One of the first English words I learned was an ethnic insult I heard every time my parents and I walked around town. I was 7 years old and had just moved to Brooklyn from China. One day, eager to show myself off, I turned to my dad and said, “We’re slits now!” in English. My father looked like he stabbed him. In a deep, low voice, he told me never to say that word again.
This insult has haunted me my entire life, cutting like a knife when I least expected it. A boy on a bicycle shouted it so deep in my ear that it rang for hours afterward. The ringing finally died down, but street harassment has become a habit of my life.
Before the pandemic, just walking to the courthouse where I work required an exhaustive check of my body. For a while, I tried really hard to make myself look less feminine and whiter. I pretended to be deaf when strangers addressed me with their eyes closed while laughing at “I have loved you for a long time” or saying out loud that they had “yellow fever”.
As the coronavirus spread, I began to dread my commute to work. People have shown themselves to be far from me even in crowded metro cars. Other times the harassment was more overt – strangers banged my shoulders; someone pricked me with the sharp metal end of a long umbrella shouting, “Go back to China.” My parents wore hats, sunglasses and double masks whenever they left the house.
The last time I took the train to work, in March, a man pulled his face away from mine and shouted “slit” looking me dead in the eye. Not a single person came to my defense. The insult echoed in my ears, bringing me back to my childhood. I haven’t been on a train or a bus since.
I am far from being alone. The United States has seen an upsurge in violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic. Between March and December 2020, Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative that tracks and responds to reported incidents of violence and discrimination directed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, received more than 2,800 reports of incidents against Americans. of Asian origin. Stop AAPI Hate also found that women are twice as likely as men to report coronavirus-related harassment.
Although anti-Asian sentiment has increased during the pandemic, it is woven into the very fabric of this country. The Page Act of 1875 effectively prohibited Chinese women, who were suspected of spreading sexual diseases and posing a threat to white values, lives and futures, from entering the country. The Chinese Exclusion Law, which was enacted in 1882, was the first and only law passed to prohibit the immigration of all persons of a particular national origin. Exclusion laws were not repealed until 1943, when Congress established an immigration quota for China of about 105 visas per year.
The country’s legal framework has dehumanized Asian immigrants, and in turn encouraged Americans to brutalize us. During the Chinese massacre of 1871, a white mob hanged nearly 20 Chinese immigrants from a makeshift gallows in Los Angeles. In 1930, hundreds of white men roamed the streets of Watsonville, California, terrorizing Filipino farm workers for days before killing a man. After Pearl Harbor, an angry nation used Japanese Americans as a scapegoat. After the Vietnam War, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to drive Vietnamese Americans out of Texas by torching their homes and boats – a symptom of anti-Vietnamese sentiment across the country.
The recent wave of attacks target the most vulnerable members of our community. Two assailants slapped an 89-year-old woman and set her shirt on fire in Brooklyn last fall. In January, an 84-year-old man died after being brutally assaulted during a morning walk in San Francisco. This week, a 52-year-old woman queuing outside a bakery in Flushing, Queens, was rushed to hospital after being violently pushed and blackened.
Many seem determined to ignore our pain, marking us with the broad condescending model-minority brushstroke. They normalize racism against Asian Americans and allowed our former president to incite hatred by using racist language like “Kung Flu” and “Chinese Plague”.
At work, my boss accused me of being “hypersensitive”, of doing things about the race that are not. I have been told that Asian Americans are not victims of racism. I half believed it, thinking I was taking things too personally, that I was too weak – too ‘Asian’. When I said my old law firm needed to do more than lip service to the Black Lives Matter movement, the same boss, a white man who used the term “open kimono” in meetings business, dismissed the idea and said that I, as an Asian American, had it so much better than “them.”
As long as white supremacy is allowed to perpetuate a wedge between Asian Americans and black and indigenous peoples and other people of color, we cannot make real progress against our common oppressor: the systems of our country that were designed to exclude us all. .
In 1992, my father quit his teaching post in China in pursuit of the rights and equality touted by the founders of our nation. Almost three decades later, he hesitates every time he leaves his home. And yet, when I asked him about it during Lunar New Year, he showed no sign of resignation, choosing instead to believe things would be better. As he often told me growing up, no matter what happened, America can be good.