Alafair Burke is a novelist and a professor at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.
Between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, the nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate collected 3,795 first-person accounts of incidents ranging from casually racist comments to vicious assaults. According to data from California State University at San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, in 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the country’s largest cities increased almost 150 percent over the previous year, even as the overall number of hate crimes reported to the police declined.
The numbers don’t capture the ugliness of these attacks. “Go home,” a man yelled while throwing a glass bottle at a woman placing her baby in a car seat, appending a racial slur to the insult. Another man kicked a dog and spat on its owner, saying, “Take your disease that’s ruining our country and go home.” Scores of Asian American elders have been senselessly assaulted by random strangers on the street.
These are painful statistics and stories — especially when it feels like no one actually cares.
Having marched in my share of streets, I am left asking, who will march for us? Racism against Asian Americans often goes unrecognized and unchallenged because of stereotypes that depict Asian Americans as people who don’t need protection from abuse — or who don’t deserve it.
It’s clearly no coincidence that the surge in anti-Asian conduct has occurred during the covid-19 pandemic. The former president called the pathogen the “China virus” and the “kung flu,” even as he hosted superspreader events and disparaged basic public health guidelines. Supportive pundits and politicians echoed his rhetoric, seemingly indifferent to the fact that their followers don’t always differentiate between the government of China and fellow Americans who appear to be of Asian descent. The broad impact on Asians and Asian Americans was clear: Stop AAPI Hate reports that fewer than half of the reported anti-Asian bias incidents involved Chinese victims.
The bridge from anti-China sentiment to attacks against Asian Americans is a manifestation of the xenophobic “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, in which even native-born citizens are perceived as unassimilated outsiders. A celebrity radio DJ I listen to daily has undoubtedly “evolved” from his shock-jock days and yet still invokes a stereotypical accent for comedic effect. I’m half Chinese, half White (Asian Cajun as I call my specific mix). When asked, “Where are you from?,” I say Kansas. The even cringier version is “What are you?,” to which I respond, “a writer” — or better yet “a law professor,” because that’s a surefire conversation killer. “Go back to where you came from”? Please, I qualify for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. You go home.
And xenophobia and misogyny often intersect. Less than a day after the appalling shootings in Atlanta, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said the suspect cited “sexual addiction” as his motivation and saw the spas he targeted as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
With every casual “me love you long time” or “happy ending” joke, our culture hypersexualizes and dehumanizes Asian American women, portraying us as victims while treating us as targets. When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was accused of paying for an act of prostitution, the cultural chit-chat, not to mention thousands of racist memes, focused on his right to privacy, or why he didn’t pick a classier joint. Last year, Florida dropped the soliciting charges against Kraft but continued to pursue felony prostitution cases against some of the women involved — who law enforcement had initially presented as human trafficking victims.
As I read the coverage of the Atlanta shootings, I was sad and angry and frustrated. I found myself thinking, If this were happening to any other racial group, we’d treat it differently. But I reminded myself that there’s nothing to gain from comparing the various and pervasive forms of racism and bias.
The “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans that is used to argue that we are an exception to the gravitational force of American racism — good students, hard workers, nonthreatening people of color — is constantly weaponized to simultaneously demonize Black and Latino communities and constrain Asian American activism. Under the prior administration, the Justice Department blatantly pitted Asian Americans against other people of color by suing elite universities in an attempt to ban admission policies that valued diversity and inclusiveness. When communities of color fight with one another, the racists win.
And finally: Because people in power see us as either model minorities or the permanent foreign, subservient class, they assume we won’t make noise, that we won’t fight back and that we have no allies to stand up for us. Let’s all prove them wrong.