When I was 7 years old, I wrote a mini-autobiography. Its title appears in squiggly first grade handwriting: “My Own Life.” Recently, I re-read this self-study, discovering that my favorite thing to do on a sunny day was “have a water fight” and remembering how much “I love love love love loved to read.”
Then, among anecdotes about my brother and sister and my “fluffy little hamster, Beedo,” this sentence drifted by: “I’m part American part Chinese.” An earlier draft of the autobiography, also saved by my mother, put it slightly differently: “I am part normal part Chinese.”
Despite my parents’ best efforts, society had already ingrained into my 7-year-old head that American meant white, and white meant normal. And it wasn’t just me; one of my favorite friends once introduced me, using words that made sense to him, as “half human and half Chinese.”
My experience is all too common. Asian Americans often become accustomed early on to being viewed (and to viewing ourselves) as perpetual foreigners in our own country, as outsiders who don’t quite belong.
In 2018, my sister flew to Pittsburgh for the International Science and Engineering Fair. While walking down a city street with her high school age friends, her group was followed and harassed by several men shouting “f---ing Chinese b----es” and telling them to “get out of America.”
From earliest childhood, Asian Americans breathe air either tinted by or filled full of racial bias. Some forms of it are more subtle, like classmates’ surprise that my born-in-Detroit father speaks “good English” and their mockery of “Asian eyes” on the playground. Other forms are far more overt, including insults that suggest we are less than fully human. Just a few weeks ago, my cousin got called “a dirty f---ing pig” as she walked home from a solidarity march against anti-Asian hate crimes.
Last week’s murder in Atlanta of eight people, six of them Asian women, appears to many people as one more mass shooting by a mentally unstable gunman. Local police have downplayed the link to race, reiterating the suspect’s claim that his attack was not motivated by race. Likewise, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that, while the investigation is ongoing, “it does not appear that the [attack] was racially motivated.”
The unprovoked and vicious hate speech directed at my female family members — and so many other Asian Americans I know — is one reason these hasty public responses to Atlanta bother me so much. These attitudes reflect a very limited view of how race often relates to violence in the United States.
Even if we ignore the unreliability of a murderer’s statements about his motives, and even if he wasn’t — or didn’t think he was — targeting his victims because of their race, racism against Asian Americans certainly played a part in his desire and willingness to kill Asian women.
Widespread acceptance and use of dehumanizing language aimed at Asians makes violence against Asian Americans easier to commit and, therefore, more likely to occur. The rising tide of violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic illustrates this link.
President Trump repeatedly blamed China and Chinese people for the COVID-19 pandemic. His speeches and tweets about the “Kung Flu,” “Chinese Virus,” and “China Virus,” as well as his conspiracy theory about COVID being engineered in a Chinese lab, have created a pernicious narrative that endangers Asian Americans.
While other hate crimes declined in 2020, verbal and physical assaults against Asian Americans surged by 150%. For example, In March 2020, an attacker stabbed an Asian American father and his two young sons because he believed they were Chinese and were spreading the virus.
Several weeks before the recent Lunar New Year, an onslaught of attacks occurred against elderly Asian Americans. In San Francisco, a male assailant charged an 84-year-old Thai man, slamming him to the ground with what The New York Times describes as a “forceful body blow that might have knocked unconscious a young football player in full protective pads.” He suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage.
Against this backdrop, denying that race played a role in the Atlanta attacks is a way of avoiding important and uncomfortable conversations about both obvious and more subtle forms of racism.
Speech that casts Asian Americans in the role of perpetual foreigners must surely make it easier for many people, including the killer, to blame and hate these citizens for a deadly virus that happened to originate in Asia. Additionally, casual use of language that paints Asian Americans as less than human communicates that we are expendable. Dirty “pigs” and “b----es” are a lot easier to kill than human beings.
Sierra Sun, Sandy, is an eighth grader, an officer of the Envision Utah Youth Council and a member of the National Youth Leadership Council of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots youth organization.