Content Warning: Discussions of physical and sexual violence.
Disclaimer: In this article, the term ‘Asian American’ will mostly be used to refer to American individuals of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent.
Growing up as a Generation Z kid in the U.S., I thought I was desensitized to terrible news of mass shootings, but when I first heard about the shooting in Atlanta last Tuesday evening that killed 6 Asian women and 2 other individuals, I nearly vomited. My instincts immediately told me that this was another hate crime against Asian Americans, and I especially avoided Twitter to protect myself from toxic discourse and doom-scrolling.
For the next two nights, I cried myself to sleep.
Hearing about other violent racist attacks against Asian Americans around the country and occasionally seeing anti-Asian comments on social media posts has taken a bigger toll on my mental health since the pandemic began.
New York City has reported numerous hate incidents towards Asian Americans since last year, some of the highest in the country, but I was even more disturbed to find out that there was one verbally racist incident closer to home in Jersey City fairly recently. Both New York City and Jersey City are supposed to be among the most diverse cities in the United States.
As a Filipino American myself, I was especially outraged at the murder of Filipino American veteran Angelo Quinto at the hands of the police in December. In fact, the details did not even publicly emerge until a month later.
Then there was the fact that the office director of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department stated that the Atlanta gunman was “having a bad day,” which added more fuel to the fire.
All these events together have made it very difficult to find the right words to describe my overwhelming emotions. While I’m very fortunate to not have experienced anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, I’ve had many moments when I just really wanted to openly express my anger, frustration and distress at hearing about other Asians being targeted.
Other times, I felt ashamed, because most of my own past experiences of racism have been downplayed.
The Atlanta shooting was the last straw for me to finally speak up in my own words and share my experiences of racism. Initially, a part of me did not want to write this article, because I felt I’d be placing a target on my back, or even that experiences I myself and other Asian Americans have had throughout life would not be believed or heard.
But how can we publicly reckon with the fact that racism towards Asian Americans is a very serious problem if we stay silent?
Other Asian American students at Saint Peter’s University — current and former — have come forward expressing their distress and anguish at all the recent attacks.
“I couldn't believe it, and I still can't believe it,” said alumna Adrienne Romero. “It's hard for me to grasp why these hate crimes and racism overall are still happening today in the 21st century.”
Romero also added that news of the Atlanta shooting caused her to weep and worry for the safety of her family and other local Asian Americans.
“I thought of the Asian women who work at the massage parlors here; the Asian women who work at the nail salons, the hair salons here,” Romero said. “I thought about my Asian mom who could've been a target. My heart goes out to the families of the victims.”
SPARK (Saint Peter’s Affirming Representation of Kababayans), Saint Peter’s Filipino American student organization, released a statement on their Instagram condemning the Atlanta shooting.
“We are deeply saddened, fearful, and angry for what is going on in our Asian community,” the SPARK post reads. “We Asian Americans have always endured racism and xenophobic acts but during this time, the violence towards our community have gone way too far. It’s time to call out these harmful actions when you see it and hear about it; no matter how subtle or covert it may be.”
Meanwhile, a current student, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of his safety, was saddened but not shocked over the unfolding incidents.
“It’s really unfortunate and sad,” said the student. “But to be honest, I wasn’t surprised when I heard of the rising attacks against people of Asian descent. Even before quarantine, I was concerned we would eventually be targeted as a scapegoat.”
A year ago, when COVID-19 was starting to spread further, I also had a gut feeling that East Asian and Southeast Asian diaspora communities around the world would eventually be blamed and targeted. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a sudden increase of hate crimes and extreme mistrust towards people of Arab and South Asian descent.
Even if an individual wasn’t Muslim, but “looked” Muslim, they were still targeted.
America doesn’t have a great track record of treating Asian Americans kindly either.
During the 19th century and early 20th century, Westerners claimed there was a “Yellow Peril,” labeling East Asians in particular as “filthy,” “deviants,” “evil dangers” and an “inferior race.” There were discriminatory laws barring immigrants from Asian nations such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924.
My family’s home country of the Philippines was colonized by the U.S. from 1898 through 1946, and Filipinos were maligned as “uncivilized savages.”
Many Japanese Americans were forcibly incarcerated in internment camps during World War II despite many of them being of the second or third generation and having no ties to Imperial Japan. There were approximately 33,000 young Japanese American men who were willing to enlist and fight in the U.S. Army to prove their loyalty.
There was even the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was mistakenly believed to be Japanese and blamed for the success of Japan’s automobile industry post-World War II. His murderers received no prison time, which sparked outrage in the pan-Asian American movement, a movement that is not taught in most history classes.
My fears about racism during the pandemic came true: an Asian diaspora individual was blamed for “causing” COVID. This was the attack on Singaporean-Chinese student Jonathan Mok in February 2020 in London. One of the perpetrators said: “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.”
I still vividly remember Jonathan’s Facebook post and the photos of his injuries, and I briefly touched upon the incident in a comic I created about my overwhelming thoughts during the beginning of quarantine.
One of our own Asian American students also experienced racial discrimination prior to quarantine. A Chinese Australian friend even told me her cousin was verbally harassed before lockdowns were implemented in their country.
Former president Donald Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu.’
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism reported that anti-Asian hate crimes surged by 149 percent in major cities across the U.S. in 2020. Meanwhile, the Stop AAPI (Asian American, Pacific Islander) Hate organization reported that there were nearly 3,800 incidents of racism towards Asian Americans from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021.
The most common types of discrimination to spike in the last year included verbal harassment by 68.1 percent and shunning by 20.5 percent of all hate crimes. Physical assault incidents were estimated to be at 11.1 percent. Civil Rights violations accounted for 8.5 percent and online harassment was at 6.8 percent.
The Stop AAPI Hate report also revealed that women were 2.3 times more likely to report hate incidents than men.
Chinese Americans were the most common targets by 42.2 percent, followed by Korean Americans at 14.8 percent, Vietnamese Americans at 8.5 percent and Filipino Americans at 7.9 percent.
To the racists today, it doesn’t matter if you are ethnically Chinese or not or whether you are actually ethnically Filipino, Vietnamese, Hmong, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Japanese or Korean.
If you look East Asian physically, you are an enemy to them. We are perceived as evil agents for “causing” the COVID-19 pandemic and should “go back to China.”
And yet, what infuriates me the most is how it wasn’t until violence occurred that more people finally decided to take the historic racism towards Asians and Asian Americans more seriously.
Debunking the Model Minority
Asian Americans’ experiences of racism are often dismissed by others mainly because we are perceived as the ‘model minority.’ This stereotypes us as studious, ambitious, intelligent, hard-working, wealthy or upper middle class, non-confrontational and rarely ever publicly vocal about our plights or critical against the country.
After all, Asians are frequently stereotyped to be in medical, mathematics or science fields where it is often perceived that high incomes and salaries are being earned. In addition, there’s the current success of Kpop throughout the Western world and internationally.
But the model minority is a myth that harms both Asian Americans and other people of color.
The concept of the model minority was actually first used by sociologist William Peterson in 1966. He claimed that Japanese Americans’ culture of obedience and rule-abiding attitudes were major factors for being able to rise economically following the end of World War II.
The model has been frequently used to pit and drive a wedge between Asian Americans and both low-income Black and Latino Americans. “If Asians were able to make it, why can’t you?”, some politicians and lawmakers might say, blaming bad individual choices, culture and race for other people of colors’ plights instead of systemic racism.
We are seen as a prop for “subverting” racist barriers that are supposed to prevent people of color and other minorities from being successful in the first place.
We are told that we should be flattered for being labeled positive stereotypes. It’s better than being called “lazy,” “violent” or “thugs,” right?
Yet, the internalization of the model has led to negative feelings or psychological damage in Asian Americans.
A majority of Asian Americans don’t like being labeled as the model and feel pressured by society to fulfill it, and it also doesn’t help that some parents actually do hold high expectations of success for their children.
There is tremendous pressure, so much so that when the kids grow older, they eventually feel inadequate and incompetent for not meeting the expected standards. Combining that with mental health being a taboo topic in many Asian cultures, they also may feel so ashamed and inclined to hide their problems that they are less likely to seek professional help, whether it’s for school, physical or mental health needs.
In fact, according to The American Psychological Association, Asian Americans are 3 times less likely to seek mental health than White Americans. Although there is no national data on the rate of suicide deaths among Asian Americans, Asian American college students are still found to have higher rates of suicidal thoughts than White college students.
But what about the income levels of Asian Americans? Is there truth to the belief that Asian Americans are more likely to be upper middle class or wealthy?
“That [model minority] stereotype erases the struggles and hardships of many Asian Americans and families today who have to live paycheck to paycheck, including my own,” said Romero.
The misleading perception that Asian Americans are the wealthiest racial group in the country actually stems from a surface-level monolithic statistic on Asian Americans having the highest median income of any racial group, but people often don’t examine this further. They fail to notice that at the same time, according to a 2018 analysis from the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans have displaced Black Americans as the most economically divided racial and ethnic group in the country. Asians in the top 10 percent of the income distribution earned 10.7 times as much than Asians in the bottom 10 percent.
Asian Americans are not a monolith, and income differs on average among ethnicities. The New York Times revealed Indian Americans and Chinese Americans are measured on average to have the highest incomes, because, on average, they achieve higher levels of education. It is important to note that the Immigration Acts of 1965 and 1990 selectively favored professionals and high-skilled individuals more.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asians such as Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian and Laotian Americans tend to lag behind. Much of their populations were refugees fleeing from the Vietnam War, and they still suffer major socioeconomic challenges even half a century later. NBC News reported housing instability, inequitable education opportunities and decades-old mandatory detention and deportation policies as major issues within Southeast Asian communities.
When the pandemic took its course, Asian Americans living in New York City suffered the worst unemployment rates out of all racial groups. In February 2020, the jobless rate was 3.4 percent. By May 2020, it spiked to 25.6 percent.
In California, the state with the highest population of Asian Americans, 83 percent of the Asian American labor force with high school degrees or a lower level of education filed unemployment insurance claims. However, many did not receive the help they needed.
Research also shows that Asian American businesses experienced a decline in revenue earlier in the pandemic than those run by people of other ethnic demographics. They were also less likely to get relief assistance.
Stop the racial microaggressions, racist “jokes” and gaslighting.
There is a prevalent myth that for something to be racist, there must be intentional violence or malicious slurs involved. This is wrong.
Although being overtly racist is generally seen as unacceptable and abhorrent in modern polite society, a 2005 study revealed that most people may still hold subconscious preconceived racial biases, despite not believing they are racist themselves.
A form of subtle racism called racial microaggressions is commonly inflicted upon Asian Americans and other people of color. Microaggressions are subtle behaviors directed towards members of marginalized groups that are hostile, derogatory and negative. In most cases, they are unintentional.
An example of a racial microaggression may include this scenario: an Asian American may be asked by an acquaintance if they know the answer to a question, and if they don’t, the acquaintance may respond: “Shouldn’t you know? I thought Asians were supposed to be smart.” This pushes the false narrative that Asians must be the most intelligent group of people and that to display anything less is inherently a failure on the part of an individual.
Prior to the pandemic, violent racism inflicted upon Asian Americans was less reported, so we often told ourselves “it could have been worse” when experiencing microaggressions or subtle racism.
I’ve heard very unfortunate stories of Asian American children being bullied for their race, and I luckily never have experienced violent racism specifically towards myself. I have encountered internet trolls maliciously calling me a “chink” and making assumptions that I had buck teeth as an attempt to cyberbully and harass me, but I never took that to heart. Rather, I found it more or less pathetic. Still, what the trolls were doing was racist.
My earliest memories of experiencing microaggressions are of when I transferred to a new elementary school in 2nd grade. For a while, I would get questions like “are you Chinese?” and insistent assumptions that I must be, despite responding I wasn’t.
When my childhood best friend, who is Chinese American, transferred into my class the next year, other kids started assuming we were sisters or at least somehow related — despite my last name obviously NOT being of Chinese origin. I had occasionally been mistaken for my friend (and her as me) too by both teachers and kids. I don’t think we even resembled each other remotely.
It took some time for people at school to fully process that I’m not Chinese American and correct themselves.
Instances like these still happen, and I’ve witnessed disbelief from adults who could not fathom that my ethnicity is Filipino. Such behavior shows the blatant denial that there are ethnic differences and diversity among Asian peoples.
I also clearly remember once bringing pork giniling and quail eggs, a Filipino dish, as my baon (packed lunch) in 2nd grade. Two of my classmates expressed open disgust upon discovering what I ate. Although I didn’t outwardly express it, I remember feeling very sad internally and wondered why they found my lunch yucky. I eventually found out later in life from other Asian Americans that a classmate’s disgust towards their packed lunches was not uncommon.
The school I attended wasn’t actually terrible. I still hold many positive memories from there. I don’t hold any anger, hostility or resentment personally towards kids and teachers guilty of participating in microaggressions towards me when I was younger. The kids likely didn’t know any better, but these incidents are examples of how prevalent racial ignorance is and harmful racial stereotypes can be.
They’re memories I’ll never forget.
Another microaggression commonly reported by Asian Americans is being asked “where are you really from?” This implies that an individual is not an actual American but a perpetual foreigner, a type of xenophobia where even American-born citizens are perceived as foreign just for belonging to a minority group. It creates the false assumption that minority groups do not live within American society.
Romero recalled a story of her brother playing basketball one day when a man approached, asking him if he wanted to buy something. When he refused, the stranger proceeded with a microaggressive statement — and called him a word that can be deemed offensive.
“They were going back and forth, and the man asked where my brother was from,” Romero said. “My brother replied ‘Jersey City,’ and the man asked ‘Where are you really from?’ The man then called my brother an ‘Oriental.”
Historically, the term ‘Oriental’ was used by Europeans and the West to refer to peoples living in the Asian continent, especially East Asians. Although the word is still used today to describe products from Asia and even as a name of some places around the world, it is now generally considered an outdated, derogatory term in the United States when describing Asian peoples.
There is debate on whether it is technically a slur in American contexts, but it’s fallen out of use in the country, because calling Asians as such dehumanizes them as mere objects, and the term has links to past colonialism and imperialism.
Along with microaggressions, insensitive jokes relating to our race or even ethnicity are often made. Most of these jokes depict Asians as “strange” and “unusual.” Growing up, I occasionally heard the phrase “ching chong, ching chong” as ignorant mockery of Chinese and other Asian languages. I even witnessed kids pull the corners of their eyes.
That last type of behavior doesn’t seem to have disappeared, considering the fox eye beauty trend gaining infamy in 2020 as a recent example. Although the makeup look itself isn’t racist at all, the act of makeup influencers pulling back their eyes with their hands is.
I’ve even had friends make jokes about my eyes in front of me, and I’d uncomfortably laugh them off, fearing I would upset them, but I eventually became so annoyed that I told them to stop. Thankfully, they did.
But not everyone who participates in racist jokes does stop.
There are perpetrators who attempt to gaslight, or manipulate, their target after making offensive statements. The perpetrator would claim they were “just joking” but would only say so based on the reaction around them. It can be very difficult to prove whether the perpetrator had genuine malicious intent or not.
“I’ve received the typical ‘Asians all look alike’ [phrase], and I've flat out told them they were being racist,” said Romero. “They would respond they were just joking.”
About a year ago, a former friend once made an insensitive joke about the Philippines directly towards me via social media. When I privately told him to stop, he responded saying that he was “just joking” and then proceeded to call me “sensitive.” Our relationship started deteriorating, and we eventually cut ties due to a different incident, but that was one of the prime moments that caused me to begin questioning our friendship and his lack of respect.
Research suggests that racial microaggressions may negatively impact mental health for people of color. People who perceive and experience racial microaggressions in their lives are likely to exhibit negative mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, a negative view of the world and lack of behavioral control.
Asian Americans tend to second-guess themselves on whether some of the incidents were really cases of racism or if they were just overreacting while feeling distressed. For most of the incidents that have occurred throughout my life, I didn’t even fully comprehend how damaging they could be until I got older.
We need to talk about the problem of fetishization of Asian(-American) women.
When reports emerged that the Atlanta gunman had a “sex addiction” and wanted to “eliminate the temptation,” I was very disturbed and disgusted. It’s even more infuriating when you remember March is International Women’s History Month.
It’s infuriating when the police refuse to label the shooting as racially motivated. The fact that he chose to shoot up an Asian American business that is a massage spa where most of the victims happened to be Asian women is no coincidence.
Experts and activists have quickly pointed out a racial motive is likely due to the major intersection of racism, racial fetishization and misogyny in the West.
Also known as “Yellow Fever,” the fetishization of Asians, especially Asian women, dates back to the 19th century. Stereotypes in Western popular culture have historically portrayed Asian women as “exotic” and hypersexual and either as submissive partners or manipulative “dragon ladies.” There is also the ‘china doll’ trope depicting Asian women as exclusively beautiful, youthful, dainty and delicate.
These inaccurate, twisted fantasies dehumanize Asian women as objects and erase their individuality.
Other historical roots of the racial fetishization stem from U.S. military activities where enlisted members solicited sex workers in Asia, especially during the Philippine-American War, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Today, sex tourism in Asia is incredibly popular, especially in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia. Along with the fetishization of Asian women, attraction to sex tourism in these countries is due to the low local costs of sex services.
Additionally, there is speculation the gunman picked his targeted location because massage spas are stereotypically belived to host secretive sex services. There is, however, no evidence that the spa he targeted offered such services.
The model minority trope even overlaps with the fetishization due to the perception that Asian women “make good wives” for the stereotypes of being quiet, loyal and family oriented.
Asian American women have reported that if a non-Asian person shows interest towards them, they may become wary because they are unsure if the person is only showing interest because of their race. In addition, although Asian Americans are deemed as Other for not fitting the White American standard of beauty, distress is common because they are also still objectified as “exotic.”
“It (Asian fetishization) makes me uncomfortable,” said Romero. “There have been times guys have asked my race or ethnicity, and they seemed more ‘interested’ because of that.”
I know exactly how it feels to be suspicious over intent and feel distressed over my appearance.
As a teenager and a young adult, I especially struggled with my self-esteem, because I would compare myself to White American beauty standards and was well-aware that I could be objectified. I have had past experiences of interested non-Asian guys approaching me, and I sometimes couldn’t help but wonder if they’re only interested because of my race, my small size and the fact that I look young for my age.
I can assure you that even older Asian women wouldn’t appreciate being backhandedly complimented as “exotic.” My mother absolutely hates it. I’ve experienced it, and I don’t like it either.
I’ve also seen degrading sexual comments and media towards Asian and Asian American women on the internet. There are even online NSFW (Not Safe For Work, implying pornographic) groups and communities encouraging the racial fetishization. For example, if you wanted to search on Reddit the r/AsianAmerican subreddit for topics regarding Asian American news and social issues, while typing the name, there will be recommended subreddit results such as r/AsiansGoneWild, r/AsianHotties and r/AsianAmericanPorn.
r/AsiansGoneWild and r/AsianHotties have some of the largest numbers of members, ranging from around 780,000 to 1.3 million. Seeing this and the other subreddit names make me tense and very uncomfortable.
There is nothing wrong with non-Asians having a relationship with an Asian woman, but if you’re interested in her solely because of her race, or you primarily expect her to fulfill racial stereotypical fantasies, you are not seeing her as a person with her own personality, thoughts, opinions, emotions and interests. You are part of the problem.
How can you support Asian Americans?
A part of me is happy to see that there are more people who are becoming more aware, being more educated on anti-Asian racism and standing in solidarity. At the same time, still I can’t help but wonder: “where were you before?”
But I suppose it’s better to take action now than never. Here are some tips on how you can help and support Asian Americans.
1. Stop comparing who has it worse.
A major issue prominent on social media is how people have tried to compare which marginalized group has worse experiences of oppression and discrimination.
“I've seen tweets on Twitter basically saying they're not going to pay attention to the Asian hate crimes because of Asians' racism towards Black people,” Romero said. “I do condemn Asians who are racist towards those people — it comes from a long history — but this is not an Us versus Them. This is not about Race versus Race. People of color are under attack, and we achieve more when we stand together in unity not divided.”
It is true that anti-Blackness is a very serious ongoing issue in Asian communities, but it’s a separate subject that deserves its own discussion. It should be acknowledged that people of color as well as White people are not immune to participating in racism against Asians — and that Asians are not immune to participating in racism either. This does not mean that the oppression other marginalized groups have experienced is invalid. Or that one has it worse than the other.
Ignoring all of this creates the false narrative that racism is not widespread across demographics and dismisses the need for Asians and Asian Americans to speak about their experiences. It’s crucial for all groups to unite to fight hate and bigotry against the marginalized.
2. Listen to our stories.
Yes, our stories will be uncomfortable to hear. I understand it can be difficult to process that hate, bigotry and racism come in different forms beyond just physical violence. It’s easy to remain in denial.
But, please, keep an open mind, and be empathetic when we want to tell our painful stories.
3. Hold perpetrators of racism accountable.
If you witness an anti-Asian incident, you can report it to Stop AAPI Hate or to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice organization. There is also a resource list on the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) website.
Call out people around you if they participate in microaggressions, offensive racial “jokes” or overt racism.
4. If you can, donate to Asian American organizations or support your local Asian American businesses.
New York Magazine wrote a fantastic resources list on this.
Many Asian American businesses especially suffered during the pandemic, so even just ordering food from your local Chinese takeout restaurant is great support.
5. Lastly, don’t stop your support, even when the news cycle stops talking about us.
“I fear that the rising support for calling out Asian hate will be fleeting,” said the anonymous student. “Making sure that Asian Americans do not feel alone is really important to us.”
The currently ongoing movements to fight against racism and hate crimes are not just a trend. Some people wonder why America is “so obsessed with race,” but it is because racism has very deep roots in American history and culture.
I firmly believe education is one of the best ways to encourage others to be anti-racist, and it’s important to continue having discussions about these topics even when there is no tragedy reported.
This is all really important to us Asian Americans. We don’t want to see anymore hate and violence. We are tired of being gaslit and not being listened to. We are angry it has taken this long to be given the opportunity to be heard. 2020 and 2021 should not just be temporary periods during which we decide to fleetingly unite and fight racism and bigotry; this takes continuous effort through generations.
May the deceased victims of the Atlanta shooting and other hate crimes rest in peace.