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Column: Asian Americans also face discrimination in America. Here's how to support them. By Faith Kwong

While I was lucky enough to have some peers that looked like me in middle school, with inky black hair and dark brown eyes, the majority of the students in elementary and middle school didn’t look like me.

When I reminisce about my middle school days, I like to think that I had a relatively enjoyable experience. In truth, I have fallen victim to various stereotypical comments and questions. “Do you know what dog tastes like?” “Do you speak English?” “If you’re Asian, you’re like a human calculator right?”

I laughed off comments like these, as if they were acceptable.

One year, a blonde girl pulled her eyes back in different directions, demonstrating how to distinguish between the different types of Asian eyes. Another time, another student told me that the grade I earned on a test “didn’t count” because I was Asian.

At the time, I thought I was okay with it. I mean, they were my classmates, some of which I considered my friends and I didn’t know any better to stop them. In fact, while I didn’t ever express it, I had always had that feeling that I was “different.” Different from my white peers, but all-too-similar to my Asian peers.

Years later, as a seventeen-year-old in high school, I recognize my blessings of never having to fear racism. Sure, the kids at school might have called me by the wrong name or made an insensitive joke; but they didn’t play traumatic parts of my childhood.

Don’t get me wrong. Their actions were unacceptable, but at the end of the day, they were children -- unaware of the weight of their words -- not adults. I have never feared verbal assault or judgement on the street, by strangers.

Until 2020.

The Crimes Against Asian Americans

COVID-19 brought an onslaught of hate crimes targeted towards Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, (Stop AAPI Hate) the nation’s leading coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian hate crime and discrimination during the pandemic, recieved 3,795 reported incidents of racism and discrimination targeting Asian Americans in the US from March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021. According to a Pew Research Center survey, three in ten Asian Americans say they have been subjects to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity since the beginning of the pandemic.

A man shot and killed eight people at three Atlanta spas, most of which were Asian women. Suspect Robert Long, a white man, confessed to the crime and said that he wanted to remove the “temptations,” and said that he was motivated by “sexual addiction.” Authorities said it was still too early to declare the attacks a hate crime. The Sheriff’s office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker also did not consider the killing of the six Asian women a hate crime and said that “yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”

Parker had previously posted an image of T-shirts that said

“COVID 19 IMPORTED FROM CHY-NA.”

This makes me wonder: how fair will these investigations by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office be? Further, by saying that these acts of violence were not racially motivated, it brings to light the racism and white supremacy rooted in American history.

Asian Women: Marginalized, Fetishized, and Stereotyped

According to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more than men, between March 19, 2020 to Feb. 18, 2021. Asian women have been objectified, sexualized and fetishized. They have been stereotyped as “submissive” and “exotic.”

This stereotype truly began in the mid 1800s, when a small number of Asian women immigrated, along with a larger number of men rushing into California in search of gold. This group of women included some sex workers; from there, white Americans began the stereotype that Asian women were submissive. The Page Act passed in 1875, restricting prostitution and forced labor. However, at its core, the Act was a strategic restriction on Chinese immigration.

Further perpetuated on American media, these stereotypes have persisted, and have only added on to the racism that Asian American women already face. Long’s motives to remove the “temptation” is evidence of that.

Xenophobia: The Fear of Foreigners

Just this year, an 84-year-old Thai American died from injuries after being pushed to the sidewalk. A man violently attacked a 91-year-old man in Oakland Chinatown before assaulting a 60-year-old man and 55-year-old woman. Keep in mind, these are just a couple of well-known, documented cases.

It breaks my heart.

Asian-American xenophobia has dated back to the late 19th century. From the time Asians began immigrating to America, nativists feared that Asians would gain voting rights and political power and establish strong communities. White laborers feared competition with Asian immigrants despite the often “undesirable” cheap labor that Asian Americans took; immigrants were typically more willing to work for low wages and poor working conditions. Regardless, white Americans blamed Asian immigrants for the economic downturn in the 1870s.

A result of a nativist sentiment, when Chinese people were labelled as “dirty,” the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 explicitly barred Chinese laborers from entering the country. It wasn’t appealed until 1943. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 imposed restrictions on Japanese-American immigration. During World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to detention camps. The struggles of Asian immigrants and European “white” immigrants are not the same.

These were just a couple of the blatant, inexcusable acts of xenophobia, and I encourage you to learn more about other cases of discrimination.

Adding on to the legal restrictions Asians faced, AAPI discrimination is evident in various regards within society. American media lacks Asian American media representation (unless they are the token second lead fitting Asian-American stereotype that is, thus perpetuating stereotypes); worse, East Asian characters have been portrayed by white actors, a representation called yellowface. Not to mention, AAPI are still targets of racial slurs.

No matter how many decades an AAPI has lived in America for, no matter their level of education, no matter where they were born or their national identity, no matter how perfect their English, Asian Americans will always be labelled “foreigners.”

The “Chinese Virus”

In 2015, the World Health Organization outlined a guide for naming new Human Infectious Diseases “with an aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

During a press conference on March 18, 2020, President Trump used the term “Chinese virus” to describe the COVID-19 pandemic which originated in China. Given his responsibility to set the climate of what is and what is not acceptable of this nation, Trump knew the implications of his wording, especially in a time of uncertainty and COVID-19 exhaustion; yet he continued to use this term.

Asian Americans in Society

Asians are Not The Same.

I once heard a story about a teen who went out shopping with his mom. His mom had told him to speak Vietnamese, so the other people in the story would know that they were not Chinese, and avoid targeting them.

He told this story with a laugh, chuckling at the naivety of his mother.

“As if non-Asians could tell the difference between Vietnamese and Chinese,” he remarked.

This story is sad, but it is true. Asian Americans are often lumped together as one and the same, ignoring the diversity of Asia. Asian Americans come from the Middle East as well as south and southeast Asian countries. We are not all light-skinned with black hair, and we don’t all come from East Asian countries like China, Korea, or Japan.

The In-Betweeners

Asians, in American society, have had a strange “in-between” status. Historically, they have not faced the violent discrimination nor horrors of systemic racism rooted in American society that the Black community and other minorities have faced. But, contrary to popular belief, Asian Americans are no strangers to discrimination in America and do not have the “white status” in society. In fact, AAPI has been labelled the “model minority.”

First coined in 1966, “model minority” has been used to describe AAPI as academically and economically successful in comparison to other minority groups like Blacks and Latinos. This label, at the surface, seems to praise Asian Americans for their achievements. However, the term actually harms both Aisian American and other people of color.

In attempts to drive a wedge between Asians and other minority groups, many claim that other minority groups in America should simply work harder in order to gain economic and academic success. If Asian Americans can do it, why can’t other minority groups… right? This is simply not true. Foremost, African Americans have dealt with systemic racism that puts them at a disadvantage. Secondly, the argument, quite frankly, that Asian Americans do not face discrimination because they are statistically the highest earning racial and ethnic group in the United States, is wrong. As mentioned, Asian Americans have been discriminated against in various regards.

Further, the model minority argument generalizes Asians as the same: successful and educated law-abiding citizens. Not only does this discredit the achievements of Asian Americans, the myth disregards the diversity and rising income gap between Asian Americans. The model minority myth also fails to recognize the diversity in Asians, tracing their roots to over 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. It fails to recognize the unique histories, languages, cultures and foods of Asian American immigrants.

The breakdown of Asian American ethnic groups in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census

Unfortunately, a lot of racism in the Asian community exists. However, we cannot confront xenophobia without directly addressing racism against Blacks and other minorities. Both being people of color in America, Asians and Blacks must stand together. Cases of AAPI hate crimes have risen in the past year, but most Asian Americans do not have to worry about being gunned down or choked to death walking down the streets.

At its core, the wave of hate crimes and discrimination against Asians is really rooted in our country’s history of white supremacy. All minorities must work together to close the divide, and focus our attention on the bigger issue at hand: our nation’s white history.

America Without Asians

The past decade saw a rise in Asian pop culture.

Ranging from South Korean idol groups like Blackpink and BTS to Japanese anime and Korean dramas, Asian entertainment has made an increasingly large presence in America. If you, as a non-Asian, enjoy Asian culture -- whether it be anime, television, food or music -- I am asking you not to ignore these hate crimes.

This brings me to my next question.

Would America be America without the contributions of immigrants?

Years ago, a man, a stranger on the street, implied that because my relative had east Asian features, he was not American.

“Go back to your country,” he shouted.

Applying his same logic, I would ask the man that this question. Would the America you are so proud of exist without the contributions of immigrants or other people of color? If Asian Americans don’t belong here and should not be considered Americans, should their contributions to American culture and society be considered American? Ranging from the early contributions of Asian Americans like the transcontinental railroad, the first continuous railroad line from California to the East, to the $40.6 billion Chinese Americans paid in federal taxes in just 2017, Asian Americans, along with other people of color, have made America what it is today.

Asian Americans of Naperville

According to the Illinois Report Card, Asians make up nearly 20% percent of the student body at Naperville North.

So, as a non-Asian, who lives in the Naperville community, what can you do?

Obviously, there is no five-step textbook formula to supporting Asian Americans. But, I would encourage you to to start learning, diversify your perspective and help out in our community.

This might mean reading books by Asian American authors, visiting anti-racist websites or donating to local or national organizations. Learn about the diversity of AAPI and the history of their discrimination. Starting small might just include diversifying your feed on Instagram and on the news. Watch movies directed by Asian Americans. Support Asian-owned small businesses, and try some authentic Asian food by local small restaurants. And, if you’re feeling up to it, learn a new language! There are tons of language-learning apps nowadays that help anyone with a smartphone learn a new language. Write to your legislators. Support local Asian businesses that have been affected by the pandemic, and avoid attaching geographic regions and groups of people to “coronavirus.”

In my opinion, one of the ways of supporting Asian Americans would be to listen to the voices around you. Listen and empathize with their struggles. It is easy to repost a graphic on Instagram (don’t get me wrong, it definitely helps!) but it is far more meaningful to engage in conversations about xenophobia and to learn about their culture and experiences directly.

In doing so, you might learn about the diversity of Asia and the struggles that Asian Americans face--Asians make up about 20% of our district’s student body anyhow. We are in it together.

Check out the graphic for a guide on what NOT to say and what to say instead.

I get it. Addressing insensitive comments can be hard; but, it is important that you do so. If you hear a classmate or family member crack a racist joke, respectfully ask them why. If you’re ready, have a “hard” conversation with someone who has made an insensitive comment. Explain to the person who referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus” why that is harmful. Approaching people you know in a respectful way is a great way to start small in resisting xenophobia.

Whatever it is you feel comfortable doing, taking the step is what’s most important. Be proactive about using your voice, and learn about America’s roots of discrimination. At the end of the day, combatting racism in America --whether it be against Asian Americans, Black Americans or other minority groups-- is a collective effort, and thought it will take time, we must do it together.

Created By
Faith Kwong
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Created with an image by aga7ta - "Dictionary definition of word xenophobia"