Wednesday, March 31, 2021
By Jeremiah Ho
My first “formal” lesson about American racism was in the second grade when Ms. Wildermuth taught us about the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in tandem with his birthday holiday. This was January 1984, a little over a year after my family and I had immigrated to Orange County, California from Taipei, Taiwan. My fluency in English was deepening. After a year in ESL, I was more frequently forming my thoughts in English (thus, abandoning my thinking in Mandarin) and often called upon at school to interpret for my older cousins who had also just moved to the U.S. and attended the same elementary school. In Ms. Wildermuth’s classroom, I sat next to Melanie, the only African-American girl in our class. As we listened to Ms. Wildermuth trace Dr. King’s heroism to the history of enslaved peoples and followed along with the lesson packet that she had given us, I had a strangely comforting thought that perhaps this hatred and prejudice that white people held against outsiders were exclusively directed toward African-Americans and that perhaps people like me were spared because we weren’t Black. I hoped that this were true. It seemed logical—after all, Ms. Wildermuth’s lesson about American racial prejudice didn’t mention any Chinese people. I’m sorry, Melanie, I thought turning to her on my left. Tag, and you’re it.
This idea, of course, was naïve thinking. Separate from this formal lesson on racism, I had already garnered a few informal ones so far in my short time here. In the prior year, during those early months of first grade, when I had to guess what schoolteachers were saying to me and when simple words in the English language were still escapable, had I not been made to feel like an outsider? The first time classmates used their index fingers to pull up their eyes at me, I had no clue of their intentions. But by the third or the fourth time, when I realized the gesture was to mark me as different and foreign, a feeling of threat and loneliness then calcified. In response, wasn’t that why had I suddenly taken up an American first name and insisted that everyone from the school-bus driver to the cafeteria ladies stop calling me by the phonetically-translated Chinese name on my official documents? Wasn’t that the reason why I consciously imitated the way the American kids spoke English so that I could flatten out my accent? Wasn’t that exactly why I was thinking in English so that perhaps American was something I could become? Didn’t these incidents also amount to lessons on racism—however informal, and self-taught?
That night, not only did I relay to my parents what we had learned about MLK, Jr. but also my thoughts that we were safe because we weren’t Black. I assumed I was delivering good news, in the way I had, as the interpreter in the family, been able to sometimes unlock confusion. Perhaps this was a moment I could translate America for my parents, give them a lesson for once. Because they were definitely foreigners compared to me and my burgeoning assimilation. To my surprise, my parents rejected my logic. They chuckled nervously and then the weighted seriousness in their voices relayed how far I had misperceived the entire predicament of racialized America. White people can still hate us because we are outsiders to them, they said. Let us tell you about the story of a Chinese man in Detroit who was beaten to death by some Americans who hated Japanese people and had mistaken him for being Japanese. This was the recent story of Vincent Chin—my second lesson of the same day about another person who was killed for what the color of their skin signified. The feelings of safety that had trailed me home after school were suddenly swept gone. “So just keep your head down,” my father concluded with a solution, a verbal, solemn pat on my head. My mother, the usually more feisty parent, disagreed at first but eventually thought pacifying was best. “Just make sure you tell us if someone treats you badly.”
I never did, nor would. A few weeks later when an older white boy at school insisted that I ate cats and should go back home to China, I pretended not to understand what he had said—even though I probably had the exact English words to tell him that China was really not my home. Instead, I pretended not to comprehend. English, after all, was just my second language. I was only starting to learn it.
Because representations of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders are so scant in popular culture and media, I always notice and fixate when there’s an Asian character in film or television or when news items focus on Asian-American experiences in some way. (I do this similarly with queer representations too.) In the last several weeks, I’ve never seen more media and cultural focus on the AAPI community. And I’ve been consuming as much of it as I can find—reading, watching, listening between my online Zoom classes for my law school and office hours; while waiting for responses to an article submission on Scholastica; between conference calls with colleagues during this socially-distanced time. It’s profoundly sad, however, that all of the focus stem not from something positive, but from, first, the horrific shooting at three Asian-owned Atlanta spas by 21-year old Robert Aaron Long, and then more broadly, from the 149% rise in hate incidents against AAPI individuals since the pandemic started. Now it’s the continuing incidents of anti-Asian violence being reported on the news. This week, the video from Manhattan of sixty-five year-old, Vilma Kari, who was beaten outside a luxury apartment complex while the complex’s security guards and workers ignoring the whole situation is just another example of this alarming trend.
On the whole, two-thirds of such hate incidents have occurred against women of Asian descent. Many have connected both the Atlanta shootings, in which 6 of the 8 victims were Asian-American women, and this rising trend of hate and violence directly to the Asian scapegoating and spreading of anti-Asian sentiments during the pandemic—particularly the racist “China-virus” rhetoric widely perpetuated by Donald Trump and his supporters. Two weeks ago, Asian-American congressional legislators reignited urgency to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, and the House held a three-hour hearing on anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, the first time for such a hearing in decades. Yesterday, the White House revealed a half-dozen new actions to respond to these increasing recent attacks and harassment on AAPI individuals and communities. Protests and demonstrates have taken place across the country. It’s been incredibly profound to witness all of this. In thinking about the recent shootings more specifically, I know that Atlanta, Georgia is thousands of miles away from where I am currently in Southern California, but the Asian-American experience is also one that tracks across coasts and connects my family’s lived experiences with these incidents in some broader historical context. We metabolize media news so quickly these days, but for one moment, it seems like we are lingering to acknowledge that the lived experiences of Asian-Americans matter.
My hope is that the loved ones and families of the 8 victims in Atlanta will find healing and peace. And for the sake of the victims’ memories, I also hope that the incident is ultimately understood as being more complex than the reverberations of someone’s “bad day” and that the cultural scapegoating we place on people of color are called out for its deadly perniciousness. The racist rhetoric disseminated during this pandemic and the sexualization of Asian women are both part of the same systemic, marginalizing stroke that the dominant status quo, motivated by white supremacy, has exerted continually against Asian-Americans to “other” us—to keep us wearing the perpetual foreigner hat on our heads. In response, we Asian-Americans have often resorted to “keeping our heads down” and being model citizens, so that they can’t get us or maybe they’ll move onto someone else. Out of caution, we let the racial narrative take its Black-versus-white binary and stay out of harm’s way. Or else, tag, you’re it. The easiest thing is to pick up an Anglo first name; it’s admittedly harder to lose the accent, but not impossible if you try. You just have to have an ear for it. And when they do go after you, just be quiet. Pretend you didn’t hear them; pretend English is a foreign language. Feign ignorance. But know that if you force yourself to stay quiet too long, they’ll put a narrative on you, too—they’ll fill in their version of you in the blanks. Or put words in your mouth and tell you to perform. Usually for their advantage. You’ll be the good perpetual foreigner. You’re the smart Asian. The dependable one. Harmless. The emasculated male. Fu-Manchu. The submissive but hyper-sexualized vamp with a heart of gold. Suzy Wong, Cio-Cio San, Miss Saigon—take your pick. The one with not enough personality for an Ivy League education. Math nerd. Invisible. The good POC. The model. Crazy rich and also crazy poor. Yellow Peril. The Virus. Very easily our lived experiences are erased, replaced with convenient cultural scripts.
So the surprise that Asian-Americans have suffered within the larger racial discord in this country is unfortunate. The rest of the country is waking up to something that’s always been there for us. I got good enough trying to “be American” that a law school classmate later said to me, “But Jerry, you’re not like those Asians.” So good, so invisible that years later when I was employed at a predominately white place of work, a co-worker lamented during a group diversity training session that the problem with race at our workplace was that “We didn’t have any people of color.” I pretended not to have heard that. Later when another colleague approached me about it, asking whether I had felt marginalized, I lied to her, saying that I hadn’t been paying attention. A white lie to a white colleague, because my instinct was to not rock the boat. Last summer, when I was trying to convey to the dean of my law school that I was hesitant to fly back to the Northeast if the university reverted to in-person teaching, I stuck to the public health script rather than bring up my fears of safety as an Asian-American living alone in New England, away from family and community. Have you seen the videos of people like me being taunted in the subway? Being blamed for the virus? Being told to go back home to China? I felt too ashamed to go there, even though I knew my dean would have understood. It wouldn’t matter anyway, I thought then. I’ll just keep my head down and nothing will happen. Naïve thinking.
The reluctance of law enforcement to see anti-Asian racism in the Atlanta shootings is another attempt to fill in the blanks for us—the plausible deniability that comes from deliberately not seeing color. But the lived experiences of AAPIs do matter. We are not your model minority one second and then invisible the next. The moment for AAPI individuals to be interpreters of this tragedy and this bias is now upon us. We know that language well. This time, I hope we won’t be silenced.