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Asian Americans fight racism and struggle to redefine their identity By Ester Wells

Russell Jeung stood in the checkout line at a sporting goods store in Alameda, California, and glanced over at his 16-year-old son Matthew standing beside him. It was mid-March in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they were buying a treadmill the day before California’s shelter-in-place order would shut down all nonessential services in the state.

The man in line in front of them, 6 feet away, turned around. He looked at Jeung. He looked at Matthew. The man said nothing but took several very deliberate steps away from them.

Jeung glanced once more at Matthew. Yes, he had noticed it too.

The next line over, a long string of people stood in an hourlong wait to buy ammunition.

“I put those two scenes together,” Jeung said. “One, people see us as a threat. They’re shunning us. Two, people are arming themselves against a threat. And I realized, that’s us. They’re arming themselves against us. They see us as a foreign threat to America.”

One year later, on the opposite coast in New York City, Chris Kwok watched the news in horror as security footage played of a man shoving a 52-year-old Asian American woman to the ground outside a bakery in Queens — shoved her so violently that she was hospitalized and required 10 stitches.

Kwok’s elderly parents live one block away from that bakery.

“I grew up in Flushing,” said Kwok, a board member for the Asian American Bar Association of New York. “I know that corner intimately well. My mom goes down to that very corner to shop. I’ve walked it a thousand times. So when I was reading the reports of what happened there, it just felt closer and closer.”

Asian Americans have reported acts of discrimination in businesses such as restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores. Jeung said his mother, 94, feels unsafe outside of Chinese enclaves in her neighborhood. Forcing Asians to retreat to areas like Chinatowns to survive, he said, is de facto segregation. (Ester Wells/Medill)

For Asian Americans across the country, the uptick in blatant violence and assault — in spittings, shovings, slashings and killings — has bred a sense of intense fear and anger. In 2020 alone, more than 3,000 attacks on Asian Americans were reported to the national Stop AAPI Hate coalition. Jeung co-founded the organization in March 2020 to track incidents of discrimination and hate.

Stop AAPI Hate received more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian racism in the first five months since its launch in 2020. (Graphic produced by Ester Wells)

But the vicious racism underlying these hate crimes is nothing new. In fact, the past year has retraumatized some with a renewal of the ethnoviolence they endured in both their homeland and in the U.S.

Nolan Zane, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Asian American Center on Disparities Research, recalled the culture shock of moving to San Francisco at age 8. As a fourth-generation Chinese American who grew up in Asian-majority areas of Hawaii, he learned quickly that on the mainland, race relations were different. It was 1959, and anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of World War II racked Asian American communities.

“I can remember my brother and I getting into fights at school, getting taunted, getting chased by bigger kids in the neighborhood,” Zane said. “There were times when we were essentially running for our lives.”

Jeung said he feels as though he is reliving in his experiences with racism the trauma of his parents and great-grandparents as well, from his family’s fishing village in Monterey, California, being burned down in a devastating act of anti-Chinese hate three generations ago to his parents being forced by discriminatory land covenants to solicit the help of white people to buy their home.

Both Jeung and Zane said, since then, racism has become more covert, often cloaked in microaggressions and implicit biases. But deep-rooted racist attitudes flared to the surface in 2020, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric around the COVID-19 virus. Zane stressed that Trump’s use of terms like “Kung Flu” and “China virus” effectively gave license to target and discriminate against Asian Americans, exploiting familiar scapegoating tactics that prey upon people’s existing prejudices.

The same prejudices that drove people to plainly deny Asians housing or jobs because of their ethnicity a generation ago drive people to make mocking insults and microaggressions now — and to overlook Asian American racial issues entirely.

The dismissiveness with which Asian experiences are treated speaks to the broader invisibility of Asian Americans in the U.S., according to a reflection written by Keun-Joo Christine Pae, a religion/ethics professor at Denison University. Anti-Asian racism, she argues, a persistent, pernicious force, is inextricably linked to the identity assigned of Asians in this country, which is one of perforated invisibility.

Cast as insiders in a racial hierarchal narrative that characterizes them as “honorary whites” or “white-adjacent,” Asian Americans have been lumped into a monolith and told the racism they experience is, in fact, not racism because they are “white-adjacent.” Experts say they are then pit against other racial groups, especially Black people, through the perpetuation of the “model minority” myth.

“The idea that Asian Americans are not an oppressed minority means that if I yell at this person to go back home or tell them they don’t belong here or spit on them because they brought the virus, then that’s not really racism,” said Karen Suyemoto, a professor of psychology and Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

“People are being attacked. People are dying, but we’re being told we don’t have any problems. That increases a sense of alienation, a sense of questioning our connection and belonging. I’m hearing Asian American students, colleagues and friends around the country asking, ‘Don’t people care about us?’”

But the narrative that erases Asian American issues and frames them as an insider “model minority” is two-sided. Jeung said during times of war, pandemic and economic stress, Asians are perceived instead as outsiders: perpetual foreigners to be scapegoated, excluded, even exterminated.

“People spray us with disinfectant during COVID,” Jeung said. “To them, we’re not only infected. We are the infection.”

Perforated invisibility — sometimes invisible insiders, sometimes targeted outsiders — means Asians living in the U.S. exist in a unique in-between space that can gaslight even fifth- and sixth-generation Americans into feeling their experiences don’t matter and they don’t belong, Suyemoto said.

Now, as communities try to reckon with the rise in ethnoviolence, Asian American leaders say education, exposure and accurate data reporting are critical.

Stop AAPI Hate urges increased funding for outreach programs, community trainings and public anti-racism education initiatives, including ethnic studies courses in schools, to build racial empathy and reframe what it means to be an American. It also supports expanding civil rights protections to ensure Asian Americans have safe access to goods and services. Jeung said 40% of the organization’s reported cases have occurred in retail outlets and grocery stores in what he said amounts to denial of public accommodations and a violation of civil rights. Stop AAPI Hate is working with state agencies in California to expand the civil rights codes of the 1960s to incorporate provisions that address the different kinds of discrimination Asian Americans now face. Jeung encourages other states to follow suit.

(Ester Wells/Medill)

At the same time, community leaders across the board are calling for a system of restorative justice that emphasizes mediation and holds perpetrators accountable without contributing to mass incarceration. While Kwok believes there is a role for police in the event of serious injury or death, in the majority of cases, both he and Jeung agree that reconciliation is key.

“To break the cycle of violence, you need the perpetrator not to be incarcerated, but to learn and be empathetic, and you need the victim to be able to forgive,” Jeung said. “Restorative justice models help both sides reconcile, and that’s what our country needs. More than punitive measures and policing measures, we need healing measures and mediating measures.”

Collecting accurate data on racially motivated incidents is another integral step. Zane said underreporting is especially detrimental because it makes the problems of a historically invisible racial group that much easier to dismiss. The importance of documenting these cases is not lost on Jeung, who — recognizing the alarming lack of data on Asian American issues — launched his organization with the express purpose of preventing the erasure of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.

Reporting centers like Stop AAPI Hate, together with community advocacy groups, play a vital role in filling the gaps left by traditional agencies and providing culturally responsive, multilingual services to people of color. Asian American leaders of these organizations urge the need for more funding, better collaboration with elected officials and stronger solidarity with other groups advancing racial justice to resist oppression of all kinds.

But getting at the roots of anti-Asian oppression means rewriting the narrative that selectively casts a mask of invisibility on Asian Americans. This, in turn, requires education down to the youth level. Matthew Jeung, who attends the College Preparatory School in Oakland, is bringing some of his father’s work into the classroom, teaching workshops on the intersectionality of race, class and gender through the Stop AAPI Hate youth campaign.

“I’m glad he’s being an activist and acting on his values,” Russell Jeung said.

Russell Jeung, from right; his wife, who is a pediatrician; and his 16-year-old son, Matthew. All three have experienced acts of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeung, who also has two foster daughters in their 20s, said he is concerned that young Asian Americans in particular will self-stigmatize and suppress the Asian aspects of their identities as the hate crimes continue. But he has been heartened by the galvanization of the Asian American community in response.

“At this moment, we see violence against our elders, but we also see people using social media, going to rallies, supporting Chinatowns and volunteering to escort elders. We see celebrities and elected officials denouncing the hate. Now, corporations are paying attention. Government leaders are paying attention. Media is paying attention, and that’s because the Asian American has lifted up its voice. We’re not trying to just stop what’s happening. We’re trying to catalyze a movement and fight for justice for all communities.”

Individuals who witness or experience anti-Asian hate crimes, harassment, microaggressions, racist rhetoric or any form of discrimination can report those incidents to Stop AAPI Hate or to their local police. Additional resources for Asian Americans are available at the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Chinese-American Planning Council.

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Ester Wells
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Ester Wells covers health, environment and science at Medill Reports Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @esterwells_.