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My Ethnicity is Not a Virus: Speaking Up to Stop Asian Hate

Updated: Sep 28, 2021


Staff Writer Reyna Iwamoto

The other day, I received a message from an old friend from home, whom I hadn’t spoken to in nearly two years: “Times are pretty scary right now and I hope you’re staying safe in New York,” she said. “If you ever need anything or anyone to reach out to, I am always here.”

My friend is, like me, Asian-American and attending college far from home. Distanced by time and the thousands of miles between us, I was taken aback by the message at first, but it seemed she had felt — accurately — that even distance could not diminish the collective trauma felt by Asians during this time.

Born and raised in Hawaii, a place known as the “melting pot of the Pacific,” both of us grew up as members of what felt like a majority, as Asians make up nearly 38% of the demographics of the islands.

However, since moving to New York two years ago, I have experienced the rude awakening of being part of the minority. Throughout my time here, I have found myself subject to racist comments — experiences that have become more pronounced in the political climate of the post-Trump era.

While racism toward Asian-Americans is nothing new, anti-Asian sentiment has seen a dramatic increase, especially following the introduction and popularization of slurs such as “Chinese virus” or “kung flu,” by former President Trump and his supporters.

Such discriminative rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 has seemingly exacerbated anti-Asian hate, as can be seen in the 149% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes throughout America’s largest cities in 2020.

Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, has been and continues to be a strong proponent of the Asian-American community. The senator took to Twitter to share her thoughts, writing, “Racism is never far below the surface in America, which is all too evident as the AAPI community has experienced escalating attacks and targeted violence during the pandemic.”

And while these reports of hate crimes represent only a fraction of what actually occurs, this uptick in anti-Asian racism culminated with the recent shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent.

When I saw the names and photos of the victims of the Atlanta shooting, a wave of grief and fear washed over me. It could have been my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, my sobo (祖母— grandmother).

My overwhelming hurt and fear then turned to anger because we are taught from a young age that freedom and equality symbolize America and the country’s core values. Yet, historical events have proven time and again that this is not reality.

Past the veil of the “American dream” is a society entrenched in systemic racism and oppression, a problem that, at its core, has come to be known as more American than anything else.

Raised by second- and third-generation Americans in a predominantly Asian community, I grew up in a westernized household, while also keeping in touch with my ethnicity and culture.

At times, my childhood was as American as it gets: celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks and eating turkey on Thanksgiving. While partaking in these American traditions, I also celebrated my Japanese heritage, dressing in a kimono (着物 — a traditional Japanese robe) for Hinamatsuri (雛祭り — Girls’ Day) and eating Osechi Ryori (御節料理 — traditional Japanese New Year foods) to ring in the new year.

My older sister and I (front) dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos for Hinamatsuri (Girl's Day).

Growing up as part of what felt like a majority, I had the privilege of feeling comfortable in my culture and celebrating my ethnicity unapologetically, as many of those who surrounded me, such as my classmates and friends, celebrated their respective Asian traditions as well.

Despite my sheltered childhood, my mother made certain to warn me about racist ideologies through sharing her experiences from college.

Attending the University of Michigan, my mother recalled an instance when a car drove past her as she was walking, the passengers screaming obscenities at her and calling her “jap,” a racial epithet, especially common during WWII.

Heeding my mother’s warnings as I traveled more than 4,000 miles to college, I felt not just the urge to suppress my individuality and assimilate, but I also anticipated being treated differently due to my race.

My experiences with racism thus far have been most often expressed as microaggressions: the everyday slights and remarks, intentional or unintentional, that people in marginalized communities experience in their day-to-day interactions with others.

A microaggression is when people ask me where I am from, and I reply “Hawaii,” they pry, “no, where are you from,” expecting to hear an Asian country. It is also when people are unable to distinguish between my roommate and I, two Japanese-Americans who look nothing alike. It is when white friends try to convince me that they know about my culture, explaining foods to me that I have grown up eating. It is when people ask me about another ethnic group’s food, such as Chinese, as if all Asian-Americans have one shared identity.

As my second year of college comes to an end, I am grateful to not have experienced discrimination to the extent my mother had, but the reality of the normalized and internalized racism I have come to experience has still had a detrimental effect on me.

Many of these encounters have occurred on several occasions, often in the guise of a joke and more times than not, involving friends. Regardless of the intent of these “jokes”, it is important to recognize the hurtful impact of such words and actions.

My childhood was uniquely Asian, but also uniquely American. Thus, it is more upsetting than anything, to define myself as Asian-American, and yet, be denied the legitimacy and acceptance of this identity.

My parents and I during my first trip to Japan in 2006.

It is a commonly taught concept within Asian households to “stay quiet,” “keep your head down” and not to “make waves.” Growing up with this ideal, I tend to avoid confrontation at all costs. However, beyond microaggressions, I feel this situation is worsening, where I now feel compelled to speak up.

The other night, I was buying take-out dinner with my roommate who, like me, is Japanese-American. While we both wanted to get food from different restaurants, we waited for my order to be ready before walking to get her dinner. Just as I was about to suggest that she get her food and we meet back on campus, I bit my tongue.

It was already dark out — what if either of us were attacked while walking alone? Who would help us then? Would anyone help at all? Having seen instances in the media where bystanders have allegedly done nothing as someone was harassed, I find myself afraid to be in public alone, fearful that should something happen, no one will help.

This responsibility to call out racism should not just fall on the shoulders of minorities alone, as it is also the duty of my peers, especially my white counterparts, to use their privilege to be actively anti-racist.

It is easy to feel helpless, not knowing where to start to help the anti-racism movement. While anti-racism is a lifelong project, one can begin their efforts by recognizing individual privileges, educating oneself, unlearning euro-centric ideals and listening to what marginalized communities have to say.

This sign was put up outside of McCarren Park in Brooklyn.

As reports of hate crimes and police violence continue to escalate today, many have felt compelled to compare the oppression of different races, particularly anti-Asian and anti-Black sentiment.

However, such comparison is a very dangerous path to tread on.

Increased division among already marginalized groups will only perpetuate the very ideals we are fighting against, hurting these communities and regressing the anti-racism movement as a whole.

The only way forward is solidarity across movements, because when our communities unify, we can effectively attack the root of all racism, that is, white supremacy.

Because only when Black lives matter, too, can we truly stop Asian hate.

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