The idea of an American: exploring anti-Asian bias in our nation

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Photo courtesy of Alisa Nascimento

I rarely hear people recall their Rome semester as anything less than amazing or life-changing. In more ways than one, my time in Europe reshaped my view of myself and the world. 

I Googled “how to look less like a tourist in Italy.” Only after I arrived in Europe did I realize that none of this mattered. My initial worry was that I’d be seen right away as an American. In retrospect, I never considered that I might stand out even more for being Asian.  

During our class trip to Greece, my “otherness” stood out. While exploring one of the many boutiques in Hydra, a friend and I entered a shop where a friendly woman greeted us, asking where we were from. When we both responded that we were from America, the woman smiled, but looked pointedly at me and said, “Not you.”

My experience with this racially insensitive comment is only one instance of ignorance to the plight of Asian Americans. She did not jeer at me, call me a racial slur or any other foul name. It’s almost worse that her question and subsequent statement wore the mask of such harmless curiosity because it speaks to a deeper, ingrained racism. 

Despite Asian Americans’ enduring presence in the United States, we are not the first people you think of when you think of Americans.

The poisonous effects of marking people as “other” is evident in the increasing attacks against Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent tragic attacks against our elderly community. 

The history of violence and discrimination against Asians begins with Yellow Peril. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Asians were considered a hazard to the Western world because they were thought to carry diseases. It was their willingness to work for lower wages than European immigrants or American workers that earned them the reputation of being unclean.

Today, when people hurl endless directives such as “go back to China!” and call Asians “Coronavirus” or “China virus,” it becomes obvious that after over 100 years the racist belief that those of Asian descent are “dirty” persists. 

From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which resulted in almost 150 anti-Asian riots and the 1885 massacre in Wyoming, to Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans, the U.S.’s history is fraught with anti-Asian discrimination and violence. 

Due to the 1980s auto industry crisis, Americans lost their jobs while the Japanese market flourished. Americans blamed the Japanese for their plight, so anti-Asian violence followed. Two white auto workers, Michael Nitz and Ronald Ebens, attacked, beat and killed Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man, in 1982. 

Nitz and Ebens were sentenced to three years of probation and a $3,000 fine for the murder of Chin. Judge Charles Kaufman’s decision not to incarcerate these men, claiming that “these weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” sparked outrage from the Asian American community. 

Ebens and Nitz had insisted their actions were not racially motivated. Similarly, Robert Aaron Long, the man responsible for the deaths of eight people, six of them Asian women, in the Atlanta shooting in March 2021, stated that his actions were not racially motivated, but rather  motivated by his sex addiction. 

This excuse was perpetuated and rationalized by police officer Captain Jay Baker, who said, “He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” I think it was a really bad day for the victims and their families. 

Both of these events need to be recognized for what they are: hate crimes. Chin was brutally beaten because he was mistaken for a Japanese person. It did not matter to Ebens or Nitz that he was Chinese and it is evident that the two auto workers were targeting their anger towards the Japanese. Though Long’s crime cannot directly be proven to be solely motivated by racism, the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women in the U.S. has a historical connection to his alleged sex addiction and should be factored into his decision to attack the spas. To downplay the violence that so clearly exists suggests that Asian Americans have a marginalized place in society and in the American justice system. 

In 1969, the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) wrote that “because we have elected to remain silent, our existence has been taken for granted.” It’s a cultural tendency to keep our heads down and not make waves. However, this silence has only allowed racism to continue.

The Los Angeles AAPA group wrote an article in their August 1969 issue of Gidra: “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for Asian Americans in relation to the political and racial turmoil in America.”

Although it seems that racism is ingrained into our society, it can be fixed. The dangers of allowing it to remain are glaringly present throughout history.

I think UD students are aware of the power behind words. Language is linked to physical actions and attitudes toward people in the real world. Regardless of the shop owner’s intentions, this treatment of a non-white person as “other” and not “American” is an indignity people of color have had to face throughout their lives. 

Conversely, the absence of conversation and education on the history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States also shows just how powerful words—or lack thereof—can be. Our history books so rarely, if at all, discuss US racism against its citizens. Anti-Asian hate is not new. It has existed from the very beginning of Asian immigration to the United States. 

Let me be clear: not every Asian American person has the same opinion, belief or story as mine or anyone else’s. I ask that we acknowledge these differences but still come together to grow and engage in honest and constructive conversation.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is such an important article. Thank you for sharing your experience and the history in such a well thought out way.

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