When the coronavirus started spreading across the United States, triggering a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, I began feeling uncharacteristically anxious. As a Korean American, I was used to microaggressions — being complimented on my English (though I was born and raised in the States), being asked where I really came from — but this felt different. For the first time in my life, I feared for my physical safety. I feared becoming a target of violence because of my race.
Sometimes my eyes would well up with tears as I read reports from across the country of Asians and Asian Americans being assaulted, spat on, stabbed and even burned with chemicals by people who associated them with the virus. In early March, only a block away from my Manhattan workplace, a Korean woman was punched in the face by a stranger who said “You’ve got coronavirus” and cursed at her; the woman was taken to the hospital with a possible dislocated jaw. As the spring went on, I heard about two Asians being stabbed and another getting severely beaten in racially motivated incidents in my Queens neighborhood.
The pandemic has made me more aware of racism — how it bubbles beneath the surface of everyday life and can erupt at any time, even in a cosmopolitan place like New York. It also has given me a new sense of some of the anxiety that black people face on a regular basis. One mother recently told NPR about how, upon spotting two white men laughing with one another, her son commented: “It must be nice to wake up in the morning and feel safe, to not be afraid to go out and do what you have to do for the day, to hang out with your friends, not be afraid of the police. I wonder what that is like.” Though in my case I was more afraid of racist civilians than of law enforcement, such accounts resonated with me more deeply than before.
I felt nervous going to my local pharmacy or grocery store, afraid that some malicious stranger might accost me on the sidewalk and harass or harm me. Before stepping outside to run an errand, I would always weigh the potential trade-offs: Do I really need a new jug of milk? Is it worth the risk? When I did venture out, I became painfully aware of people’s wary glances and nasty stares, or how they walked away when they saw me headed in their direction. After only a few months of this, I felt exhausted. What would it feel like to deal with it for a lifetime? And what would it feel like to endure not only random, individual confrontations but systemic discrimination? Anti-black racism influences matters from housing to the air quality in your neighborhood, from access to health care to whether your doctor treats you well. It shapes how you are viewed in professional settings and by police, teachersand bankers. Though the glimpse I got into black people’s experience of racism was eye-opening, my understanding of it was still limited.
As protests against racial inequality and police brutality gathered in New York and nationwide, I received text messages from some of my Asian friends urging me to stay inside, where it’s safe. They told me that Asians should not get involved in these struggles — that these matters didn’t concern us. That if violence were to break out during the protests, we would end up becoming “collateral damage.”
I understand where they may have been coming from. Asian Americans occupy a murky space in America’s racial hierarchy: We can’t claim white privilege, but we’re not consistently or definitively considered people of color, either, and so sometimes we don’t know if we even have the right to raise our voices; we don’t know what our role in the conversation should be. Some people in my community believe that it’s natural for us to stay detached and uninvolved. We’re used to being invisible, and that invisibility has often felt safe.
But America’s racial narrative does involve us. It created the model-minority myth — the notion that Asian Americans are successful because we’re hard-working, obedient and don’t complain — which many within our community bought into over the years. But that myth is not an honest compliment: The U.S. government used it to discredit the civil rights movement and to win allies in the Cold War. It’s also been wielded against us to keep Asian Americans in line, to prevent us from entering certain professions, and to pit us against black people and other people of color. Meanwhile, it was largely because of black activists’ efforts during the civil rights movement that the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was passed, removing immigration quotas based on national origin and ushering in a wave of Asian immigrants. The Black Power Movement also helped spark Asian American advocacy — in fact, the term “Asian American” was coined in 1968 by University of California at Berkeley students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, who drew inspiration from the Black Power Movement.
As sociology professor Anthony C. Ocampo recently told Time magazine, by taking a stand against anti-black racism, Asian Americans send an urgent message: “The same racist logic schemes that are keeping our communities down might look different in Black communities than they look in Asian American communities, but it’s still the same system” — one that puts Asian Americans “in a position where we can’t write our own stories in this country.” For some Asian Americans, taking a stand has meant attending protests. Others have organized fundraisers for racial justice organizations and bail funds. And many have grappled with how to educate our relatives and friends, asking them to think about their own experiences with oppression and to draw connections to America’s past and present.
Perhaps the single biggest realization I’ve had over the past few months is that our experiences dealing with racism are not merely individual: They’re different manifestations of an overarching injustice. The pandemic has initiated Asian Americans like me into the experience of feeling personally endangered by racism. But though it’d be a natural first instinct to retreat, to seek refuge in invisibility and silence, our vulnerability should instead inspire us to reach out — to others in our community, and to people beyond it — so that we can collectively advocate for justice.