I have been playing a strange sort of game lately, one in which I attempt to discern the motivations behind the long looks I’ve been getting from strangers, looks in which I detect more than a tinge of hostility. The glare from the driver of the car next to me (I stared back until he looked away) as we were both stopped at a red light; the disgust on the face of the man sitting across the aisle from me the last time I flew on a plane, as I disinfected my tray table and armrests and seatbelt with a Clorox wipe and slipped on a surgical mask that my mom had insisted I take before I flew back home to New York City; the woman who quickly and without hesitation walked out of an elevator just moments after I stepped in after her.
At times, it’s more than just a lingering stare. Last week, a woman clutching a mini-stun gun in her hand at the grocery store told me to get out of her way, as I was shopping for myself and a couple of my elderly neighbors. I heard a crackling in the air; it was only as she walked away that I realized she had discharged the stun gun in my direction. Was she reacting to my face, half-covered by a mask? “I wish she had called me a dirty chink bitch, just so I would KNOW,” I quipped in a text to some of my friends afterward. Even now, I find myself downplaying all of the slights, making light of what feels increasingly heavy lately, like a lot of my Asian American friends, a defense mechanism to blunt the sharp edges. (We’re all Chinese now, in the racist imaginary. As the Korean American writer Cathy Park Hong noted tartly in her recent essay collection Minor Feelings, “Most Americans know nothing about Asian Americans. They think Chinese is synecdoche for Asians the way Kleenex is for tissues.”) Stepping outside is now fraught with a dual danger. My friends and I now joke about all the extreme measures we’re now taking to not cough in public; we’ve all gotten very good at discreetly clearing our throats.
We joke because we are suffused with a low-key paranoia, some of us for the first time, that other people’s irrational fear and hatred may render our individual humanity into a collective tragedy. Black Americans have known this reality since before the official founding of the United States; for all other people of color, our bitter reward for living in this country is getting our own time in the floodlights at some point. For South Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, it was 9/11 that unleashed a wave of bigots; for Latinx Americans, the election of Donald Trump led to a sharp uptick in hate violence. The likening of the covid-19 pandemic to war and specifically to Pearl Harbor is perhaps then unintentionally illuminating—in war, you have an enemy with a face, one that you have to dehumanize in order to justify the violence perpetrated against them, and well, we all know who that was in the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, and what happened in its wake—the easy vilification of Japanese Americans, the internment camps.
Today, the all-too-predictable response on the part of some casual bigots has been to target anyone they perceive to be Chinese, from verbal harassment to physical attacks. In New York City, an Asian women wearing a facemask was beaten, the man shouting, “Don’t fucking touch me,” calling her a “diseased bitch” to make it obvious; this week, an Asian woman was doused with acid, sending her to the hospital with second-degree burns. In California’s San Fernando Valley, a teenage boy was sent to the ER after some of his classmates accused him of having the coronavirus and attacked him. The violence has not been limited to coastal cities with large Asian populations. In Midland, Texas, a 19-year-old stabbed a Burmese man and his two young sons at a Sam’s Club, slashing the young boy across his face. According to the FBI, “The suspect indicated that he stabbed the family because he thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.” The attackers have been white, black, Latinx, eluding an easier binary and an easier story to tell, of white hatred and Asian victimization.
A climate of fear, fed by a Republican Party and president that has been pushing a narrative of China as the enemy for years now, can lead anyone to violence.
The FBI is predicting, somewhat belatedly, that there will be an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, writing in a recent intelligence report that incidents “likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease.” The report added, to make the obvious point, “The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.” It doesn’t take a fleet of FBI analysts to make that prediction; a cursory reading of the news since early January would do the trick. “When we started reading about news reports about the outbreak in China, we were also at the same time monitoring how it was being covered,” Cynthia Choi of the California-based Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) told me. Choi and other activists knew that the spread of the coronavirus would translate into acts of violence and harassment. In March, CAA and the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council created the STOP AAPI HATE reporting project, a website where people can report harassment. In the first two weeks after its launch on March 19, they received more than 1,100 reports of coronavirus-related discrimination from Asian Americans around the country.
Even the discrimination has layers—according to the report, women, seen as more vulnerable, are twice as likely to report harassment as men. “We are seeing more aggressive, more physical interactions,” Choi told me, from people spitting and coughing on their targets to pushing and shoving. “It’s shocking. We’re already under the stress and anxiety, and we all have fears about this deadly infectious disease. And on top of that, we’re being scapegoated and blamed.” Before CAA’s office closed, someone had sent hate mail sent to their office that read, “I guess if you eat bats or pongolins [sic], of course Chinese bring viruses to the world.” The sender had originally written “you Chinese” but they had ultimately decided to cross out the “you.” (Perhaps they had felt a small, ultimately meaningless jolt of shame.) “These are racist tropes that have existed since our early migration to this country,” Choi noted.
There will always be racist idiots. Many of them will be people with power, even be our president. Donald Trump has done his best to dog-whistle for weeks, repeatedly calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and even crossing out the word “corona” to replace it with “Chinese” in his signature black Sharpie scrawl on a printout of one of his speeches. Imagine wanting to be more racist than your racist speechwriter! Even his belated acknowledgment, in a tweet, that Asian Americans should not be blamed for the coronavirus showed who he includes in his conception of Americans. “They are working closely with us to get rid of it,” he wrote. (Who is “us,” I wondered, knowing the answer.)
But for all that we might want to blame the rise in violence and harassment on our racist-in-chief, he’s simply the manifestation of a particular strain of racism and xenophobia that is encoded into this country’s DNA. Trump is just throwing more fuel onto an existing fire, more red meat to his base, which has been primed even more in recent years to view China as an existential threat and which sees non-white immigrants as a threat to their ideal white Christian ethnostate. If the particular trigger for this latest outbreak of violence is new, the reaction is not, both familiar and disconcerting at once. Familiar, because it has happened before, every time some challenge to American might has been perceived to come from Asian lands, and disconcerting, because of how easy it has been to reanimate the idea, which usually lurks just under the surface, that Asians are the enemy within.
Chinese laborers who were viewed as both a threat to American (read: white) workers as well as disease-ridden in the lead-up to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the Chinese women who were painted with a broad brush as diseased sex workers; World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans; subsequent wars fought in Korea and then Vietnam—Asians have long been viewed as foreign threats to American exceptionalism. During the Cold War, as the historian Jason Oliver Chang reminded me, the “China virus”—a term that was in use then as it is now—was Chinese communism; in the ’80s, the threat was Japan and its economy; more lately, the rise of China both economically and politically has led to scores of Chinese American scientists and international students being painted as spies, or as potential foreign agents. How ironically appropriate that this time, it’s an actual virus that has once again raised the specter of Yellow Peril—aren’t we seen as easily replicated, mindless drones, coming to destroy the American economy?
“The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported,” Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings. “We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear.” Hong is referring to the idea that Asians in America are the “model minority,” a term whose invocation tends to immediately fill me with exhaustion and frustration for how it often it’s seen as the singular source of all of the ills plaguing Asian America. But the reasons why (largely East) Asian Americans came to be viewed as the hardworking, successful people of color is instructive. Contrary to the idea that it’s a false narrative generated largely by white politicians and journalists and imposed from above, it was in fact Japanese and Chinese Americans who, in the years after World War II, promoted their respectability as a survival strategy. Its creation, as the historian Ellen Wu has put it, “was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asians Americans to be accepted and recognized as human beings,” as “American people who were worthy of respect and dignity” during a time when discrimination against Asians was inscribed into the law.
If it’s true that the model minority trope was later used by white conservatives who wielded it as a convenient tool to blunt black Americans’ demand for racial justice, and if it’s true that it glosses over experiences that don’t fit into the neat, inherently limiting box of immigrant striving and bootstrapping success, it’s equally true that some of us have embraced this narrative, even now. Earlier this month, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that to combat the rise in anti-Asian discrimination and violence, “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.” Yang pointed to Japanese Americans who volunteered to serve in the military during World War II to punctuate his point that, as he wrote, “We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
What utter bullshit. I’ve never much tortured myself with questions of whether I belong, of whether I’m American enough. It’s a question I can’t really answer except by asserting, aren’t I here, after all? Haven’t we already been doing all of the things he recommended, and not necessarily out of patriotic duty, but an inherent human desire to help others? Performing a sort of uber-American pastiche has never protected us, and why should we feel that we have to? The events of history show how our citizenship and belonging has always been conditional, based on forces beyond our individual control. Yang neglected to mention that draping themselves in the American flag after the bombing of Pearl Harbor didn’t stop tens of thousands of Japanese Americans from losing their livelihoods and homes and being sent to internment camps; that Japanese American men were initially classified as “enemy aliens” and barred from serving in the military; that when they were finally allowed to serve, some drafted against their will, they were slotted into a segregated, Japanese American-only regiment; and that not even serving in the military prevented some of their fellow Americans from showing them, in a thousand small ways, that they were not viewed as truly American upon their return. (Yang also neglected to mention the many Japanese Americans who refused to offer up their bodies as a sacrifice to patriotism, instead participating in that other hallowed American tradition—civil disobedience and dissent—by resisting the draft.) I wonder what Andrew Yang would say to the Chinese Americans, many of them immigrants, who have been fundraising to order much-needed protective equipment to send to hospitals, only to at times be accused of hoarding. So much for patriotism.
For a period during my twenties, I worked for CAAAV, an organization that was founded in the mid-’80s to fight a rise in anti-Asian violence being driven by both fears of Japan’s rising economy and the rapid growth in Asian populations in cities around the country, from Southeast Asian refugees to an influx of highly educated professionals who came in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act. CAAAV was born out of the movement to support the family of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit who was murdered in 1982 by two white autoworkers who had been laid off from Chrysler. The two men blamed Chin for the decline in the U.S. auto industry, his face becoming in their minds a metonym for Toyota and Honda. Vincent Chin wasn’t the only Asian target of racist violence during that decade—far from it—but it was his murder that overwhelmingly spurred the rise of a new pan-Asian American civil rights movement.
By the time I joined CAAAV, we no longer focused on hate crimes. Our targets were instead the more quotidian, but no less dangerous, forms of discrimination that working-class Asians faced in New York City—Filipina domestic workers who labored with no protections in people’s homes, Chinese immigrants being evicted from their cramped apartments, Cambodian refugees in the Bronx, dropped in the neighborhood by a federal government that quickly washed its hands of any responsibility for their livelihoods. To transform these circumstances required the difficult work of stitching together not only a sort of pan-Asian (let’s call it Asian American) unity among people from wildly different backgrounds connected only by the thin thread that our peoples came from the same continent, but finding common cause with other marginalized groups—other people of color, homeless New Yorkers, queer New Yorkers. We had the same enemy after all, and it wasn’t each other, a truth that was at times obscured. It’s safe to say we failed far more often than we succeeded, but we tried anyway. After all, approaching the horizon, even if it always was out of our reach, was progress.
I’d like to think that this moment will instead lead to a much-needed reckoning, that we’ll recognize not only that we can’t fight back alone and that our concerns will widen out beyond ourselves. Already, we’re seeing how the coronavirus pandemic is following pre-existing faultlines—if Asian Americans are being singled out by individuals as targets of hate violence, black and Latinx Americans are dying at far higher rates, experiencing what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called state-sanctioned premature death. Now is the time, as Madeline Leung Coleman put it, to “double down on solidarity.” If nothing else, our shared past tells us that we have never been able to save ourselves through our own efforts; that we find ourselves once again in this moment is its own sort of proof.