The discourse around the hate crimes in Atlanta last month centered white voices debating whether or not the lens of race could be appropriately applied to the circumstances. As an Asian American woman for whom race is not a filter and intersectionality is not optional, I found this coverage to be incredibly reductive and exhausting. Journalistic neutrality and frankness about racism cannot be mutually exclusive. We can be critical and truth-seeking without ignoring reality. In a society founded on the exploitation, disenfranchisement, and oppression of people of color, race is always at play.
Let’s call a spade a spade.
I knew white supremacy before I could name it. I assume this is common among first generation Asian Americans and most people of color in the United States. Though we admit and acknowledge it to varying degrees, I think most of us have walked alongside and inside of it for our entire lives.
When I say white supremacy, I don’t mean white hoods and burning crosses. I don’t mean neo-Nazis or white nationalists. I don’t even mean your neighborhood bigot. While those manifestations of white supremacy encapsulate a vile American reality, confining our understanding of white supremacy to those extremes limits pathways to change. It also absolves many people of responsibility – well-intentioned people who really should be more engaged with what’s been happening in this country.
When I say white supremacy, I’m talking about the overarching worldview that prioritizes whiteness as the default. I am talking about the system that subconsciously defines and positions everything else by its proximity to and effect on white people. It isn’t always rooted in explicit racial resentment, and it is largely upheld by good people. It can pass for ignorance, and it enables inaction. Intentional or not, blatant or not, it perpetuates a soft division that keeps people of color firmly in the category of Other – a distinction that makes us a target for scapegoating, discrimination, and violence.
Over the course of the past year, reported hate crimes against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have risen by nearly 150 percent. There has been a swelling of renewed harassment against Asian Americans that can easily be traced back to anti-China rhetoric surrounding the spread of COVID-19 in the US. Nationwide, Asian Americans are feeling targeted and unsafe while going about their regular routines. We have been trying to call attention to this for an entire year.
It’s important for me to say that I come from safety. I live in an area where people who look like me have assimilated well enough into the larger culture, and I haven’t had to worry about physical violence. My proximity to whiteness has afforded me a safe and comfortable life. It should go without saying that my experience is not the shared experience of all Asian Americans.
The model minority myth has led many to perceive the AAPI community as a homogenous group of – among other things – successful, well-off individuals. Some have even touted the anecdotal success of Asian Americans as evidence that systemic racism does not exist, proof that the American Dream is accessible to anyone trying hard enough. While it’s true that many Asian Americans achieve high levels of attainment by conventional metrics — in part due to historically selective immigration practices — it seems necessary to emphasize that members of the AAPI community live diverse, multi-faceted realities. Treating us as a monolith erases the myriad experiences and struggles we face. When you ignore the complexities and multitudes within a community, it becomes easy to ostracize the collective.
Many views of the Asian American community are rooted in far less favorable stereotypes. Prejudice against the AAPI community, though heightened in recent weeks, is built on a long history of American animosity towards Asians in the US and abroad. This stems from pervasive xenophobia and white supremacy, both of which inform how the United States sees itself and interacts with the rest of the world.
Legacies of imperialism and settler colonialism have played a key role in shaping the Asian American experience. In a report published last year, Simeon Man, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, examined the role of these forces in shaping American attitudes toward Asian people, drawing connections to the spike in Anti-Asian violence beginning in early 2020. Following wide-scale disruption, destruction, and displacement at the hands of “capitalist and imperial expansion,” members of the Asian diaspora arrived in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When they sought opportunity here, Man says, these people were treated not as immigrants, but as expendable “migrant labor” whose value derived solely from productivity and profitability.
The presence of Asian laborers, Man argues, has historically served as “a means for those who were themselves differently marginalized, excluded, and dispossessed under capitalism to assert their belonging in the nation.” Violence and brutality against Asians in America fostered a feeling of “community in the assertion of white identity and the maintenance of the color line.” When we reflect on recent events through the scope of this history, it’s clear that the Othering of Asian Americans is not episodic, but part of a larger historical pattern.
These discriminatory forces have formed the bedrock on which the United States builds its international relations. We center our foreign policy on an anti-China narrative, and we rally our people around a bipartisan rhetoric born of that narrative. We see rising tensions and hyper militarism predicated on a sustained overinflation of the threat posed by China. In a period characterized by “geopolitical tumult and heightened nationalism,” we see the real-time consequences of this cold war. When the demonization of an Asian country becomes the foundation of American foreign policy, it is inevitable that Asian Americans will bear the brunt of the resulting discrimination.
While this tactic of fabricating an enemy isn’t novel, it became all the more visible with the spread of COVID-19. From the highest levels of office, the American people have heard a punitive message against China. Though there are valid criticisms to be made against the Chinese government’s initial lack of transparency surrounding the outbreak, Americans jumped to a far more drastic and, in some cases, conspiratorial tone. Though varying in levels of xenophobia, we heard a tough-on-China message from politicians across the ideological spectrum. We heard leaders debating how China should “pay” for their missteps, all while the American government continued to completely botch the handling of the pandemic at home. In a time where leadership should’ve been laser-focused on domestic failures, we once again looked to pass the blame elsewhere.
This rhetoric is not isolated to the political sphere. Prominent figures and key publications within popularized media also feed into America’s anti-China orientation. While the image of any particular country is shaped by a variety of complex factors, Dr. Zengjun Peng of St. Cloud State University says “news media play a vital role in constructing and shaping” that image, and China’s “national image has been largely at the mercy of mainstream American media.”
The history of discrimination against Asian Americans is long, storied, and painful. It is also traceable. Even before the onset of the pandemic, many of us have experienced this racism in various forms all throughout our lives. We are made to feel like foreigners in our homes. In times like these, the problem is exacerbated. The issue goes beyond the prejudice and ignorance of individuals. It is monumental, systemic, and self-perpetuating. White supremacy informs our foreign policy and domestic rhetoric. In turn, our foreign policy and domestic rhetoric perpetuate white supremacist narratives. White supremacy breeds white supremacy.
This conversation cannot be had without acknowledging the Movement for Black Lives and the efforts of Black organizers and advocates. Last year’s renewed focus on anti-Blackness woke people up to the suffering and injustice perpetuated by the systems we operate within. There are vital conversations to be had about anti-Blackness within Asian culture that has created tensions between Black and Asian American communities, but at the core, these two movements are parallel. Any movement against Asian hate must move in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. We absolutely do not face the same struggles, but the focus of both causes must be the eradication of white supremacy. When we drive out the common source of our oppression, everyone will benefit.
While I don’t know how we solve these problems, I know we cannot solve them without addressing the rot at the core. We can start by calling out racist acts as we see them. We can start by challenging the messages we’re fed every day. We can start by imagining a foreign policy based on mutual prosperity rather than global competition.
We can all start by changing how we understand white supremacy and asking how we may be complicit in perpetuating systems of harm. When I say white supremacy, it’s not an attack or an accusation. It’s a plea.
A list of organizations and mutual aid funds you can donate to in support of AAPI communities can be found here.