In Sacramento, California, last Friday, a high school Spanish teacher made a slant-eyed gesture during a Zoom class. “If their eyes went up, they’re Chinese. If they’re down, they’re Japanese,” she said in a video recorded by a student. “If they’re just straight, you don’t know.”
Four months earlier, a U.S. marine threatened to shoot Chinese people in a viral video tweet. Addressing the group with a slur, he said, “China is going to pay for what they have done to this country and the world.”
In another video recorded last July, a tech CEO taunted an Asian American family at an upscale Northern California restaurant, calling them an “Asian piece of s—.” Uproar over the clip, which has been viewed more than 1 million times on Instagram, forced the man to resign.
Fueled by former President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed an onslaught of hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders. In 2020, the group Stop AAPI Hate received more than 2,800 self-reports of coronavirus discrimination nationwide, from verbal harassment to physical assault.
Yet news outlets and federal agencies have been slow to recognize the threat and enact policy changes. For much of the past year, the Justice Department resisted calls from Democratic lawmakers and activists to proactively combat the public targeting of Asians. In the days before Lunar New Year, when surveillance cameras captured a spate of violent, unprovoked attacks against Asian seniors, top-rated cable networks spent little to no airtime covering the issue, according to the progressive research center Media Matters.
Amid institutional indifference, social media and other digital tools have allowed Asian Americans to prove the various forms of discrimination they’ve long experienced, organize mutual aid groups and pressure authorities to respond.
Experts say “receipt culture,” or showing evidence of a wrongdoing typically on social media, has helped change the way people see challenges for Asian Americans, long thought of as the “model minority.”
“Social media is an equalizing force not previously available to marginalized communities,” Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director at the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, told NBC Asian America.
On Feb. 5, after failing to find much media coverage about four separate attacks on elderly Asians, the activist Amanda Nguyen uploaded a 30-second Instagram video. In it, she summarized each incident and called on newsrooms to report on the crisis.
“I decided, look, if the mainstream media wasn’t going to talk about this, then I’m going to turn to social media and talk about it,” Nguyen, a co-founder of Rise, a group that helps people write laws, said.
Overnight, she said, the clip racked up more than 3 million views, with more than 11 million reaction posts on TikTok.
The ensuing outrage has helped to spur legislative action.
In late February, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would allocate $1.4 million in funding to UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center and Stop AAPI Hate. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crimes Task Force would make a more concerted effort to monitor attacks in the subway.
Organizers today are increasingly leveraging new technologies to build scalable social and racial justice movements, Kulkarni said. She noted the precedent set by Black Lives Matter protesters, who used smartphone cameras to document police killings of unarmed Black people. Videos of frail Asian seniors being slammed to the ground, she said, have elicited a similarly visceral reaction from viewers, allowing them to instinctively grasp the gravity of the situation.
The footage, she continued, also helped shatter the notion that Asian Americans don’t experience violent crime like other communities of color because they’re white-adjacent.
“The enormous force of the model minority myth — that you’re all doing well, that your issues are not the same as others who are really suffering — is what we’re fighting against,” Kulkarni said.
Beyond social networks, technology has also made it easier for people to report verbal and physical abuse, helping grassroots groups gather accurate data on pandemic-related discrimination.
Stop AAPI Hate, for instance, allows people to document bias incidents on an online form, which can be accessed at any time on a phone or laptop. Compared to a hotline, the method is more cost-effective and less intimidating for those who may not feel comfortable discussing traumatic experiences with other people.
Some experts, however, say it’s just as important to reckon with the limits of digital platforms, which are often more adept at eliciting emotional reactions than facilitating difficult conversations about healing.
“Asians have had a harder time proving racism in a large part because, in general, people still don’t know the history and struggles of Asian Americans,” said Stewart Kwoh, president emeritus of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, a civil rights organization that has been tracking anti-Asian hate incidents since the 1990s. “That’s the overwhelming problem we have to confront as a society.”
While social media has been “a game changer in the sense of establishing the extent of the problem,” he said, it’s been less effective at providing answers.
In recent weeks, some experts have criticized celebrities who called on their followers to help identify and arrest culprits of anti-Asian attacks, arguing that the approach could encourage vigilantism and increase policing in communities of color. Local leaders have also raised concerns about a large contingent of social media users who labeled many high-profile assaults as “hate crimes,” despite having no evidence that they were racially motivated.
Because anti-Asian racism comes in many forms, Kwoh said, efforts to fight it cannot rely on law enforcement alone. Physical assaults, in fact, constitute a small portion of bias incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate. Seven of 10 cases involve verbal harassment like name-calling. A multipronged strategy to keep Asian Americans safe, he continued, has to include stronger civil rights enforcement and funding for agencies like the Department of Housing and the Human Relations Commission.
But such nuances, Kwoh said, are not easily captured on social media, and bias can be difficult to prove.
To more accurately assess the causes and growth of anti-Asian incidents, Nguyen said, “we need more in-depth data on the Asian community as a whole with more mainstream media attention on why these problems are occurring.”
There also has to be a culture shift, she said, that begins with implementing more education initiatives.
On TikTok, Asian American teenagers have heeded this call, posting punchy explainers about the long history of anti-Asian xenophobia and the way in which seemingly innocuous microaggressions can easily lead to violence.
But the effort, Nguyen said, has to move beyond social media. Integrating Asian American studies into public school curricula is crucial, she said, because “it’s hard for people to empathize with our pain if they don’t know our stories.”