I laughed when I saw Joe Biden’s speech on CNN, when he addressed the recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes within the United States in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although I appreciated the condemnation, I found his comments regarding the “un-American” nature of hate crimes hilariously out of touch.
There’s nothing “un-American” about anti-Asian racism. It has been and continues to be a historically defining feature of American identity.
Americans and Westerners, for the most part, are blissfully unaware or willfully ignorant about the painful history of anti-Asian racism off of which their communities have directly profited. Entire histories regarding the colonial occupation of Asian countries, the systematic sexual abuse and exploitation of Asian women by American soldiers, and the discriminatory policies against Asian immigrants have been whitewashed or simply forgotten.
Despite the West playing a pivotal role in shaping the Asian experience and defining Asian-Western relations, it’s disturbing to see how the history of Western conflict in Asia, especially concerning colonial expansion, is often overlooked when examining Western culture as a whole.
Conflicts such as the Opium Wars of the 19th century—in which the British Empire, United States, France, and many other Western countries invaded China in order to legalize the forced importation of British opium into Chinese markets and expand colonial spheres of influence—underscore the historical pain suffered by many Asian countries at the hands of Western colonialism. Asians within Western societies fared no better, with events such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese massacre of 1871, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and many more incidents highlighting the development of racist attitudes regarding Asians within predominantly white societies.
Even more recent trends, such as the continued problematic and intrusive existence of American military bases in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and many more Asian countries continue to demonstrate the lingering colonial attitudes promoted by Western powers in modern times.
That’s why I’m not surprised when I wake up to my social media feed flooded with posts of violence against the Asian community across the world. Headlines such as “Chinese virus, get out!’: lecturer from China beaten in Britain amid spike in hate crimes” and “Thai Man, 84, Dies After Being Attacked in Broad Daylight by Teen in SF” may come as a shock towards my non-Asian colleagues. But for many Asians, it’s hardly the rude awakening that the Western media portrays it to be. For many of us, myself included, it’s a grim reality that the Asian community at large experiences everyday, yet this fact continues to be ignored by media narratives.
I vividly remember how I was directly racially harassed last year. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I was on a grocery trip with my friends at Target when a middle-aged white man walked up to us to harass us. Despite being surrounded by my friends, the man stood there with brazen confidence and ignorance as he asked us if we were Chinese and cursed insults at us.
A few months later, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and violence against Asians around the world became more widely reported, I couldn’t help but feel angry and frustrated at the situation as a whole. It was infuriating to see the media and my peers post about the recent “shocking” wave of violence when it was under their noses the entire time. It’s not easy to excuse the ignorance of people who have directly or indirectly contributed to and profited from anti-Asian racism.
The history of anti-Asian racism within the United States and the Western world becomes clearer when one considers the portrayal of Asians in the media and the ways in which racist rhetoric against Asians continues to define Western culture. Stereotypes against Asians are not only widespread, but they are legitimized as a part of mainstream culture. Although Asians are often portrayed as quiet, reserved, intelligent, and hardworking, the very same stereotypes are used against the Asian community as a means of discrimination, limiting their potential for participation within different spheres of society. Even more “positive” stereotypes such as the “model minority” myth ignores the socioeconomic struggles faced by many Asians within predominantly white communities, as this myth diminishes the Asian experience into one monolithic identity and justifies hateful rhetoric against Asian communities.
It’s even more disturbing to consider the ways in which the exoticization and fetishization regarding Asian culture is widespread in mainstream Western media. Colonial undertones are normalized within most portrayals of Asian culture and identity through Orientalism, as the “exotic” nature of Asian culture is celebrated, yet deemed as “inferior” when compared to more “civilized” Western cultures. This is perhaps most prevalent within Asian cuisine, which is somehow depicted as both fascinating and repugnant at the same time. Often, the cultural nuances and wide variety of distinctions between different Asian cultures are not only blurred, but also suppressed, making it more palatable for a white audience to enjoy and understand.
Even attempts of authentic portrayals of Asians within Western media such as “Crazy Rich Asians” degrade the unique intricacies and nuances of Asian identity. In this film’s case, it is through a simplified depiction of Singapore that ignores its diverse multiethnic and multicultural population.
The overlying issue of anti-Asian racism and racist portrayals in the media also extend toward further issues of intersectional violence and racism against Asian women in particular. The colonial conquest and occupation of various Asian countries has led to a sexual racialization of the Asian identity, in which Asian men are emasculated and desexualized, rendering their female counterparts vulnerable for conquest by “superior” white males.
Compared to white women, Asian women are constantly fetishized and hypersexualized within Western media. Often portrayed as exotic “China Dolls,” Asian women have been dehumanized as submissive sexual objects eager to “seduce” white males. It’s telling that one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time, “Miss Saigon,” portrays Asian women as helpless prostitutes that longingly wait for their white male saviors.
Taking this all into consideration, it’s clear why so many Asians within predominantly white communities continue to struggle for expression and with their identity. It’s exhausting for the Asian community to experience discrimination and bigotry within the very same society that selectively appropriates “positive” traits within their culture and identity. Although I can’t claim to speak for all Asians and the POC community at large, the widespread normalization of racist microaggressions and rhetoric within Western culture and media is often traumatizing to come to terms with.
Reflecting on my personal experiences, anti-Asian racism feels more like a poison than a blunt shock. It seeps through my mind, taking control of all my thoughts and every aspect of my life. In moments of mental crisis, I used to find comfort in watching “Community,” a wholesome 2010s TV sitcom about a group of friends navigating through life within a community college. However, when I rewatched it last night, it was in the wake of the violent murder of eight people (six of them Asian women) in various spas in Atlanta. I couldn’t help but be disturbed by its racist depiction of its only Asian character, Chang. Played by Ken Jeong, Chang is everything that the anti-Asian racist rhetoric, perpetuated by years of historical oppression and colonization of Asian communities, had presented itself to be. Not only is he an Asian male who is depicted in a grossly emasculating fashion, he is scheming and maniacal, harkening back to the historical depiction of Asians within political cartoons during the “Yellow Peril.”
The pervasive nature of racism is suffocating and, in many ways, permanent. I can’t enjoy my favorite TV shows or movies anymore without noticing their racist, or utter lack of, depiction of Asian identity and culture. I can’t view the things in my life I used to enjoy and find comfort in without considering their racial implications. Questions like “Where are all the Asians on this show?” or “Is this lyric problematic?” continue to linger in my mind.
The Wesleyan community is not safe from criticism either. Despite the University’s marketing of itself as a safe and inclusive space for all individuals, microaggressions—especially sinophobia—against the Asian community continue to be pervasive on campus. The amount of times I’ve heard from my peers and professors about how my English was “unexpectedly” good, or how I come from a less “creative” background due to my race, is honestly disturbing for a community that is known for social activism.
Even The Argus, the very publication through which I am publishing this article, has failed to stand in solidarity with the Asian community at large. I was shocked and disappointed to find a disturbing lack of reports or even mentions regarding the Asian hate crimes over the past year. The apathy that The Argus has shown is representative of the general apathy towards the Asian community that continues to define American and Western societies.
So what can you do to help?
Educate yourself. If you come from a country with a known colonial past or a significant Asian community, educate yourself on the history of anti-Asian racism and exploitation that your community continues to profit from.
Reach out to your Asian peers. In an age where daylight attacks against Asians, especially those from vulnerable demographics, has become increasingly common and legitimized, it’s a scary and unnerving time to be an Asian within a predominantly non-POC community.
Listen. Although you may think you’ve known how it feels like, there’s nothing more valuable than listening and learning about personal experiences. Stand in solidarity with the Asian community and listen to its struggles.
Link for Bystander Intervention Against Asian Hate Crimes
Shihyun (Will) Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org