Behind the woke terminology floating around the streets and social media in response to the rise in Asian American hate crimes, there lives a painful and neglected history of discrimination against the AAPI community.
While social media has brought this issue to the spotlight, it is important to understand the roots of this hatred and social media’s role in perpetuating the appeasement of collective guilt without effectively doing much to eliminate discrimination and prejudice against Asian Americans in the United States.
While the reposts of standing in solidarity with the AAPI community have sparked important conversations, will the issue be knocked off the “woke” stage and soon forgotten as the next hot-button issue emerges?
Conversation and solidarity are only the first steps towards collective healing and evolution. By looking soberly at the deep-rooted history of discrimination and racism against Asian Americans, we can begin to unsow the seeds of prejudice against not only Asian Americans but all people of color in America.
Further, it is important to understand the instances of blatant racism and microaggressions that almost every person of Asian descent is bound to experience in the United States during their lifetime. Woven throughout the tapestry of Western history, the monolithic view of Asians and the East are harmful, derogatory, and one of the main causes for the hate crimes committed against them today.
A timeline of major instances of discrimination and hate crimes towards Asian Americans:
People v. Hall (1854)
The racist trope of Asians coming to America to steal jobs was born when Chinese Americans first came to the United States during the California Gold Rush. When news of mountains of gold in the West swept through China, thousands of men arrived to look for jobs in the railroad and mining industries. This racist assumption led to the initiation of crimes committed against this group of people solely because they were Chinese. One such significant crime that showcased the helplessness felt by these people was the murder of Chinese immigrant Ling Sing. Ling was killed by an American man named George Hall who brutally shot and murdered him. George Hall and two companions had entered a Chinese mining camp in the pursuit of gold. When they were discovered by a miner who worked there, the three men beat him down brutally. Upon hearing the commotion, Ling Sing rushed out to help his injured coworker but ended up being fired at by George Hall. When his family appealed in court for George Hall to get arrested, they were shot down by the California Supreme Court when it ruled in People v Hall (1854) that people of Asian descent could not testify against White people in court. Thus, the testimonies of witnesses and the family of Ling Sing were not allowed to be used as valid evidence. Hall walked away free and Ling Sing never got justice for being murdered.
Bubonic Plague, San Francisco (1900-1904)
The Coronavirus pandemic isn't the first time the entire Asian community has been unfairly blamed for the spread of a disease. In fact, the first recorded time this happened in the United States was in the 1900’s when the bubonic plague hit San Francisco and spread throughout the country. The first victim in the state of California was a man of Chinese descent which resulted in the entire Asian community being blamed and ostracized for the epidemic. China Town was then placed under strict supervision, and government officials forbade anyone but White citizens to go in and out of the city. The Chinese residents of the city were also subject to harsh home searches and property destruction at the hands of the San Francisco police.
Japanese Internment Camps (1942- 1945)
In 1942 following the Pearl Harbor attacks, President Roosevelt’s administration issued Executive Order 9066 sending all people of Japanese descent to internment camps called “Assembly Centers”. Assembly Centers were located in remote areas, often reconfigured fairgrounds and racetracks featuring buildings not meant for human habitation, like horse stalls or cow sheds, that had been converted for that purpose.This order affected 120,000 people, many of whom were American citizens. Anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese was evacuated, including 17,000 children under age 10, as well as several thousand elderly and disabled residents.
In Los Angeles, 18,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated, 8,500 of whom lived in stables. Food shortages and substandard sanitation were prevalent in these facilities. On August 4, 1942, a riot broke out in the Santa Anita Assembly Center, the result of anger about insufficient rations and overcrowding. Fearing a riot, police tear-gassed crowds that had gathered at the police station.
At the Topaz Relocation Center, 63-year-old prisoner James Hatsuki Wakasa was shot and killed by military police after walking near the perimeter fence. Two months later, a couple was shot for strolling near the fence. Many more cases of crimes against the citizens were reported but the camps remained open until 1945.
Japanese-Americans were detained, isolated, and completely stripped of their civil rights in an incapacitated attempt to find ‘spies’ amongst the Japanese-American population. However, no such ‘spy’ was ever found and many of them returned to great losses including vandalized homes and businesses. This horrendous infringement on civil rights highlighted the glaring systemic racism born out of a lack of understanding and the US Government’s deeply held view of a racial hierarchy.
Vietnamese Fishermen and the KKK (1980s)
At a time where many Vietnamese people had just experienced devastating losses and destruction at the hand of the United States’ Army, they took up shrimp harvesting or ‘shrimping’ as they called it, in the South to find some solace in difficult times. However, this solace was short lived as soon after, the racist trope of Asians coming to steal the jobs of White people was reborn, but this time the White Supremacist Organization, the Ku Klux Klan took hateful actions against the Vietnamese people. Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam led his followers in commando-style attacks where Vietnamese boats were set ablaze and their crab plants were bombed in order to ensure that they would be unable to continue with their shrimping businesses. Hooded Klansmen patrolled the waters, circling the Vietnamese boats like the pirates who encircled the refugee boats escaping Vietnam during the war.
The Vietnamese Americans encountered devastating losses at the hands of the KKK. However, the Vietnamese prevailed. In fact, they thrived. By 1984, one fisherman reported that of the 150 boats docked in the harbor, maybe 25 were owned by Americans. The Vietnamese began to dominate the shrimping industry and their success saga continues today.
Attacks following 9/11
Following the 2001 attacks on the twin towers in New York, a surge in hate crimes towards Muslims and people who were perceived to be Muslims, specifically South Asians spread. Numerous people of South Asian descent were targeted due to the color of their skin and were blamed unfairly for the September attacks. Over 1000 cases of hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim have been recorded to date. A White aircraft mechanic by the name of Frank Silva Roque, murdered a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi after he mistook him for being a Muslim. Just before shooting Singh, Roque had told an employee of an Applebee’s restaurant that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel heads.” A few days following the September 11 attacks, a man by the name of Mark Stroman shot and killed a Pakistani immigrant Waquar Hassan at a grocery store in Dallas, Texas. Two weeks later, Stroman proceeded to kill an Indian immigrant and a naturalized U.S. citizen, Vasudhev Patel while he was working at a convenience store at a shell gas station. After Stroman was questioned about why he shot the two men, he said in response to an interview with a local radio station, “We’re at war. I did what I had to do. I did it to retaliate against those who retaliated against us.”
There were also numerous other recorded and unrecorded instances of hatred against South Asians following 9/11.
Racism in Everyday Life
Racism against Asian Americans has been a long standing issue originating from the first time they entered the United States and were viewed as a ‘threat’. However, the conflict extends beyond this perception to include microaggressions experienced by Asian Americans daily.
A microaggression is a comment or an action that is subconsciously rooted in a harmful and derogatory stereotype or notion against a person belonging to a marginalized group. Although these ideas may seem small it is extremely important to note the painful history that has led to this idea being perceived as it is today. Where did these ideas come from and why are these notions so hateful?
Here are the most common and troubling stereotypes that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination against people of Asian descent.
Asians as the ‘Model Minority’
A model minority is a group of people who are seen as the ‘standard’ to compare other minorities to. The term originated in the 1980’s when Asian Americans were used as a scapegoat by prominent White leaders to mask the glaring systemic racism that was ravaging the Black community. The Model Minority stereotype, a racist notion that completely invalidated the struggles faced by the Asian American community, perpetuated a “White is Right” message that has caused millions of immigrants to “White-Wash” or “Americanize” their children. Many Asian Americans were taught to hate their own culture and completely assimilate to Western culture to be successful. It has created an unfair connection between Asian American success and the annihilation of Asian American identity.
Asian American Stereotypes in Media and Culture
Over 18.6 million people identify as Asian or Asian-American, but this growing population is not reflected in Hollywood. Asian-Americans are almost as invisible in Hollywood as they were fifty years ago, as studies show only 5.3 percent of roles in 2014 films were Asian (Smith et al., 2015). Asian women in film are unfairly painted as either a “dragon lady” or a “china doll” and Asian men are stripped of their masculinity and painted as effeminate nerds, karate masters, or comedic jesters with exaggerated accents.
The infamous “model minority” stereotype that portrays Asians as intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious, does more harm than good. It boxes Asians into an “othered” role, deeming them as passive foreigners without dimension. These stereotypes do not just stay on screen, but instead bleed into how Asians are perceived outside of media, leaving detrimental cultural and social consequences and leading to feelings of inferiority.
In addition, the erasure of Asian-Americans in Hollywood perpetuates the idea that Asians are still foreigners, unworthy of well-rounded representation and storytelling. Historically, some films have actors don yellowface, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), where Mickey Rooney plays a bucktoothed, slant-eyed Mr. Yunioshi (Rajgopal, 2010). This practice has remained in more recents films For instance, instead of casting Asian actors, Cloud Atlas (2012) featured Jim Sturgess and Keith David in yellowface; their makeup is meant to make them appear ethnically Korean to fit the futuristic Korea
in which part of the movie was set (Rose, 2016).
There has always been a lack of diversity and appropriate representation of the population in Western media. However, the spotlight now shines on this issue as the emerging portrayal of Asian Americans challenging stereotypes in the media has brought on a rebirth of Asian American identity. In music and culture, the Korean wave of music, T.V. shows and products appeal to audiences by placing young and attractive Asians at the forefront. Asian American artists like Tokimonsta, Zhu, and Mitski are re-framing concepts of Asian-ness by highlighting the universal experiences of being human. In TV and film figures like Aziz Ansari, Ali Wong, Dev Patel, and Awkwafina are helping international audiences reconfigure what it means to be Asian today through honest and complex portrayals.
Fetishization of Asian American Woman
Asian American women have been portrayed by the West as obedient, docile creatures and fetishized for their “exotic” features. This harmful stereotype causes Asian women to be objectified as sex symbols and placed into a limiting grouping. The origin of this stereotype was in America’s first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, which sought to exclude East Asian women from the country because of the assumption that they were ‘sex workers’ and ‘temptations for white men,’ making their immigration illegal and not allowing existing Chinese-American women at the time from becoming citizens. The Western lust of Asian women has led to an unfathomable amount of human trafficking particularly in South East Asia. The west is indirectly responsible for this as they are the largest consumers of pornographic material of Asian women and children. These people are trafficked and sold to organizations that take videos of them performing forced sexual acts that are then posted to pornographic websites that are mainly consumed by men in the western hemisphere of the world. The search ‘Asian’ is one of the most common in pornographic websites. This is a direct result of the harmful fetishization that has led to so many women and children losing their freedom to satiate the desires of predatory men on the other end of the world.
What can be done?
In all of the instances above, it is evident that the Western view of Asians as a monolith is incredibly damaging. From the time, all the Chinese were blamed for the spread of the bubonic plague to the targeting of South Asians following 9/11, it is plausible that this racist ideology causes nothing but hatred and destruction. It causes people of Asian descent to be seen as nothing more than a stereotype. Although it is impossible to achieve a ‘color blind’ society, it is not impossible to achieve a more inclusive and accepting one. When a person takes steps to understand why certain stereotypes and notions are racist and the history behind them, they are already on their way to becoming a true ally. There is a long and arduous journey to be taken in order to reach a society where people are no longer discriminated on the basis of race; however, it is an essential and important one that is worth every sacrifice to ensure that future generations are able to live in a safe and accepting society.