It was the day of the 2020 Presidential election when I moved into an apartment. My roommate proceeded to engage my sister and me in conversation as we were hurriedly trying to move in my things, failing to take a hint that we weren’t being conversational.
I politely “mmhm-ed” and nodded affirmatively as we tried to leave the room without being rude. Then she said, “You two need to be careful as people of color,” warning us about the political turmoil and boiling tensions that forebode violence.
I remember talking to my sister and friends afterward in disbelief, “My white roommate did NOT just say that to me.” How tone-deaf could someone be? For someone who was an avowed liberal, she failed to understand how peculiar it was that in a show of performative ally-ship she was warning me about violence against people of color as if I didn’t already know.
Anti-Asian racism has always existed under the umbrella of xenophobia in this country. Yesterday was the anniversary of Executive Order 9066 in 1942 during World War II when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered that for national security, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans on the West coast be taken from their homes and relocated.
Japanese Americans lost their entire livelihoods and much of their property as they were rounded up and moved into concentration camps. Many of these sites still exist today including the Santa Anita Racetrack in my hometown which at the time converted horse stalls into temporary housing units.
It is one of the most controversial executive orders in American history, but even the Supreme Court at the time ruled that the wartime measure was constitutional in the case of Korematsu v. the United States. Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American who refused to enter the concentration camps and as a result, was arrested and convicted.
In the aftermath of 9/11, state surveillance of the Muslim American community has shrouded an entire religious community in fear and suspicion. Just four days later, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh Indian American mistakenly profiled as Muslim, was gardening outside a gas station he owned when he was killed in a hate crime.
Xenophobia goes all the way back to the Chinese exclusion era of the 1880s when the Chinese working population made up almost a third of the working class in California. They were seen as taking away jobs from other white men because of their willingness to work for lower pay under dismal conditions especially in the building of the transcontinental railroad.
In the case of Fong Yue Ting v. the United States, it was decided that the United States had the sovereignty to “exclude or to expel aliens” as was stated in the Geary Act of 1892 which was built upon the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was then that the first person to be deported by the federal government from California was Wong Dep Ken in 1893. Fong Yue Ting created the legal precedent of regarding deportation as a bureaucratic procedure rather than a criminal one where you could be detained without ever being given due process. It has led to what we see in the modern violations of human rights abuses of family separation at the U.S. Mexico border.
In my history class taught by ethnic studies professor, Abigail Rosas, we’ve been reviewing American history with a critical eye towards the stories that weren’t told to us. I distinctly remember reading that the histories of those who are marginalized to the majority in power are not kept well. And it’s true. How often today we claim color-blindness even race-neutral policies continue to perpetuate discriminatory results.
Maybe color-blindness is also why it felt like the increased racism Asian Americans have faced at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic was largely unaddressed until multiple and highly visible cases of elderly Asians were violently attacked and assaulted over the course of what was supposed to be Lunar New Year celebrations this year.
Asian Americans have been seen in this modern age as the model minority, where exceptional performance in academics and the often touted statistic that our median wage is better than that as whites has all but erased the silent struggles of assimilation.
In class, we reviewed photos by Dorothea Lange of Japanese internment. A particular photo stood out to me of a Japanese American family standing together before relocation, all wearing identifying tags like they were baggage. None of them are particularly enraged or frightened, the kids just look confused and the father is smiling for the camera.
I had to turn off my camera to let myself cry after I shared how much that picture impacted me. The stoicism of fathers, particularly of that in East Asian cultures, and the quiet sacrifices and the uncomplaining spirits of these families who believed they were performing their American duty to enter these concentration camps broke my heart.
It’s one thing to lose your humanity, but it’s another thing when you aren’t able to name the grief or the loss your family has experienced as first-generation Americans. Erasure is a form of violence too.
When normally I could write immediately about social issues, I couldn’t hold space for all the violence I was seeing in the news. I looked at those blurred security camera footages, the vulnerable elderly suddenly being pushed to the cement and battered and I saw my Po Po and Gong Gong, my Jiu Gong and Jiu Po. I didn’t know where I could begin to express my hurt and fear.
I’m also frustrated because some people have turned immediately towards policing as the solution to ending this violence when folks need to remember that incarceration rates are higher in the U.S. more than in any other country and it does not make us any safer.
The U.S. government itself is responsible for this xenophobia, former President Donald J. Trump calling the coronavirus the “kung flu virus” and also the decision to revoke all work visas in the face of soaring unemployment to ensure that American jobs were not being taken up by foreigners. Silent and unseen, many people in my own Chinese community had to return to their home countries in Taiwan and China when they couldn’t renew their work visas.
Andrew Yang, a prominent political candidate at the beginning of the 2020 presidential race wrote an opinion for the Washington Post in April of last year, imploring his fellow Asian Americans to “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” Rightfully so, the backlash was swift from the Asian American community that shot back that there’s not much you can do to prove you are “the cure” when people are determined to be racists and hateful. Hyper-patriotism didn’t help Japanese Americans during internment and it won’t help us now.
So how can we do better? The news cycle will eventually move on once the pain and trauma of the Asian American community have been wrung dry just as we saw with this past summer’s uprisings with Black Lives Matter. We have to play the long game and understand that this is just one battle of many in an extended fight towards anti-racism and racial equity.
We need to push towards diverse hiring practices, better representation in government, interracial solidarity work, strengthening the support of ethnic studies coursework not just in higher education but also in primary and secondary school.
And just as we are asking for other communities of color to show up for us now, we need to continue to show up for them. Our struggles are unique and yet intertwined. Just as Chinese exclusion is replayed in the xenophobic policies directed at Mexican Americans, none of this new. It should not take being directly impacted by racism for us to recognize the need to speak up and stand in solidarity for each other.
We must educate ourselves and hold our communities close and work towards dismantling all forms and systems of oppression. Most importantly we have to cultivate joy so we do not lose our sense of our why. We are building a better and more equitable future for those who come after us. We are dreaming of a future in which all of us are free.