A 23-year-old Korean woman in New York was punched in the face in last March and accused of having the coronavirus. More incidents followed as the virus spread, with Asian-Americans being spat on, beaten, slashed, even attacked with chemicals.
In response to pandemic-related violence like this, advocacy organizations came together to document cases of harassment and vitriol against Asian-Americans. Stop AAPI Hate received 2,800 reports in 2020, around 240 of which were physical assaults, and the AAPI Emergency Response Network has received over 3,000 reports since it started tracking Covid-specific hate incidents last year.
The violence has continued into the new year. In January, in San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai man died after being assaulted on the street; across the Bay, in Oakland’s Chinatown, a 91-year-old man was shoved to the ground. Some of these cases have made it to national news, but most haven’t. The low profile of this wave of violence is a reminder of how racial violence goes unexamined when it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard narrative of race in America.
Racial violence in the United States is not simply Black and white, even if it looks that way. Instead, it can reveal layered victimizations and mediated enmity. The recent incidents of anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, in particular, highlight this: Some Asian-Americans were outraged by the violence and demanded justice, but since the perpetrators in these cases were Black, many others felt deeply uncomfortable with contributing to the criminalization of African-Americans.
And here we come to the heart of the complexity of “speaking up” for Asian-Americans. Thanks to the “Model Minority” myth — popularized in 1966 by the sociologist William Petersen and later used as a direct counterpoint to the “welfare queen” stereotype applied to Black Americans — Asian-Americans have long been used by mainstream white culture to shame and drive a wedge against other minority groups.
They are always caught in a no-win position between whites and Black Americans. They are thought to be “white adjacent,” but of course they can never belong to the club. They are persistently racialized, yet they often don’t count in the American racial equation. The central, though often unspoken, question underlying all of this is: Are Asian-Americans injured, or injured enough, to deserve our national attention?
To ask this question is to reveal something about how this country thinks about a racial calculus based on damage and hierarchy. Asian-Americans exist in a weird but convenient lacuna in American politics and culture. If they register at all on the national consciousness, it is either as a foreign threat (the Yellow Peril, the Asian Tiger, the Spy, the Disease Vector) or as the domestic but ultimately disposable prism for deflecting or excusing racism against other minorities.
This recent onslaught of anti-Asian violence can partly be attributed to our former president, who spoke nonstop of the “Chinese virus” and even the “kung flu,” but he could not have rallied the kind of hatred that he did without this country’s long history of systemic and cultural racism against people of Asian descent.
For our histories are more entangled than how we tell them. Few people know that many of the same families that amassed wealth through slavery also profited from the opium trade in China; that at least 17 Chinese residents were the targeted victims of one of the worst mass lynchings in American history in Los Angeles’s “Negro Alley” in 1871; that America’s immigration policy and ideas of citizenship were built on top of laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years; or that the “Model Minority” myth veils how Bhutanese- and Burmese-Americans experience poverty rates over 30 percent.
I think of James Baldwin’s words: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
When it comes to Asian-American grief, do Americans want to know?
These past few weeks, it seems as if Americans have opened to a kind of knowing. As I saw these recent incidents of anti-Asian violence unfold in the news, I felt a profound sense of grief. But I also experienced something akin to relief. Maybe, I thought, now people will start to respond to anti-Asian violence with the same urgency they apply to other kinds of racism.
But then I started to feel a familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach. Is this indeed what it takes? A political imagination (or, really, lack thereof) that predicates recognition on the price of visible harm?
There is something wrong with the way Americans think about who deserves social justice — as though attention to nonwhite groups, their histories and conditions, is only as pressing as the injuries that they have suffered. Racial justice is often couched in arcane, moralistic terms rather than understood as an ethical given in democratic participation.
It seems crazily naïve to suggest that we ought to learn, value and want to know about all of our countrymen out of respect rather than guilt. Yet while legitimizing racial and cultural differences exclusively in terms of injury may motivate reform in the short run, in the long term it feeds a politics of tribalism that erupts over and over again.
Two decades ago, I wrote in my book “The Melancholy of Race” that “we are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief.” We still are. In the desire to move past racial troubles — in our eagerness to progress — we as a nation have been more focused on quantifying injury and shoring up identity categories than doing the harder work of confronting the enduring, ineffable, at times contradictory and messier wounds of American racism: how being hated and hating can look the same; how the lesson of powerlessness can teach justice or, perversely, the ugly pleasures of power; how the legacy of anger, shame and guilt is complex.
Unprocessed grief and unacknowledged racial dynamics continue to haunt our social relations. The discourse of racial identity has obscured the history of American racial entanglements. And why is entanglement important? Because the challenge of democracy is not about identifying with someone like yourself (that’s easy to do) nor about giving up your self-interest (that’s hard to ask). It’s about learning to see your self-interest as profoundly and inevitably entwined with the interests of others.
But is this a lesson Americans are prepared to hear?
Asian-Americans are tired of insisting that others care. The truth is that few are listening. All we can do is to continue to tell our truths, to know, even just for ourselves, that we are here. As the poet Rita Dove wrote, “Here, / it’s all yours, now — / but you’ll have / to take me, / too.”
Anne Anlin Cheng is a professor of English and American studies at Princeton.
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