The fear is real

A woman walks with her family in her kimono, a traditional Japanese dress, at the Knoxville Asian Festival at World's Fair Park on August 25, 2019. 

For many who suffer through it, anti-Asian racism is a series of conflations. First, there is the totalizing conflation of all Asian peoples with those of the continent’s most populous nation. Many Asian Americans are accustomed to strangers assuming they are of Chinese descent, even if their family came from South Korea, Japan or Vietnam.

Then there is the conflation of Chinese people with stereotypes of their nation’s government. These stereotypes explain why American news outlets often portray China as a red, fire-breathing dragon with its sharp totalitarian talons gripping the beacon of democracy that is America. The conflation explains why people of Chinese descent, and by extension many Asian Americans, are made out to be emissaries of that dragon.

Now, in its latest violent iteration, anti-Asian racism has become the conflation of a diverse community of people and cultures with a communicable disease.

In the year since the COVID-19 virus caused the U.S. to enter lockdown, the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate (AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander) has catalogued 3,800 anti-Asian incidents, most of which were directed against Asian women. This figure is based largely on self-reporting and is thought to represent a fraction of actual incidents.

The rise in violence has been worse in urban areas. The NYPD reports that anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City rose by 1,900% in 2020.

All of these patterns seemed to feed into the events of March 16, when a white 21-year-old gunman named Robert Aaron Long murdered eight people — including six Asian women — at three spas and massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia.

Though Long has not been charged with a hate crime, many are piecing together his targeting of Asian American workplaces — one of the spas he selected is called Young Asian’s Massage — and the racial identity of his victims into a narrative of anti-Asian hatred and misogyny.

Shellen Wu, associate professor of history at UT and chair of the Asian Studies Program, said that for many Asian Americans, the massacre was “totally expected.” After a year of seeing Asian Americans punched in the face, spat on, kicked in the stomach or shoved to the ground as they went about their days, many felt it was only a matter of time before Asian Americans were killed.

“For many Asian Americans, this has been an extremely frightening and upsetting time, because not only is there a pandemic, but people also fear going out for fear that they might have racial slurs hurled at them, that they might be physically attacked,” Wu said. “For many Asian Americans, this is not a new thing. It’s an escalation of this very long history of violence and of these racial attacks.”

According to Wu, the Atlanta shooting was not the most violent manifestation of anti-Asian racism in America’s history. The 19th century saw frequent mob attacks on Chinese immigrants who worked low-paying and dangerous jobs on railroads. Additionally, U.S. laws throughout history, including those that explicitly banned immigration from Asia and placed 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, created a narrative of Asian Americans as dangerous and threatening.

Wu believes that COVID-19 has offered up a new variant of this strain of anti-Asian racism. Because the first outbreak of the virus was recorded in China, and because former President Trump and his administration repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “Kung flu,” she said some Americans were given license to treat their Asian neighbors as if they were responsible in some measure for the pandemic.

Despite the fact that the first documented outbreak of the Spanish flu of 1918 was in Kansas, many in the American government and news media followed the former president’s lead in calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Wu said this kind of language has played a significant role in the uptick of anti-Asian violence.

“There is a reason why the WHO does not support locating a virus or a disease with any one location,” Wu said. “Often cases, it’s actually not accurate at all to attribute a disease to a particular place. So people make light of it, the ‘oh, it’s no big deal,’ but when you see the way that people are attacked or spat upon in the past year and how many people have actually used this (language) to preface their attacks, then you realize that it actually is a big deal because obviously you are dehumanizing an entire group of Americans and somehow suggesting that they are a disease.”

John Han, a lecturer in the department of English, sees the rising violence against Asian Americans as a grand act of collective scapegoating, with angry Americans taking out the frustrations of a year with COVID-19 on easy targets.

“For Asians, it was simply a matter of time before someone saying, number one, it’s a ‘China virus,’ number two, why are you in this country?” Han said. “It’s kind of a shifting anger. That’s the way I view it. Unfortunately, I feared this when Trump took office. I feared this when, about six months ago, I feared they were going to turn on us, on Asians.”

Han, who immigrated from South Korea as a child so his father could earn a PhD from UT, wrote an essay responding to the anti-Asian violence which was posted to the English department’s website.

John Han

Lecturer of English John Han pictured with his parents in the 1970s as his father graduated with a PhD from The University of Tennessee. 

In the essay, he details the invisibility he felt growing up as a Korean American, as well as the various forms of racism his family experienced, including chronic problems, like his mother being forced to work in a sweatshop, and lasting images, like his grandmother chasing down an ice cream truck that would not stop for Asians.

For years, their status as a “model minority” has meant that Asian Americans are often overlooked in discussions of race and racism. Now, Han wrote in his essay, Asian Americans have become newly visible to the public “for all the wrong reasons.”

According to Han, one of the possible explanations for why Asian Americans are being attacked in large numbers is that they are expected to be passive in the face of discrimination and violence. He said he decided to speak out in order to work against this stereotype.

“Korean culture is very quiet; we don’t question, we don’t protest, especially Korean Americans,” Han said. “I felt it was something I needed to break myself out of the cycle, I needed to change my habits and share my experience in a way that hopefully gives people a different perspective about the Asian American experience.”

Narratives like the one Han shared in his essay often hold greater sway over public opinion than statistics on rising anti-Asian violence. But narratives can work the other way as well.

In the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta massacre, there were competing ideas in the news media concerning how the mass shooting ought to be classified. Was it racially motivated and therefore classifiable as a hate crime? Was the killer simply, by his own account, an evangelical sex addict attempting to get rid of all temptation?

Many Asian Americans have expressed anger that the words of the murderer, who claimed no racist motivation, have seemingly been privileged over the facts of the case. Though the attack targeted Asian Americans and came at the end of a year filled with anti-Asian hate crimes in urban centers, many law enforcement officers and media figures have trusted the shooter when he said he was motivated by the shame of a sex addiction. (It is important to note that massage parlors do have a history of serving as covers for sexual trafficking.)

Bret Stephens, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, even wrote an article in which he accused the media of “morality plays” for fitting the shooting into a narrative of anti-Asian violence.

Han and other Asian Americans in the UT community, however, are quick to point out what they see as the hypocrisy of taking the murderer at his word.

“If it were reversed, if it were an Asian man gunning down a white barbershop, what would they say?” Han said. “If it had been flipped, if it was an Asian shooter shooting white people they would have said, ‘ha, I told you. They’re crafty. They’re out to get our jobs. They’re sneaky. This was Plan B of their mastermind world domination strategy to first give us COVID, weaken us and then kill us all by guns.’”

No matter what narratives are being pieced together concerning the Atlanta shooter’s motivations or conspiracy theories of Asian strategies for world domination, the fear and anger that Asian Americans are feeling in the wake of the past year is palpable.

According to Rachel Rui, director of the Office of Asia Engagement and communications director for the Center for Global Engagement, the anxiety over anti-Asian violence has become a daily reality for many.

“The fear is real,” Rui said. “When I interacted with my friends, a lot of them were asking me this, ‘are there any help groups or defense groups locally that we should be organizing or are already being organized to defend the Asian community if there comes a threat?’”

Rui is active not only in UT’s strategic partnerships with Asian countries but also with the Asian American community at home in Knoxville. She said that she has seen the AAPI community band together for the first time over the past year to speak out against anti-Asian racism.

In her experience, the distinctions between ethnic groups within the AAPI community, as well as distinctions between first generation immigrants and those born in the U.S., tend to fade away in the face of attacks like the one in Atlanta.

“What’s so scary about that is it could really happen to any one of us,” Rui said. “It doesn’t even matter if you’ve grown up here, if you’re a first generation, second generation, tenth generation immigrant … it doesn't matter how many generations ago. You are still portrayed as a perpetual foreigner because of how you look.”

Part of being a perpetual foreigner, Rui said, is exposure to the daily indignities of being a racial minority, indignities that can have a cumulative effect on self-identity and self-perception. One such microaggression that she has become accustomed to is a timeless classic of racial othering.

“I’ve lived in Knoxville for 15 years. I consider Knoxville my home, and when I’m traveling in the U.S., I will tell people that I’m from Knoxville. They just don’t buy it,” Rui said. “One look at me, they’re like, ‘no, where are you really from?’”

The stereotyping that Asian Americans experience is complex because most of the racial epithets used against them are ostensibly positive. Asian Americans are often expected to be the top academic performers, but students who fall short of expectations report experiencing acute identity crises.

Historically, immigrants from nations like China and Japan were generally thought of as the best at assimilation, since they often learned English faster than other immigrant communities and were industrious in their work. All of these stereotypes have contributed to the “model minority” status, which Rui believes has not only made Asian Americans an invisible racial minority in the past, but has made them more vulnerable to attack in the present.

“When you’ve started to be worried about if you are going to come home alive after grocery shopping, after walking on the street showing your face, that’s a serious problem,” Rui said. “Whether the society is a safe place for all the Asian Americans to live becomes a concern. I think that’s a huge issue that we need to face.”

In the weeks since the Atlanta massacre, Rui said that many students she has spoken with have wondered what it would be like if it were their mother or grandmother who had been killed. They have shared with her some of the racialized names they have been called throughout their lives, which she will not repeat.

It is undoubtedly students like these who have taken up the mantle of fighting against the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. These are members of Gen Z, the social media activists who rallied online after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer and who poured into the streets by the thousands in protest.

These students were born into and raised within the global neighborhood of the internet, and they do not always play by the same rules as older generations when it comes to calling out social injustices.

Cat Trieu, senior studying neuroscience and president of Remote Area Medical Chapter of UT, said that Gen Z Asian Americans like her should not be expected to play by the same rulebook that their grandparents or great-grandparents used.

“Like in many cultures, the Asian-American culture, what we’re taught by our immigrant parents is just ignore it, if you work hard enough, you can overcome anything,” Trieu said. “But that’s not the case anymore. The ‘model minority’ image is actually hurting us, because people are thinking that we won’t fight back, people are thinking we’re gonna stay quiet.”

For Trieu, who also serves as co-director of TEDxUTK, part of growing up with the internet and social media was constantly seeing Asian characters stereotyped in movies and TV shows, if they were included at all. It also meant that she first learned of the Atlanta shooting from Asian American activist and social media personality Amanda Nguyen rather than from the news media.

Trieu said she has turned to news outlets like NextShark which specifically cover Asian American stories, since she often cannot find them in mainstream news outlets. This sense of being left out of the national conversation is nothing new for Trieu and Asian American students like her.

“Asian Americans are actively left out, and I’ve never known why. It’s just always what I’ve known,” Trieu said. “For a majority of my life I just thought, oh, we don’t really matter so I guess that’s that. No one cares about what Asian Americans have to say.”

This is why, after years of being told “I would date you, but, you know, you’re Asian” or “you’re attractive for an Asian,” a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” was so monumental for Trieu and other Asian Americans. The film did not feature Asian characters in supporting roles where their central purpose was to provide the dowdy brains of the operation. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Asian characters were beautiful business moguls who experienced breathtaking romance, just like white characters have done since the dawn of film.

“We were portrayed as these glamorous people who were able to be fashionable, who were able to have a love life,” Trieu said. “That was such a big deal for us.”

There is a darker side to the lack of female Asian characters who are wealthy and beautiful and who fall in love by the end of the film. While Asian women have rarely been romanticized for their own benefit, Trieu said they have been sexualized mostly for the benefit of white men since she can remember.

On social media, Asian Americans swiftly called out the notion that the Atlanta shooter was acting either out of sexism or out of racism. Experts and journalists said that for Asian women, the two have always been intertwined. One viral tweet from researcher Minh-Ha T. Pham put the question over the Atlanta shooter’s motivation in stark terms.

“He didn't have a ‘sexual addiction’” Pham said in the tweet. “[H]e had racist sexualized fantasies about dominating Asian women. In other words, he had fantasies of white supremacy and acted on them. Name it.”

Trieu said that sexual fantasies about Asian women have been reinforced with the spread of Japanese anime culture, where female characters are often presented as demure, servile and submissive.

“It’s making me a little nauseous talking about it even,” Trieu said. “We’ve been objectified for so long like all women, but in terms of Asian American females, it’s such a fetish. … Yes, I am an Asian woman, but I am a woman. I don’t see what me being Asian has to do with your attraction to me, and if so, that’s gross, that’s objectifying.”

The sexualization of Asian women is not new in American history. In fact, the Page Act of 1875 ended open borders in the U.S. by stating that female immigrants from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” must be turned back if they were being brought “for the purposes of prostitution.” Scholars say that the law effectively assumed that Asian women were prostitutes and denied them entry on these grounds.

Now, almost 150 years later, Trieu and other Asian American women are still dealing with the hypersexualization of Asian women, which has intensified in the digital age. With the advent of K-Pop culture as well as anime culture, there are perhaps more Americans in Gen Z who are consuming Asian media than ever before. Trieu said this consumption is often mindless to the social issues that Asians face.

“I hear plenty of girls and guys talk about listening to K-Pop, but no one’s talking about South Korea’s Me Too movement, how the K-Pop industry is actually a little toxic in some ways and how it’s treating women that way, but no one talks about it,” Trieu said. “They just want to utilize Asian services for their benefit.”

Fetishization and ignorance of Asian culture is not the most common form of discrimination Trieu has experienced in her life. Growing up in multiracial Memphis, she said that racism against Asians often went undetected because it was told through the language of jokes.

“Forever we’ve been called ‘c***ks’ and forever people have said ‘c **** g c *** * g’ to us. I was told in high school to go back to North Korea and everyone around me laughed because to them, it’s funny when it’s Asian Americans,” Trieu said.

The meteoric rise of activism on behalf of the AAPI community by members of Gen Z who have experienced these forms of othering their entire lives is perhaps only the latest example of a racial minority reaching a breaking point.

Jason Pan, senior studying chemical engineering and public health and president of UT’s Pre-Health Honor Society, said that the Black Lives Matter protests last summer were encouraging to many Asian Americans who were beginning to be alarmed at seeing Asians mistreated during the pandemic.

“I’ve not seen a movement like [Black Lives Matter] in a long time, and especially one with so much support and so much news coverage around it,” Pan said. “All eyes were on them during that time and I think that’s something that’s really encouraging in some ways as people like us, people of color, are now having their voices heard and that they have a voice.”

For many young Asian Americans, mass social movements like BLM provide a kind of blueprint for a very different future. Though they have learned from years of experience and, in some cases, have been taught to be passive in the face of anti-Asian racism, students like Pan are ready to throw out that playbook after living through a year of violence.

“We understand that what our parents taught us, yeah, that might have been the case for them, where they’ve gotta keep their head down so that they can have that better life, especially for us,” Pan said. “That’s no longer the case, and really it’s time for us to speak out.”

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