What does an “Asian American” represent?
A computer engineer at a Silicon Valley technology company? The high school math nerd? The foreigners who contributed to the spread of COVID-19?
These are all common stereotypes that burden the Asian American population, grouped into one monolith even though Asian Americans come from one of the most ethnically diverse continents in the world. The wave of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) directed hate crimes recently spotlighted in the media are just some of the severe consequences. From being coughed or spat on in the street to the use of slurs and physical violence, Asian Americans have reported around 3,800 hate crimes over the past year.
One of the principal causes of recent violence and disregard for the Asian American population is the “model minority myth,” popularized by Western representation of Asian countries in the media.
According to Harvard Law School, the model minority myth is defined as “a mistaken belief that Asians do not need financial aid… or the idea that Asians are hardworking overachievers who are closest to the idealized White success.”
“We have movies showing [Asians] finding great success in this country like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Bling Empire’ that shape us as this model minority,” said upper school history teacher Jonathan Rim, who identifies as Korean-American.
Rim grew up in America, yet he and every member of his family have experienced some form of racism or anti-Asian mockery, such as racist slurs and eye-pulling gestures. For him, the recently highlighted attacks are “nothing new.”
“Many see [generalized Asian representation in the media], and they associate us as people without struggle, but in reality, there are still many Asian Americans struggling and living in poverty who may not even have legal status in this country and live paycheck to paycheck, so it’s unfair that our struggles don’t get recognized,” Rim said.
18-year-old Hailey Cheng, a Chinese-American student who currently attends Columbia University, regularly uploads content on the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States and Asian representation and stereotypes in Western media to her TikTok platform with over 360,000 followers.
“This new wave of hate crimes is not just simply hatred of people who look different from you,” Cheng said. “It’s because of [Yellow Peril] narratives.”
In fact, Asians are the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., but Asian subgroups experience the largest income inequality gap, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. From 1970 to 2016, Pew Research Center found that the distribution of income among Asians widened to 27%, limiting many Asian Americans from economic opportunity and mobility and lowering their political influence. There are 18 members of Congress who identify as AAPI, or 3.4%.“Asian Americans don’t vote enough, and we don’t hold enough [government] positions in proportion to our population,” said Rim. “We are underrepresented, and unfortunately, it took something like the [Atlanta, Georgia] massacre for the government to finally acknowledge it.”
The Asian American Federation (AAF) reports that many in the Asian immigrant population depend heavily on service work such as nail salons and food delivery to support themselves since limited English proficiency oftentimes becomes an economic mobility barrier. The recent shooting on Mar. 16 in Atlanta, Georgia, that left eight dead occurred in three Asian-owned massage parlors.
The gunman, a 21-year-old white man, claimed that his attack was not racially motivated but rather due to a “sex addiction.” In the police briefing afterward, an Atlanta law enforcement official said that “yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
At a news conference, a law enforcement official says early indications are that Atlanta-area mass shooter Robert Aaron Long may have been motivated by issues stemming from “sexual addiction,” not racism — but he cautions that the investigation is in an early stage pic.twitter.com/jCyDGyZxQ7
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 17, 2021
Investigators continue to investigate whether the shooting was a hate crime. Crimes against Asian Americans are often not classified as hate crimes due to the lack of a clear symbol identified with anti-Asian sentiment. With six of the victims being women of Asian descent, the Atlanta shooting highlights the intersectionality between Asian American hate crimes and misogynistic discrimination against women, specifically the historical stereotypes of Asian women as submissive and quiet.
“Not only does the model minority myth erase labor struggles, violence and injustice against the Asian American community, it’s also a tool of white supremacy,” Cheng said. “The myth demonizes Black and Latino communities, and its purpose is to break alliances and pit Asians against brown and Black people when we should be allies.”
The shootings drew attention to Asian American violence over the past year, with users posting under the hashtag #StopAAPIHate and drawing support from those outside of the AAPI community.
In a 2019 study by the American Psychological Association, only four out of 107 female Asian American participants said they had never experienced discrimination. Six out of 15 types of discrimination were identified as specific to how race and gender relate to discrimination toward Asian American women: being viewed as exotic, not a leader, submissive or controllable, cute and small, lacking agency and belonging to a service profession.
Rep. Bee Ngyuen (D-89), the first Vietnamese-American to serve in the Georgia House, believed the shooting should be investigated as a hate crime and condemned it as an intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.
“Asian women are expected to be silent & submissive,” Nguyen said in a tweet. “When we dare to speak, when we have the audacity to confront the systemic xenophobia & misogyny, we are met with threats and hatred.”
Asian women are expected to be silent & submissive. When we dare to speak, when we have the audacity to confront the systemic xenophobia & misogyny, we are met with threats and hatred. #StopAAPIHate https://t.co/VFqke00NBz
— Bee Nguyen 🐝 (@BeeForGeorgia) March 19, 2021
In fact, new stereotypes that arose after the spread of COVID-19 continue to highlight the long history of Asian American stereotypes and Asian-related discrimination.
“We’re passive, taught to just keep quiet and not cause trouble and so on, so historically, [people who commit hate crimes] have gotten away with it,” Rim said.
Rim also refers to the United States’ history of anti-Asian and Asian American sentiment, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that forbade the Chinese from coming into this country for 10 years and was only repealed decades later in 1943. During World War II, the federal government also forcefully relocated and incarcerated Japanese-Americans in concentration camps with deplorable living conditions. Anti-Asian racism and xenophobia rose again after the Vietnam War in 1955, and Asian and Asian American populations living in the United States once again became the scapegoat.
“Asian American discrimination has been going on throughout our history, and we’re finally at a point where we do have some political power and so on, but we still have a long way to go,” Rim said.
At a White House press briefing on Mar. 18, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden is fully committed to combating xenophobia, intolerance and hate after the Atlanta shooting. Biden and Vice President Harris met with AAPI leaders in Georgia to discuss the Atlanta shooting, stating that “hate can have no safe harbor in America.”
Despite this administration’s rhetoric and Biden’s public statement of moving the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act forward with Congress, many, like Cheng, still believe that the federal government’s efforts are insubstantial in fighting a string of racially targeted crimes that have only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 virus.
“We need to combat Yellow Peril narratives,” Cheng said. “For the past year, our politicians have been demonizing China and Chinese people, and they knew that it was going to cause violence, and the same corporate media that demonized Chinese people are now speaking up against anti-Asian hate crimes as if they didn’t cause this whole thing in the first place.”
Though Cheng constantly deals with hate comments and even death threats from users who interact with her page, she hopes that the message behind her content of speaking up and changing Asian and Asian American narratives can reach across the screen to others.
“What we are seeing right now is sinophobia, anti-Communism, neo-McCarthyism and anti-China warmongering,” Cheng said. “The thing is, this new wave of hate crimes is not just simply hatred of people who look different from you: it’s because of narratives. The demonization of Asian countries is really where the hate crimes are coming from.”
Likewise, middle school Chinese teacher Xiuyu Gao believes that education is a primary tool in changing Asian American stereotypes and narratives, especially due to the historically strained foreign diplomacy between the U.S. and China.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump and members of the media have referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” “kung flu” and other variations that emphasize its place of origin through Asian stereotypes.
“I hate this phenomenon of racial persecution but feel helpless to change it by myself,” Gao said in an email interview with Harker Aquila. “The fundamental solution to this problem is to improve the relationship between the United States and China. Otherwise, such incidents will continue to occur. As ordinary people, all we can do now is help each other and protect ourselves and those around us.”
In a national report from the nonprofit organization “Stop AAPI Hate,” 68.1% of the hate incidents reported over the past year involved verbal assault, 20.5% involved deliberate avoidance, and 11.1% were physical attacks, and civil rights violations and online harassment each constituted under 10% of the reports. 1,226 hate incidents have occurred in California, with 708 reported in the Bay Area alone.
Elderly Asian Americans have been the biggest target in the recent wave of attacks, prompting discussions of their specific vulnerability. On January 30, an 84-year-old Thai man died from his injuries after being attacked on his routine morning walk in the Anza Vista neighborhood in San Francisco. On Mar. 17, a 75-year-old Chinese woman was severely assaulted on San Francisco’s Market Street.
“I think that there’s a lack of humanization toward older Asians because we sort of see them as ‘Oh, that’s an old grandpa, that’s not the grandpa of someone I know or grandmother that I know,’” Joy Tang, AAPI youth advisor and music teacher, said. “A lot of the times we see older people in the media, they’re portrayed as really clueless. We don’t really see them in a light that you might if you were part of the Asian American community.”
Organizations such as Compassion In Oakland originated as a means of protecting those who might be vulnerable on the streets, providing services that include chaperoning older people within the Oakland Chinatown Community. After seeing the recent attacks on elderly Asian Americans, Rim joined Compassion in Oakland as a volunteer in order to promote their message of compassion and unity.
“I’m just so upset about grandparents, the elderly getting [assaulted] and so on,” Rim said. “I feel like I’m in a position where I could help somebody, and I don’t think I would have done it just because I’m Asian. It really upsets me to see this happening.”
Social media awareness is a vital factor in spreading information; a majority of the recent Asian American hate crimes were first recorded and uploaded online by passersby before national publications began shedding light on the incidents.
“Racism comes from stereotypes and has really been integrated into our society already, so the media won’t really even cover it,” Alex Zhang (11), who identifies as Chinese-American, said. “Our Harker community is predominantly of Asian descent, and in the Bay Area we’re kind of in a bubble, so I think it’s important to remember and realize the extent of racism that’s happening across America.”
Specific to the Harker community, Rim says that he would welcome more school-wide assemblies to address the rising Asian American discrimination and provide a source of support for the predominantly Asian American community at Harker.
“Especially now, with people being more active on social media, I’m already seeing a lot more awareness on Asian-related hate crimes,” Rim said. “My students are voices for [their] grandparents, telling their story and putting it out there so their voices can be heard. I’m proud that they can use the power they have to spread this.”
Visit this website for more information on how you can become an ally with the AAPI community.
This story was originally published on Harker Aquila on March 22, 2021.