To Combat Anti-Asian Racism, We Must Acknowledge Its Normalization

The reality and risks associated with being an Asian American woman have now been thrust into the spotlight.

To Combat Anti-Asian Racism, We Need to Acknowledge Its Normalization
Rally to stop Asian hate in McPherson Square in D.C., March 21, 2021. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Last weekend, I found an empty spot in the park and deployed my pepper spray for the first time since my father gave it to me three years ago. I tested how it felt in my hand, because for the first time, I thought that I might need to use it soon.

By now, the Atlanta shooting that claimed eight lives—including those of six Asian women—has made its way to the forefront of national news. On social media and elsewhere, the general reaction has been shocked indignation amidst the absurd debate about whether the killer was motivated by race. My own reaction was weariness. I am not surprised that the acute anti-Asian sentiment festering during the pandemic and the historical objectification and “othering” of Asians, particularly women, in the U.S. has culminated in real-life ramifications.

Violence of this nature was already clear to me last summer, when on one subway ride to Chinatown, I faced two separate and random instances of verbal assault and threats of bodily harm. The slurs and the spitting in my direction happened in the early afternoon with a dozen passersby in our immediate vicinity. I was taken aback by their brazenness, but then it dawned on me that those around me were just staring at us or walking by as if they couldn’t hear that I was being called a “Chinese bitch.” My aggressors weren’t brazen; rather, they felt assured that they could express this verbal violence to a small, young Asian woman without repercussion.

During the pandemic, footage of physical violence against Asian Americans, from young people my age to elderly grandmothers in Brooklyn, surfaced every few days. The rallies to “#StopAsianHate” started in the summer and fall but didn’t do much to staunch the flow of reported hate crimes. Articles and news reports of these incidents stayed under the radar, found primarily on small Asian American-centric news sites and blogs.

To Combat Anti-Asian Racism, We Need to Acknowledge Its Normalization
“Despite protests and demonstrations, at least five anti-Asian hate crimes occurred in New York City alone last weekend,” writes Zhang, “and I am bracing myself to hear of more every day.” Pictured: a vigil against Asian hate in Union Square, New York City, on March 19, 2021. (Andrew Ratto / Flickr)

The Asian American community tried not to be daunted and sounded the alarm repeatedly toward this troubling trend, but others around me were totally unaware. When I broached the subject of anti-Asian violence with a faculty member at my medical school, hoping that an administrative message condemning these attacks and supporting Asian American students would be forthcoming, my well-meaning professor responded with genuine surprise, since she didn’t know about these incidents at all. That night, another student and I compiled a long but non-exhaustive list of links to the latest hate crimes and sent her the proof of our anxiety.

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While months of random attacks in the country’s major cities elicited tepid attention, something changed with the carnage at the massage spas in Atlanta. Suddenly, I saw “We stand with the Asian-American community” signs at local coffeeshops and scrolled through social media posts by Starbucks and Sephora decrying the shooting. My own university hospital sent a mass email announcing that the campus would hold a moment of silence in response to the shooting. This event pushed public opinion over the edge in a new way. The reality and risks associated with being an Asian American woman have now been thrust into the spotlight.

Yet, despite protests and demonstrations, at least five anti-Asian hate crimes occurred in New York City alone last weekend, and I am bracing myself to hear of more every day. While voicing support for Asian Americans may be in vogue right now, the root of this violence is deeply entrenched and socially accepted.

A segment of Jimmy Kimmel Live, in which children joked that the U.S. should “kill everyone in China,” aired when I was in high school. Having taken the standard set of courses in history and politics, I was appalled, in part because I couldn’t imagine rhetoric like that about any group of people being acceptable on television.

Years later, Steve Harvey made Asian men the butt of one of his jokes, playing on a tired trope that the attractiveness and acceptance of Asian men is absurd. Yet neither celebrity faced notable consequences because of an insidious, widespread failure to recognize Asian people as people and an understanding that we have historically lacked the ability to fight back.

That is the same underlying rationale used by strangers in New York hurling unprovoked slurs at me, and with a far more tragic outcome, it also underpins the actions of the Atlanta shooter. Perhaps recognizing this, Jay Leno recently apologized for the jokes he made at the expense of Korean and Chinese people, saying, “In my heart, I knew it was wrong.”

In the hearts of the Atlanta shooter, the perpetrators of the hate crimes in New York City on a near-daily basis, and those who hurled slurs at me in the subway, they might also know their actions are wrong. Perhaps the protests and the digital outpouring of support of the Asian American community over the past week signify that these pathological attitudes toward Asian people, Asian women in particular, are starting to be weeded out. Perhaps one major tragedy, one mass casualty shooting, will be enough.

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Jingwen Zhang is a second-year medical student at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is a former leader of the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association (APAMSA) chapter at Columbia. She holds a BA from Amherst College.