An Invitation and Response to the Recent Anti-Asian Attacks

In the U.S., we are currently besieged with a confluence of national crises. Amid the beginning of the trial of one of the officers who murdered George Floyd, the 1 year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, and the civil unrest after our national elections which included divisive racist and xenophobic overtones, we are at a crossroads of what our union shall be and who will be allowed to define us. The convergence of these crises now includes an alarming rise of anti-Asian violence (reported and unreported) in the United States.[i] 

I am grieving, outraged, tired, and heartbroken…again. I am certain many of us are. But as I witness the most recent documented anti-Asian assaults, I am struck by the quote “we are a nation more at ease with grievance than grief.”[ii] There is much grief to process as I see the horror play out again in my lifetime. Unified statements of denouncement are necessary and important. But there is also more here that beckons me. With this new version of national horror may come the restless desire to quickly condemn and quantify progress toward addressing the pain rather than the unhealed wound. What began as a statement of solidarity for me, now seems an invitation to engage the complex lives made homogenous in the violence and terrorism intended for such a purpose. 

Imagine your own elderly father or grandfather, standing at a street corner, getting pushed so violently from behind that they die from their injuries. Picture your own sister and her baby being spit on simply because of their perceived appearance. Visualize your own brother and his young children being stabbed in a popular public market, attacked by a stranger who mistakenly thought they were Chinese and guilty of spreading an invisible disease. I do not share family ties or ethnicity with any of these victims, yet we all share some physical traits. One pillar of many Asian cultures is elder respect, filial piety, and collective accountability. And so, witnessing these acts is painful and violates something ancient and sacred. An aching chasm has widened within me between our inclusion and reverence for the wizened, vulnerable, and innocent versus the rapacious rugged individualism so prevalent in U.S. culture which can be blind to our shared humanity. W.E.B. Dubois captures the experience in his concept of ‘double-consciousness’: When I see myself through the eyes of the dominant other who deems me simply as inferior and invisible, “with contempt or pity,” I can see the implied self-loathing I am supposed to feel.[iii]

Anti-Asian racism is not new to our collective history in this country. Historically, it has arisen virulently when those with power and privilege feel the chaos of economic or existential vulnerability, much like what we are facing now. Today’s violence is a continuation of past violence, including: the Chinese massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching in U.S. history;[iv] the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barring immigration only from that country;[v] the Filipino American farm workers in California discriminated against and violently attacked in the 1920s and 1930s;[vi] the unjust mass incarceration of  innocent American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II;[vii] Asian Americans demonized as the enemy, regardless of their ethnic origin, during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and South Asia;[viii] the Vincent Chin murder in Detroit during the economic instability of the early 1980’s and the freeing of his killers;[ix]The Stockton Schoolyard massacre of 1989;[x] Violence against Chinese and Filipina American nurses during the SARS crisis in 2008;[xi]  and the more than 600 separate pieces of anti-Asian legislation passed through our government throughout U.S. history.[xii]

The recent shootings in Atlanta are at the intersection of racism and misogyny and point to the unresolved and complex pain here. The shooter targeted his victims for “providing an outlet for his addiction to sex,” thereby linking Asian/Pacific Islander women with sex and seduction and blaming his victims for his own violent actions. Blaming women for violence directed at them by the hands of men is an age old manifestation of patriarchal violence. However, the particular association of Asian women with sex work and with Asian owned spas as sites for sexual ensnarement is deeply tied to Orientalist and fetishization tropes that are fundamental to the American empire and its colonizing appetite.[xiii]

We are faced with a new expression of the same “Yellow Peril,” “Dragon Lady,” and  “Asian Tiger” threat.  While the perpetrators of this new hate come from all races and backgrounds, the targets are also diverse but still made a monolith based on assumptions about physical characteristics. Many of the accompanying taunts to these recent attacks imply that Asians do not belong in our country. This sentiment is false as history and narrative demonstrate. Yet what is masked in the eternal and external judgment/blame is a truth evident yet again: an escape from our own self-loathing and powerlessness cannot be found in violating or erasing the seemingly alien other. I am not your gook. I will not be your model victim. We are not your sexual addiction. We are not your virus. This is my country as well as ours together. Paradoxically, we are the only hope for each other’s self-acceptance and empowerment.

The rise in racist and xenophobic attacks against Asians is not separate from Black Lives Matter, feminist and womanist outcry in the face of subjugation, and the LGBTQ+ struggle for equality. Rather, this is another opportunity to give voice to those silenced and address unprocessed grief. I want the world to be safe for my family, my Asian students, and their families. I want them to know that I stand with them completely. But for this to be so, we cannot be silent nor ignorant of the interdependent connections of the mutual suffering that abounds. This same vow to stand together was extended to all others before this moment in our history. But it will need to be reaffirmed here now and then again after all this supposedly recedes from public view. Your grief is mine. My grief is now yours as well, if you can embrace it.

In Jeremiah 6:14, the cries of the prophet ring out: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace Peace’ they say, when there is no peace.” I offer this moment for us to answer the call to solidarity, collective action and reflection in the face of injustice (again). May this moment not be a mere surface dressing of wound that has never healed, nor a perpetuation of a cycle of grievances. But may this be a moment of consolidated effort toward collective awakening and restoration towards the reality and grief we have long avoided. Towards this end, I invite you to share and enter this invitation. Yes, stand together. But more deeply, learn to embrace all that these lives have and will continue to endure. For it is now yours as well, not for appropriation, but to address your own wound now. For further momentum, these suggestions from Theater Mu here in the twin cities cohere with this same invitation:

  • Donate to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, which advocates for Asian American women’s workers and reproductive rights. 
  • Find other Asian American/Pacific Islander organizations and fundraisers to support at gofundme.com/aapi. 
  • Read the national report regarding Asian American/Pacific Islander hate crimes. Learn how to report a hate crime and how to safely intervene, both locally and nationally. stopappihate.org. 
  • Join Theater Mu at the next community conversation with the Asian Minnesotan Alliance for Justice. 
  • Share with your friends and family.
  • Uplift local Asian American stores, restaurants, and organizations.
  • Check-in and listen to your Asian American friends and peers.

[i] https://secureservercdn.net/104.238.69.231/a1w.90d.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/210312-Stop-AAPI-Hate-National-Report-.pdf

[ii] Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. x.

[iii] William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.3.

[iv] Erika Lee, “Review of The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (2012), by Scott Zesch”, Journal of American History, vol. 100, no. 1 (June 2013), pg. 217.

[v] https://web.archive.org/web/20140505105756/http://librarysource.uchastings.edu/library/research/special-collections/wong-kim-ark/1858%20Cal.%20Stat.%20295.pdf.

[vi] https://www.npca.org/articles/1555-remembering-the-manongs-and-story-of-the-filipino-farm-worker-movement

[vii]  https://www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm

[viii] Karen Ishizuka,“‘Kill That Gook, You Gook,’ Asian Americans and the Vietnam War,”  The Global 1960s: Convention, Contest and Counterculture, Routledge, 2018, 217-235.

[ix]  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096440/

[x]  US, Commission on Civil Rights, Civil Rights Issues Facing asiaan Aamericans in the 1990s, February, 1992, p.  30

[xi] Carianne Leung, “The yellow peril revisited: the impact of SARS on Chinese and Southeast Asian Communities,” Resources for Feminist Research(Vol. 33, Issue 1-2).

[xii] https://jacl.org/history

[xiii] Thanks to Max Brumberg-Kraus for this awareness and succinct contribution!

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