By Joanna Chin | Staff Writer
“The Asian American narrative cannot be flattened into something two-dimensional; it is so much more complex, diverse, and nuanced.”Eva (42, Chinese-American)
As humans we lean on broad categories to make sense of our environment, synthesizing the information we receive about people to fit into frameworks that are easily digestible. But these frameworks and labels fail us when wrestling with the reality of racial injustice. Categories like “Asian” aim to summarize the experiences of particular ethnic and racial communities, but in the process they compress their innate complexity into a label consumable by the mainstream.
Because of this, when incidents of racial violence and discrimination occur, the stories presented to our newsfeeds often point to general characteristics of a people group rather than the specific, diverse, and even contradictory details that might provoke tension or discomfort.
In a world where there has been a 150% increase of reported hate crimes against AAPI (Asian American, Pacific Islander) people in major U.S. cities and significant spikes in xenophobia and attacks globally against persons who identify as Asian, there is an even greater need to extend an ear and sit with these lived experiences.
Introducing ‘The Preferably Unheard’ Series
As a mixed Black woman whose last name carries the weight of a land I’ve never been to and a vague sketch of a history where my great-grandfather immigrated from China to Jamaica decades ago, this topic provokes its own internal tensions, and there are certain experiences of AAPI communities that I cannot claim.
Thus, I turned to others I know who locate themselves within the broad label “Asian” and invited them to share their thoughts through a three-part series called “The Preferably Unheard.”
While the voices of these six individuals represent a small cultural and generational slice of larger communities, their voices deserve to take up space, and that is what this series aims to do: simply make space.
Part two will address allyship and action, and part three will be published mid-May to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month.
Addressing the Silence
For part one of our series, I invited my interviewees to reflect on the historical silences around anti-Asian racism:
Irene (25, Filipino-American):
I feel that the number one reason behind this [silence] is the model minority myth, which is the belief that all Asian Americans are successful, particularly when compared to other minoritized communities. And as a result of this perceived success, I think others may believe that the AAPI community can’t possibly be impacted by racist encounters or other concerns — which is certainly not the case!
Eva (42, Chinese-American):
For Asian Americans, I think we experience a selective emphasis on which side of the hyphen we are being seen more as, without our input or our choice. When it is convenient… (when we appear to have achieved the American Dream and reached some level of financial stability and even wealth, when we are contributing to society in some positive way, when we keep our head down and just work hard) then perhaps we are viewed as Americans.
But when there is a need for a scapegoat (when you need to put a face to the enemy during a war, when you need to blame a global pandemic), then very quickly the “American” is dropped off regardless of how many generations we may be in this country, and we become Asian — and not just Asian but very foreign “go-back-to-your-country” Asian.
James (27, Chinese-American & Taiwanese-American):
I think a significant factor [in the silence on anti-Asian racism] is that AAPI identity falls outside the typical binary ways that race is often seen in our country (i.e. Black/white). It’s simpler to speak up or be acknowledged when you know which “side” you are on.
Asians, especially those like myself who didn’t grow up in a Chinatown neighborhood, will often try to align with the dominant culture (white on a national level, white or Black on a more local level) due to the common assimilation process that immigrants go through. However, Asians often reject and are rejected from those groups as well.
Li* (25, Chinese/Indonesian):
I think there’s a lot of grief, there’s a lot of fear, there’s anger. There’s a lot of oppression we leave behind that I honestly don’t know about. There’s things with my family like… going to Indonesia, being hunted down as Chinese people… and then in my current history, being in a Christian household, there was so much spiritual bypassing of these issues.
I was told, “Just leave it up to God and don’t put it in your own hands.” And so the messages that I’ve gotten have been to stay quiet. Like, if you are faithful and you are obedient, then eventually things will turn out for you, or God will see your righteousness and you will be rewarded in the end.
*name changed per interviewee’s request
Sharon (32, South Korean):
Unfortunately, many AAPI people have not had access to the education or space to learn about and process the very specific Asian immigrant experience and how that manifests in our society…
We might vaguely remember learning about American policies that discriminated against AAPI people, like the Japanese concentration camps during World War II. However, few of us realized how the aftermath of those camps and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement led to the “Model Minority Myth,” which sought to pit AAPI and Black communities against each other. Given the lack of understanding, we strived [sic] to be that model minority and assimilate enough to attain the American dream.
Because we never learned our AAPI history, whether within our own families or throughout society at large, we never developed the language or the tools to speak about and process the racism that we ourselves experienced growing up. Not knowing how to best articulate why a racially-charged incident occurred or if it even mattered, we then stayed silent.
While we might have swapped stories in the safety of our AAPI friend circles, it was difficult to share with others not from our culture. Especially because the United States has yet to fully reckon with its racially-charged history, we often felt it was not our place to complain or bring up those moments that left internal wounds because they didn’t seem as bad as what other communities of color faced. So we stayed silent.
That silence has perpetuated the idea that our suffering is not real, which both we and the rest of our society have internalized. Instead, we became the butt of jokes, and because we do not defend ourselves and sometimes even laugh along as a kind of self-defense, those jokes became allowable.
Bobby (34, Chinese-American):
I think this [silence] is the case because the racism we face is literally just being unacknowledged or viewed with indifference. We are known to be hard working but have only just begun to see AAPI persons reach places of influence or public acknowledgement. On top of that, we’ve traditionally been taught to not complain and do our jobs. We don’t advocate for ourselves, and if we struggle with approval, it’s compounded by just waiting and hoping the other side will acknowledge us or see our pain and struggle.
The Charge of “the Voiceless”
One of my favorite quotes by writer and activist Arundhati Roy challenges the idea of “the voiceless” by reminding us that the silences around us exist not because people do not have stories to share, but rather because we are not listening. We prefer not to listen because their stories shed light on painful and complicated realities we’d rather not deal with. But we have the choice today and everyday to listen to their voices and respond.
As Sharon declares, “We are finding our voice, many for the first time, bolstered solely by the raw emotions that had been brewing within us and are now fueling the courage to let our experiences be known.”
“And now,” she continues, “the rest of the world doesn’t quite know what to do with us. In many ways, we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves. All we can do for now is share our stories and hope that people will listen and believe us.”