Andrew Wang is a freelance writer based in Arcadia, Calif., and New York.
There used to be a Jeep parked in my family’s garage. A dirty, muted silver, with a box of repair tools in the back seat, it was an American kind of eyesore that screamed of rugged determination. My great-uncle, who left Zhejiang, China, to be with us in Houston, drove it proudly until January 2007, when he was shot and killed by men in ski masks while out on a walk with my great-aunt.
Until the surge in attacks on Asian Americans recently made the national spotlight, I had tried to forget. After all, my family toiled for more than a decade to bury the trauma, and to an extent it worked. My younger sister did not know the whole truth until I told her prior to the publication of this column.
This past year, as anti-Asian hate crimes significantly increased, Asian Americans had known what was coming. When then-President Donald Trump called covid-19 the “China virus,” we saw a warning where others saw a misnomer. We urgently shared reports of violent incidents through native language apps, including WeChat and KakaoTalk, and Facebook groups such as Subtle Asian Traits. Last March, reminiscent of “the talk” that Black parents often give their children about facing law enforcement, my mother warned me not to wear a mask until it became common practice, fearing it would make me a target.
In April, a Brooklyn woman suffered severe burns after being doused with chemicals. Last month, 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee died in an assault in San Francisco. Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino man riding the New York subway this month, required about 100 stitches after being slashed with a box cutter. Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition documenting anti-Asian hate amid covid-19, has tracked more than 2,800 incidents of violence, harassment or discrimination between March and December 2020, many aimed at the elderly. Activists say the true numbers are surely higher.
But beneath calls for advocacy and safety, some conversations circulating within Asian American communities are troubling. Across online platforms, video footage showing Black men as the perpetrators in some attacks has spawned greater anti-Black sentiment even as nationwide protests in defense of Black lives continue. A Subtle Asian Traits post detailing the attacks prompted comments accusing Black Lives Matter supporters of indifference. On Reddit and Twitter, users have repopularized a 2010 article calling “black-on-Asian violence” San Francisco’s “dirty secret.”
I urge my fellow Asian Americans to reject these narratives. We cannot answer racism with racism.
We should know as well as anyone where such arguments from anecdote can lead. The better impulse is to examine how the potential for conflict was historically built into our communities. Political scientist Claire Jean Kim has described Asian American identity as partly formed by a “racial triangulation” process beginning in the mid-19th century, when Chinese workers began immigrating en masse to California. The economic boom there created demand for cheap labor, and White political and business elites valorized Asian immigrants over Blacks. Asians fulfilled an economic need while simultaneously being disadvantaged as aliens removed from the claims to American-ness increasingly being asserted by Black leaders.
As Kim argues, this formula continues to generate conflict today. It can be seen, for instance, in the affirmative action debate whenever Asian Americans are weaponized as a perceived success story against Black Americans’ critiques of structural discrimination.
But racial conflict between Asian and Black Americans is certainly not inevitable. Organizations such as the Dear Asians Initiative have translated letters about Black Lives Matter into 12 languages to challenge anti-Blackness and promote dialogue within our communities. In Oakland, Calif., hundreds of Black and Asian community members recently rallied in solidarity. Sociologist Jennifer Lee, in her book “Civility in the City,” shows that despite flash points such as the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the city’s Korean and Black communities have typically worked to make civility more common than conflict. As Asian Americans, we can protect ourselves and seek accountability without becoming conduits for racism.
After my great-uncle’s death, we promptly sold the Jeep. We later left Texas for a wealthier Asian enclave east of Los Angeles. We never found out who killed him.
The pain endures, but I wonder now if knowing would have eased it or risked contorting our grief into hatred. To try to make sense of the senseless is human, but whoever the perpetrators were — and whatever race they were — they represented no one but themselves. And so we must be careful in our heartbreak. Inequality in America is a disease with many expressions. Only by rooting out our shared suffering can we protect the beautiful, manifold lives of our loved ones.