Anti-Asian Racism: it’s histories and present
In light of the murders in Atlanta by a white man, Robert Aaron Long, of 8 Asian people, 6 of them women, and wider commentary surrounding it, I have put together an offering to those who wish to deepen their understanding of Anti-Asian Racism, specifically with relation to East Asian communities. It is no more than a starting point. I did this for a former participant to support them make sense of what happened. This is not exhaustive, however I hope it might be helpful for those who want to orient themselves with how this violence was made possible and to see how this act was not isolated but in fact part of a longer process — in order for us to strengthen our solidarities with Asian communities. While what follows focuses on America, anti-Asian racism is not confined to that geography but also has happened and is happening in Europe.
The first point to raise is that what people have been calling anti-Asian sentiment or hate is actually anti-Asian racism. It is crucial to use accurate language to describe what has and is happening because language shapes our understanding of the world. Both ‘sentiment’ and ‘hate’ individualise the nature of the harm to mere personal grievances that some people may have towards Asian people, which erases and obscures the systemic nature of racism, allowing us to dismiss violence as the consequence of the odd ‘bad apple’. Further, hate as in ‘hate crime’ is best understood in the words Ruby Beth ‘as a prosecutorial strategy for incarceration not a reckoning with racism’. In short, we must be deeply sceptical of any approach to confront racism and bring safety led by the police and criminal punishment system (to use Mariame Kaba’s term) when they are themselves institutional enforcers of racism, as most recently the Black Lives Matter movement over the last almost decade has shone a light on.
How racism operates
Anti-Asian racism operates as all racisms do at their root by positioning, in this case, Asian people as a variety of negative things and ideas (dirty, suspicious, cunning etc), which while entirely false, shape our collective perspectives.
These negative ideas are then enforced through structures too: laws, policies and institutions that directly or indirectly produce negative outcomes, en masse for groups that the system of oppression targets (in this case it is racism targeting Asian people). This is rooted in history and is a continuum through to the present. So for example, the Page Act of 1875 effectively banned Chinese and Japanese women from entering the USA on the grounds that they spread disease (due to them coming for alleged ‘immoral purposes’). It was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that went on to ban Chinese men too. There are various laws that prevented East Asian people from being able to vote in various states during this time too. We then of course have Japanese Internment, made possible on the basis that Japanese people in America, no matter their affiliation or connection to the USA, would never be American enough, and therefore relegated to the category of non-citizen. In 1930, mobs of white men attacked Filipino farm workers leaving many many dead in Watsonville. It was produced by politicians saying Filipinos were a “menace” and that they wanted them deported so “white people who have inherited this country for themselves and their offspring could live.” It’s worth noting that the Philippines was part of the USA as a colony at this time. Chinese people were only able to become US citizens in 1943 with the Magnuson Act. ‘Oriental Schools’ in San Francisco segregated Japanese, Chinese and Korean children in their education – a law only struck down officially in 2017. We can see that these structures, enforce and give power to the underlying negative ideas and serve to produce negative outcomes for Asians in America as a group.
Other necessary lenses
We can’t understand the violence of anti-Asian racism without including a lens around colonialism/imperialism too. The Philippines was a US colony until full independence in 1946. Many Pacific Islanders still live within a US colonial regime (the people of the Marshall Islands for example survive under toxic conditions of being the USA’s radioactive dumping ground) to this day. Colonialism is the coerced subjugation of a people by another nation or the purposes of their profit. It relies on dehumanising the indigenous people to permit the violent behaviour of the coloniser.
Now while much of the above are historic examples we know that history is a process that shapes the present. Longstanding narratives from the 19th century saw Asian culture, including food and customs, as dirty and contagious. But with see the echo of this in a very recent incarnation in the naming of Covid-19 by the Trump administration and other outlets as the ‘Chinese Virus’ and ‘Kung-Flu’ – which while a narrative has fuelled violence against Asian people.
So we see above just a small selection of legislative and institutional examples that creates the conditions today that permits white and other non-Asian folks to engage in violence against Asian people. When a group of people are dehumanised, seen almost exclusively through the lens of suspicious, dirty, dangerous, diseased, then violence at the state, institutional or interpersonal level is permissible and possible. So too is the diversion of resources away from these communities and the invisibilisation of their needs and the complexity of their experiences.
But of course, these examples cannot be looked at in silos. The murder of 8 Asian people, 6 of them Asian women in Atlanta, largely poor, is the outcome of a combination of racism, sexism, classism and colonialism and it has a long history. Asian women have long been fetishised by white men – fetishisation being the false elevation of a particular dimension of someone’s marginalised identity that results in objectification and commodification. And as we know from how sexism operates, when men have desires that they wish they didn’t have (in this case informed by racism and the negative ideas of Asian people at play) and yet simultaneously do desire such women – you can be sure they will respond with violence.
America’s immigration and border regime today continues to represent a threat to many Asian people’s safety. It’s this kind of regime that leaves many Asian people (and other racialised communities) in jobs they do to survive (hence it seems many of the women murdered were sex workers) that are further criminalised. This combination of oppression makes Asian folks in America extremely vulnerable to all sorts of violence day to day.
‘The model minority’ myth
What’s interesting of course is that (some) Asian people are simultaneously identified as exclusively high achievers and shielded from racism in an idea that is called “the model minority” – which is a myth. In this myth, all Asian folks are understood to have attended good schools and be in well paid jobs – and therefore people who do not experience economic insecurity, precarity or poverty. This is not true. When we actually look at the data we see that on average, AAPI women make 85 cents for every dollar that white, non-Hispanic men make. When we look past the average, some AAPI ethnic subgroups, particularly Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women, experience even bigger wage gaps. Cambodian women, for example, earn just 57c on the dollar compared to white men. As recently as 2011 2.4 million AAPI workers – or 33 percent of the API workforce – didn’t have access to a single paid sick day to use to recover from common illnesses. Also from 2011, nearly 42% of all nail technicians in the U.S. are Asian women – low paid, dangerous work (due to the chemical exposure). Needless to say the model minority frame is simply a potent racist narrative and excuse not to invest in Asian communities, while also delegitimising Asian people’s right to rage, pain and anger at the racism they do experience.
The model minority frame also ignores that White Supremacy has very specific and narrow arenas where Asian communities may be permitted to ‘succeed’. White Supremacy will always allow racialised communities to thrive in certain areas: it’s a feature that enables its survival. For example, Black people have space made within sports and entertainment because it aligns with the (false) negative ideas at the root of anti-Black racism, but are simultaneously prevented from succeeding in academic contexts, or as surgeons, computer scientists and so on. Similarly, Asian people are allowed to thrive in contexts of science or engineering, for example, but prevented from spheres where creativity is central, such as fashion and the arts. Neither of these outcomes are because of the talents, skills, passions of Asian people (or Black people).
Additionally, within the ‘model minority myth’ Asian people are positioned as “the good people of colour” (versus the often unnamed ‘bad ones’: black people, Latinx, Native people etc). This narrative is then used by white people within White Supremacy to drive a wedge between communities of colour – good ol’ divide and conquer. While some Asian people (as any marginalised community) may align with this idea of being “the good ones” because it may provide access to some safety in its proximity to whiteness, assimilation does come with a personal cost in the denial of one’s culture and customs which is painful in its own way. We ultimately see however that aligning with narratives that are to the detriment of other people of colour doesn’t guarantee safety: safety for all people of colour is always precarious under racism and White Supremacy, at the whim of white folks. And ultimately, when Asian people do too well – white people will turn on them too.