That this country has a significant problem with anti-Asian racism is a well-established fact, and the fact that many people don’t fully understand the scope of this problem is rather significant. Even more so is the fact that there’s a very special subset of anti-Asian racism that really needs to be dealt with as its own entity as well as part of the larger picture: anti-Asian-American racism. In addition to being filled with entirely too many hyphens, it’s also a kind of racism aimed particularly at Asian-Americans, rather than the Asian community in general, and it reveals telling attitudes about the Asian-American community.
Comedian Eliot Chang made a great video earlier this year tackling things Asians hate. It consists of a great series of comments people make on the regular to Asians and Asian-Americans, submitted without commentary, other than the title card, which reads: ‘please stop saying these things to Asians.’
Some of his more choice quotes: ‘You speak really good English!’ ‘When did you come to America?’ ‘Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you really from?’ ‘What kind of Asian are you?’ ‘Are you [Chinese/Japanese/Korean]?’ ‘Why can’t I call you an Oriental?’ ‘It’s okay for me to call you a chink because we’re friends!’ ‘Were your parents in the war? Which side?’
Obviously all of these things (and more) are hurtful and not okay to say to any Asian, and are said to Asians in general as well as members of the Asian-American community. But there’s a particular sting to anti-Asian-American racism that is worth examining, and understanding, more closely, because there is very much an attitude in the white United States that members of the Asian community are other, and always will be, that ‘they’ come from elsewhere and can presumably be forced to ‘go home,’ despite the fact that some Asian-American families have actually been here way longer than white ones.
There’s an overtone in these comments of dominance and reinforcement that the target of the comment needs to be reminded of who is the ‘real’ American in this situation; ‘real’ Americans are white, and they use these kinds of casual comments and interrogations to underscore the fundamental differences they imagine between them and Asian-Americans. They want to demonstrate the alien ‘otherness’ of their targets and get tremendously upset when Asian-Americans say they speak English at home, that their legal names are their English-language names, that their family has been in the country for X generations, that they eat lasagna and burgers, that they object to being fetishised and commodified.
It’s upsetting for white Americans because they want to imagine Asian-Americans living some kind of exotic, ‘other’ life which somehow proves that ‘they’ don’t belong, when in fact many Asian-Americans live, well, not that differently than their white counterparts. And, oddly enough, they don’t appreciate hipster racism being used around them by their ‘friends’ any more than they appreciate total strangers interrogating them about their origins in an attempt to remind them that they don’t belong. Similar kinds of attitudes can be seen rising against the Latino/Latina community, as people ask similar kinds of ridiculous questions and seem genuinely shocked to hear that being brown doesn’t mean you eat burritos and speak Spanish at home.
The use of perceived and assumed cultural divides to reinforce racial differences is nothing new, of course, and the search for cultural differences between yourself and someone you view as other is common. It’s something that appears especially acute in the Asian-American community, where despite centuries (yes, really) of living in North America, Asian-Americans are still treated like interlopers fresh off the boat, and they’re saddled with a whole array of stereotypes. The assumption is that all Asians must be immigrants, and as such, they are here at the pleasure of white overseers.
Many white people, including those in communities that label themselves progressive, don’t really seem aware of the extent and form of anti-Asian racism, let alone the specific flavour that’s targeted at Asian-Americans in the US. And many of them seem surprised to learn that some of the comments Chang highlights in his video are actually offensive. As in, they are things you should not say to Asians, not even as a joke in the belief that you are being funny or somehow demonstrating your hipness; joking about having your Asian friend do your homework is racist, even if your friend tries to laugh it off to avoid The Race Talk.
In conversations about racism, it’s important to look at the different ways in which racism manifests, and how it targets and harms different communities. People from different ethnic backgrounds can all experience racism, but they will experience it in different forms, and those forms can sometimes be subtle, making it important to learn how to identify them, and how to advocate when they are identified. Because fighting racism is not the responsibility of the people who are targeted by it, but the people who benefit from it, which means it’s our responsibility to understand it.
Learning that anti-Asian-American racism is a specific issue and it needs to be targeted on that basis is important, because this will make it easier to spot it and say something about it when it occurs. Progressive groups need to be thinking about the fact that racism is not always cut and dried, and that their subtle attitudes and seemingly casual comments can be extremely hurtful in the same spaces they’re self-righteously declaring ‘safe.’
An Asian-American woman coming to a feminist meeting doesn’t want to be asked where she’s ‘from’ eight million times. She doesn’t want to be asked about her racial background. She doesn’t want to be asked if she’ll make sushi for the next event. She doesn’t want to be asked what her ‘real name’ is and if she speaks Chinese at home. And she wants to know that the people around her don’t just ‘welcome’ or ‘tolerate’ her, but actively want her there and will actively work to keep her safe, which means that the organisation will have, and enforce, anti-racist policies.
Angry Asian Man is a good resource to start with for understanding issues specific to the Asian-American community. So is Racebending, for coverage of Asians in pop culture. Minna Hong covers a variety of subjects at Angry Black Lady Chronicles. Authors like Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon sometimes discuss life in publishing as Asian-American authors in the US. Jessie at Racism Review posted a good primer of recent incidents of anti-Asian racism in the US. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The information, in other words, is out there.