearful of going on the run I’d planned, yet I couldn’t tell whether I was overreacting or underreacting. I knew that to any would-be harasser or assailant, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Yong Ae Yue, and I were interchangeable. But I also knew their life circumstances were different from mine in important ways: I work a white-collar job from the safety of my own home; I am younger; I was born in the U.S. These privileges shield me from some of the stereotypes and assumptions people made about these women in the days after their death, based solely on their names and places of work. The intersections of our identities, and the nuances of our similarities and our differences, are the hallmark of being Asian in North America.

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Talking about Asian American identity is heavy, and complicated. I have plenty of Asian friends, but rarely have I found the room in polite conversation—especially when non-Asian friends or partners are present—to broach the topic. But that Friday night, when one friend started a text thread with Asian climbers suggesting we get together, it was clear we were all hungry for real talk about our identities. We assembled in my backyard within an hour; one friend brought us all jade plants, and another ordered us poke. While most of us had met in passing through the climbing community, we’d never talked about where we’d come from before. That night, we dissected the ways in which our experiences overlapped or diverged. Some of us had grown up in predominantly Asian communities; others were among a small minority in their towns. While some of us are from families arrived in the U.S. generations ago, others of us are first-generation; the circumstances of their arrival and area of origin span the entire Asian continent and its history. Only some of us can speak our ancestors’ native languages, and with varying proficiency. Some were new to thinking about social justice issues; others have been part of activist circles for years. But it’s clear the Atlanta massacre awakened something in all of us.

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After that night, I noticed we were far from the only Asian Americans looking inward to process. Other Asian friends texted and called to talk through feelings; I read countless essays by Asian American authors unpacking their own experiences; social media was abuzz with reflective posts. After realizing that something was happening, I spent a week interviewing six other Asian Americans about how they think about their identity and what they’ve been thinking about since the shooting. The folks I spoke with by no means represent all of the Asian American communities—all are in their 30s or 40s, are East or Southeast Asians, and hold white-collar jobs. In this way, what they actually represent is the subset of Asian Americans that are best positioned to wield power, the most insulated from oppression, and the biggest beneficiaries of the model minority stereotype. I was interested to know how the past couple weeks had affected them.

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This is the group that grew up buying in whole-hog to the American dream. It’s what our families came here for, and they let us know it. “Growing up, I felt like, ‘How could I ever complain, with how lucky I am?’ ” says Tran Doan, a 33-year-old living in Ann Arbor. So many of the Vietnamese Americans she knew had harrowing stories of how they made it to the U.S., and she was taught to be grateful. Adam Cheung, a 46-year-old living in L.A., says he grew up “very pro-America, thinking the American dream was real: If you work hard, you can achieve whatever.” The phrase that came up in nearly every interview was keep your head down; our parents had always warned us against taking up too much space, getting mixed up in politics, raising a stink. Just keep working. “Those of us who are privileged don’t talk about this,” Cheung told me—“this” meaning racism against Asian Americans. Where there’s power, there’s fear of losing that power, and Cheung believes that many high-powered Asians are afraid that breaking the silence will alienate them from white colleagues and friends.

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But within that group, I sense a shift. Individually, some of us feel we finally have enough power to say something, and collectively, through comparing experiences, we realize we won’t be alone if we speak up. In our younger years, it was easier to brush off racist taunts, microaggressions, stereotypes; many say they felt that was just their lot in life, an inevitability. When I asked Doan if she’d experienced racism growing up, she almost seemed surprised by the question. “Yes, absolutely—who hasn’t?” she said. But compared with deportation, the wage gap, and colorism that less privileged Asian Americans face—or the wars and revolutions our parents lived through—was it really worth bringing up?

But even before the Atlanta shooting, Asian Americans who once remained quiet have decided that’s no longer an option. Cheung says he was never really a political person until four years ago, when Trump was elected. This is an uncomfortable truth for many Asian Americans, especially ones with light skin and money: It can be quite easy to ignore conversations about race until it becomes personal. Jesse Liu, a 42-year-old New Yorker, says he, too, has begun thinking more about Asian rights after experiencing harassment over the past several months. “My head was in the sand for most of my life, in the sense that I never thought of Asians as being victims of discrimination,” says Liu. He thought that growing up LGBT was going to be a bigger disadvantage. But the harassment, he says, “changed my view a little—that even you can be a victim of this, that it isn’t some abstract thing.”

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Even those who have been thinking about race, gender, and class for years say recent events have shifted things. Kimi Narita, a 35-year-old living in San Mateo, California, says the recent attacks on Asian Americans has validated her belief that assimilation will never protect us. Often, Asian Americans—particularly those with privilege—have seen proximity to whiteness or appeals to fit into white culture as a safe haven. It’s so deeply ingrained in American culture that many of us don’t think to question it until much later in life. Mike Chen, a 42-year-old living in the Bay Area, says that when he was younger, he often sought out ways to rebel against the Asian stereotype and embrace more traditionally white interests: learning guitar and ditching piano, playing hockey and not basketball, getting into indie film, joining bands, becoming an artist. But over the past few years, he says, he’s had a realization: “No matter how many books I wrote, how goth I was, a racist was always going to see me as Asian,” he says. “They don’t care that I really loved Depeche Mode.”

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Doan says she feels the recent attacks may have convinced some people the hate is real. “At least, I am starting to believe myself,” she says. Similarly, Karen K. Ho, a 34-year-old living in New York, says she used to ask herself if her fear of racist attacks was part of a general proclivity to overreact; for instance, as a journalist following news out of China, she’d been worried about the threat of COVID since early 2020. She has since discovered her fears were indeed founded. “Being an Asian woman is always second-guessing yourself,” says Ho. “But the thing was, I could see the train coming, regarding both racism and COVID-19.”

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Now, many Asian Americans are wondering what’s next. We’re worried there will be more violence. “Is this the peak of the wave? Is it going to crest from here or is this going to get worse?” asks Liu. Some report being more vigilant: not wearing headphones, not making eye contact with strangers at a red light, considering buying a gun, hiding Asian features under a face mask or hat. “Some days, I’m like, I’m being overly paranoid, but then I talk to someone who’s paranoid too, and then I’m like maybe I was right,” says Cheung. “I just don’t know.”

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To further complicate matters, there has been a range of reactions from Asian Americans about how to respond to acts of violence and how to move forward. Some want stronger police interventions; for instance, at a Seattle Stop AAPI Hate rally I attended before the Atlanta murders, one speaker said she and her husband were assaulted, that the incident was not being prosecuted as a hate crime, and that she was upset the perpetrator wouldn’t receive a harsher sentence. Seattle is now one of several cities across the country pledging to ramp up its police presence after the Atlanta murders. Meanwhile, Asian-led activist groups like Red Canary Song and Seattle’s Chinatown-International District Coalition vehemently reject increased policing as a response to these crimes. “For those in our community most affected by anti-Asian violence of the kind seen recently, increased policing only compounds the danger in their lives,” the CID Coalition recently wrote in a statement with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project.

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Many Asian Americans are also grappling with the realization that the model minority myth has long been weaponized to drive a wedge between people of color, and that recent attacks have been used to further stoke such divides. “The one thing I want older Asians or anyone who buys into the model minority myth to understand is that it is purely transactional as a tool of systemic racism,” says Chen. “We’ve allowed that to just happen for decades.” While many Asian Americans are calling for unity between races, it will take time to build the trust necessary for unity. Asian American communities must reckon with why so many of us have stayed silent for so long—and show up for other groups if we’re calling on them to show up for us.

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The worst-case scenario, as I see it, is that this outpouring of attention to Asian American issues is just a blip—that these murders and assaults evoke vigilance and sympathy from both Asians and non-Asians for a week or two before we move on to the next terrible thing. I worry that fellow Asian Americans will only care about racism insofar as it affects them directly and that, once this wave passes, we’ll go back to complacency. But others, like Chen, have hope this could be the beginning of a bigger movement. “As angry as I am, I am actually a little optimistic because I have never seen the Asian community be so visibly angry,” he says. “We have a moment to lead, and we should take it.”

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