On the day that this picture was taken, I flipped off a black homeless man. He was sitting on the sidewalk, and had a dirty red blanket around his shoulders. In his hand was a rattling plastic cup containing a few coins. Anyone who might have seen this insensitive gesture would probably think of me as a cold, heartless bitch.
In that moment, I felt too much anger, embarrassment, and shock to be able to verbalize anything at all productive - which I do regret.
Prior to me flashing the finger, he muttered to my group of friends walking by, myself included, “Which one of you guys bought the coronavirus here?”
No less than five minutes later, on our way to Penns Landing, a group of kids walked by us. They looked to be in high school, like us, and the majority of them were also people of color. “She got the corona!” called out one of them, just after they’ve passed.
My group of five, by this point, is bewildered at how we have just experienced two instances of street harassment, both linked to racist accusations, in the span of just a few minutes. Only three of us clearly “looked Asian,” having the typical features associated with being “Asian.” The other two were white.
Yet, because of how we looked, both the homeless man and kids from another school, as well as a great deal of ignorant people in general, believed we would carry the infamous COVID-19 virus that has been spreading worldwide. Or maybe, they didn’t.
Part of me no longer buys ignorance as the sole excuse for the kind of racist backlash those in the Asian community have received. I’m quite sure that by now, as more information is being provided about the coronavirus and myths debunked, people are aware that Asians are not the only group of people affected by the virus.
Yet, people all over the globe have been choosing to ignore the basic facts and have taken advantage of the panic caused by the virus to specifically scrutinize and target us.
According to a national poll performed by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News in 1991, a majority of the public believe that Asians do not experience racism, with some even claiming that Asian Americans are handed “special advantages.”
Yes, you can argue that this study is a bit old, but has this view really changed at all in the last 29 years?
Asian Americans are still being grossly underrepresented, erased in just about every history curriculum, and silenced when we do speak up about the challenges that we face.
The truth is Asian Americans have always experienced racism in America. It continues to affect us today, and we don’t acknowledge it enough. How’s that for an unpopular opinion?
The discrimination against Asian Americans, made rampant with the outbreak of the coronavirus, is by no means an isolated phenomena or a “one time thing” as some would believe.
On that day, I learned a lot about what Asian Americans commonly go through but don’t talk about.
“I was bullied for being Asian.”
“I am scared to wait for the bus because other kids at the bus stop always make fun of me when I’m there. “
“I am scared to be in the subway because I always get harassed for being Asian.”
"I get racist remarks from customers when I'm working."
It didn't stop there - when I went home, I dug deeper into the horrific history behind Asians in America, that could and should easily fill up chapters in our textbooks. Instead, we get a line or a paragraph at most, as if a few sentences could ever do justice to the mistreatment that Asians have faced in this country.
No, Asians did not go through mass enslavement in America to the extent that African Americans, for example, did - though it is estimated that 40 to 100,000 Asians (Filipinos, Chinese, not to mention a bounty of Asian Indians) were transported to the New World as slaves.
But in terms of other challenges and the effects of very real systematic exclusion in America, Asians can literally relate to practically every other problem that other minority groups have had to deal with.
Street harassment and violence, fueled by xenophobic sentiment? Check. Anti-asian riots have been going on since the Chinese massacre of 1871, in which Chinese immigrants were robbed, mutilated, and lynched in Los Angeles. The mob went through nearly every Chinese owned building and destroyed homes while attacking Chinese residents. Out of the 500 involved in the mob, only ten were prosecuted, with eight of the convictions overturned due to “technicalities.”
Segregation? Hell yes. Japanese students were segregated in San Francisco in 1906; Chinese students were altogether banned from any public school in the state, before the Supreme Court decided in the case of Lum v. Rice in 1927 that Chinese students by definition were “non-white” and should be segregated in public schools across states as such. This sounds a lot like… taking away any means of education and opportunity for advancement in society, don’t you think?
How about being seen as racially inferior, which is the very definition of racism? You got it. The Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century was the first law in American history to ban an entire ethnic group from entering America until 1943 (not that long ago!) and prevented Asians from becoming citizens. In Plessy v. Ferguson, many fail to mention that Justice Harlan literally contrasted Chinese people with blacks by remarking, “the Chinese race [is] a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States.”
By barring Asians from citizenship, their vote and their voice was stolen from them. They had no control over the decisions being made for them by people in power. Even personal choices, such as marriage, were restricted by laws and cases such as Roldan v. Los Angeles County, which prevented Filipinos from marrying a white spouse. As decided by California in 1913, Japanese immigrants could not purchase land either. Asians could not run for office, and hate crimes against Asians were usually overlooked as they were denied government services and protection. There were no Asians in positions of authority or even present in the courtroom.
Even when the right to restify was offically acquired in 1882 with the case of Yee Shun, the impacts did little to offset the discrimination that Asians faced in the courtroom that lasted into the 20th century. Openly shunned by attorneys as “untrustworthy,” and “incompetent,” for decades, Asian Americans’ say in cases have been automatically dismissed.
Whereas the American court system is supposed to run on an innocent until proven guilty assumption, with the burden of proof lying on the prosecution, this was the exact opposite for Asians, who must go above and beyond in arguing for their innocence. These usually include “special requirements” for Asians, for example, demanding the presence of “at least one credible white witness,” because we weren’t good enough in the eyes of the law.
The US Supreme Court has failed us in other ways. Let’s not forget the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War 2 and forcibly relocated to isolation camps. The criminal justice system, having no real evidence of wrongdoing, again ignored the presumption of innocence when dealing with Japanese Americans, and blatantly negated the rights guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution.
This decision resulted in 1,862 lives lost, many from tuberculosis. Hirabayashi v. The United States mandated a curfew for those of Japanese ancestry in which they must be at home, “daily between the hours of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.” What does this all remind you of?
Yes, these are all instances that have occured in the past, but to dismiss the way the American narrative regarding Asian Americans has strategically changed throughout the years, in order to benefit and uphold the current system of white supremacy and racial hierarchy would be foolish and ignorant.
Conveniently, the attitudes reflected by 1880s orator Horace Greeley: "The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order," switched up in the 1960s, replaced by national press glamorizing the work ethics of Asian Americans, in an effort to downplay the consequences of racism during the civil rights era.
U.S News & World Report writes in 1966 in response to the black civil rights movement, “At a time when Americans are awash in worry over the plight of racial minorities — one such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work … Still being taught in Chinatown is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts — not a welfare check—in order to reach America’s ‘promised land.’”
The term “model minority,” coined in 1966 by the New York Times was used to describe Japanese Americans as law-abiding citizens who do not cause problems and whose perceived success are all due to their remarkable efforts. This soon became the myth applied to all Asian Americans and continues to damage the relationships between minority groups today.
The perception of Asian Americans as a “model minority” is advantageous only to the white majority because it ignores the effects of systematic oppression and other inherent disadvantages that minority groups face, and insinuates that other minority groups simply aren’t “trying hard enough” to achieve this so-called American Dream. Instead of actually leveling the playing field for all, Asian Americans are pitted against other minority groups such as African Americans, Latinos, etc. in a false hierarchy created to blind us from reality.
Consequently, because of the idea that Asian Americans are somehow magical beings with innate talent in math and STEM, Asian American students are often neglected in the classroom. School policy makers tend to overlook the individualized needs of these students and seldom are services and specific programs provided to help them. Any underachieving is seen as a lack of effort on the part of the Asian student.
According to George Qiao in his article, “Why Are Asian Americans Killing Themselves,” college students of Asian descent are 1.6 times more likely than all other groups to seriously attempt suicide and they are 3 times less likely to seek out professional help.
The model minority myth creates pressure for many Asian Americans to live up to an unfair standard on their own, while simultaneously removing the means to actually help them succeed.
Likewise, the myth is used by government officials to make the claim that Asian Americans do not need government assistance, when we are continuously marginalized by society. When it comes to discrimination in the workplace, Asian Americans comprise the highest reporting percentage of all other racial groups with about 30%, with blacks coming in at 26%.
In addition to this, despite being the most likely minority group to be hired into professional or high tech jobs, Asian Americans remain the least likely to be promoted to management. Their chances are below that of blacks and Hispanics, with white coworkers being twice as likely than Asians to be promoted as manager.
This is not to say that Asian Americans are impersonal, lacking in charm and leadership qualities, as stereotypes and even some higher education institutes (cough, Harvard) would have you believe. The problem is that companies do not care about identifying and developing talent within Asian Americans, and it shows. Asians are still being presented as the ideal, obedient employee, good enough to follow yet unqualified to lead.
When you look at the scarce representation of Asians in media, this becomes abundantly clear as well. Asian-Americans represent only 1 percent of all leading roles in Hollywood, according to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
After centuries of ‘yellowface,’ or white actors playing Asian characters, when Asians are finally given roles, they are usually offensively stereotypical: the nerdy student with no other personality, the weird one, the prostitute or exotic masseuse played by Asian women (which is a whole other issue!).
Bottom line: The Asian is never the hero or heroine. The Asian is never in the spotlight, due to some perceived insufficiency in our character that ultimately resides within our “Asianness.”
Who, then, are we supposed to look up to? To relate to? To let us know that our experience in America is just as valid as any other, and that we exist?
Some believe that the reason why Asian Americans are neglected by society is because we, ourselves, don’t speak up enough.
Although one could argue it is because of cultural customs that prevent Asian Americans from fighting back - that is, showing humbleness and being deferential to authority - the truth is we have been speaking up for ages. With the case of Yee Shun, as previously mentioned, by winning the right to testify, we set in motion an advocacy for our civil rights. As Cheryll Leo-Gwin, a Chinese American artist who co-designed the memorial for Yee Shun puts it, “We fought back. We didn’t give up.”
Take the 70s in Manhattan, New York when Asian Americans for Equal Employment organized months of protesting for fair hiring practices when a developer refused to hire Asian workers for the building of “Confucius Plaza.” Dozens were arrested before DeMatteis Corp. finally agreed to hire 27 minority workers, including some Asians.
These activists created a movement which lasted for four decades, in which they fought for equal rights and access to denied city services, against the exploitation of workers and foul working conditions in illegal sweatshops and factories.
In 1982, the race-fueled murder of Vincent Chin that resulted in the two white perpetrators getting off on probabation and no jail time, sparked an outrage in the Asian American community and helped further form the collective movements of the 80s.
In more modern times, Asian Americans have contributed to protests against the anti-Muslim policies that took place after 9/11, Harvard and their admissions standards for Asians in 2015, campaigned in 2016 against the underrepresentation of Asians in Hollywood, and many of us have opposed Donald Trump’s presidency in 2016 as well. We continue to fight for issues surrounding climate change, affirmative action, tax abatements, and more.
In 2020, we continue to face racism, bullying, and discrimination, as well as more silent forms of oppression through stereotyping and the ever prevailing model minority myth - or dare I say, bullshit.
Our problems are very real, and Asian Americans will never be white in the eyes of white Americans. No matter how much it looks as if we have assimilated into western life, or how misleading the statistics are displaying Asian success, Asians are still being treated as “other,” as much as any other minority group.
Instead of pushing Asians aside in the minority game of “who is most oppressed,” and a second favorite of “who has the right to complain,” we should recognize that we all deal with the effects of structural racism and systemic inequalities.
We share quite a lot of the same struggles and instead of stepping on one minority group, through racist insults and the spread of misinformation, we should focus on uplifting everybody so that one day, there will no longer be a “model minority” to be compared to. It simply does not exist.
The coronavirus may be scary, but what is even more threatening is what the virus has revealed in terms of how well (or not) humanity stands together in times of need.
Put back those packs of toilet paper and handsanitizers, educate yourself on the facts of the caronavirus and think before you speak, and sneeze!