When I found out about the shootings in Atlanta, the massacre of six women of Asian descent and two others by a white man, I started crying so hard I couldn’t stop. I thought about my Asian American friends, my parents who work in small Chinese businesses, all the Asian women I know who raised me, who taught me, whose immigrant blood runs through mine. I thought about myself, how I grew up wanting to be American, not realizing I already was by my birthright, because as the extreme violence in Atlanta showed, the country does not recognize Asian people as part of the American identity.
First, let me say the women’s names. Xiaojie Tan. Daoyou Feng. Soon Chung Park. Hyun Jung Grant. Suncha Kim. Yong Ae Yue. These were people with full lives. They had families who love them and now must mourn them. It doesn’t matter what these people might have done for a living or what their citizenship status was or how “American” they were. The media’s reluctance to call their murders a hate crime and their participation in racist stereotypes that sexualize Asian women is egregious. The superficial demonstrations of solidarity and understanding on social media are downright insulting.
Our failure to do the victims justice is indicative of how poorly we understand race in the United States. It is the product of our erasure of Asian Americans in U.S. history. We are not taught the contributions of Asian Americans in school. We do not read Asian American stories or see Asian Americans on TV with any regularity. The way we talk about and portray race in America is Black and white and renders Asian Americans invisible. We do not get to humanize them and see them as real people. So when we as a country are forced to confront the racist attacks against Asian Americans, we fail miserably.
The rise in anti-Asian sentiment has been going on for a full year, but it’s important to remember that this is not the first wave. It frustrates me how quickly we forget that less than 80 years ago, one of our most progressive and revered presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered all Japanese Americans into concentration camps. Or how one of the most violent lynchings in American history was done to the Chinese. And let’s not forget the incredible abuse and racial profiling South Asians endured and continue to endure post 9/11.
Every time I look at this country’s history, I see that women like me have always been denied a place. Afong Moy, in 1834, the first recognized Chinese woman to come to the U.S., was turned into an exhibition to American people, carted off to cities where people paid 25 cents to see her. This is also not the first time the media has failed Asian Americans. News outlets have long been criticized for failing to cover issues in Asian American communities, further marginalizing them in local decision-making, or when they do, for perpetuating stereotypes of the model minority. Likewise, while some blame former President Donald Trump for contributing to the rise in anti-Asian sentiment by calling COVID-19 “Kung-flu” or the “China Virus,” he’s not the first politician to use such language. Senators called Chinese immigrants “rats,” “beasts,” and “swine” before passing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first and only federal law to limit a group’s entry based on race.
Words have power. The stories we select to construct our national identity have consequences. While Asian Americans have been deemed perpetually foreign, many would be surprised to know that the first Asians in America can be traced back to as early as the 1500s. Why Asian Americans don’t make up a larger part of the U.S. population is a result of centuries of discriminatory immigration laws, not to mention labor and education ones.
A friend asked me recently, “Well, how do you want people to respond?” I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t. Any chance at racial justice will require a radical reformation of how we think about race in America. It will require partnerships with other minority groups. Statements of solidarity must be backed by action. As history shows, anti-Asian sentiment repeats itself. The current terms we use, “exotification,” “sexualization,” “exclusion,” “model minority,” help us conceptualize and label the racism that Asian Americans experience, but I worry they are clinical and prevent us from feeling the empathy that is so needed at this moment.
What I will say is this. I want to see hate-crime reform. I want Asian American history taught in classrooms. I want to see more Asian Americans in government, in Hollywood, on everyday bookshelves, so that one day someone might look at me and not question whether I belong here. So that someone might look at me and not make assumptions because of my race. I already know people like me can serve the country well, that they can be dynamic and brilliant and brave. America must see that too.
Amanda Chu (email@example.com) is a Georgetown University student and a second-generation Chinese American.