Asians in America: Scapegoat, savior, and sinner
“Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” Captain Jay Baker, Cherokee County Sheriff
In the last 20 years, I have left my country of birth twice for the U.S. The first time was for college and the second time was for marriage. Last week, my worth and contribution to this nation I chose to call home was summed up so cruelly and callously in fourteen words. To add insult to injury, they came from someone entrusted to uphold the law for the greater good.
While it is not a representation of the masses, the message still cuts so deep: I deserve to die because someone else is having a bad day.
Baker wasn’t alone in his interpretation.
In prefacing its “A murderous rampage in Georgia” podcast episode, The Daily had a line that goes, “Many see this as a further burst of racist violence, even as the shooter has offered a more complicated motive”, that being a sex fiend who saw massage parlors as temptations to his addiction. So not only do I deserve to die, it is actually my fault for embodying a hypersexualized stereotype, which therefore supersedes the risk and complexity of racial bias.
A different kind of read-between-the-lines commentary was also permeating in the media. News outlets repeated “Asian massage parlors” over and over again, as if the reaction would be different with raceless businesses. In releasing the names of the remaining four victims, an NBC writer chose to explain why “Many Korean names have two-syllable first names that are often separated into two words when anglicized”, as if the wedge of division currently breaking up the country isn’t doing well enough.
Unsolicited labels, demeaning stereotypes
“The Chinaman seemingly must work. They lack inventiveness and initiative but have an enormous capacity for imitation.” Henry K. Norton, The Story of California From the Earliest Days to the Present, 1913
If the anti-Asian sentiment is new to some, it shouldn’t be. It is a menace with a long and dark history in the U.S., with Asians as the state- and federal-sanctioned scapegoats. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Chinese were often politicized and villainized as the root cause for white workers failing to make a living and unionized to demand better working conditions.
It wasn’t just in California (Chinese Massacre of 1871, San Francisco Riot 1871) either. The sentiment festered in Oregon (Hells Canyon Massacre), Washington (Tacoma and Seattle riots), and Wyoming (Rock Springs Massacre), leaving a trail of mutilated, shot, beaten, and hanged victims who were ambushed and never stood a chance. While perpetrators were arrested and tried, most were found not guilty, or convicted but with the convictions overturned later.
It was also during this time that the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Chester Arthur. It prohibited all immigration of Chinese and remains to this day the only law implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the U.S.
But it wasn’t just the Chinese. This type of legislative harassment would continue under the guises of nationalism and patriotism, with President Franklin Roosevelt signing the Executive Order 9066 in 1942. This resulted in the forced relocation and incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Internees were left with irreparable emotional and material loss long after the internment was over.
Model minority: The ultimate tokenism
“…This is a minority that has risen above even prejudiced criticism. By any criterion of good citizenship that we choose, the Japanese American are better than any other group in our society, even native-born whites.” William Peterson, Success Story, Japanese-American Style, New York Times, January edition 1966
Suddenly, the public image for Asians underwent a makeover, starting with a glowing review of the Japanese. Almost a year later, this was followed by an uncannily similar article about the Chinese in the December edition of the U.S. News & World Report. The author wrote, “One such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work”.
And just like that, the “model minority was born”. At the surface, things seemed to be finally looking up for immigrants and first-generation Americans. But as Ellen Wu would unpack in “The Color of Success”, a much sinister plan belied the change in perception.
Wu describes in her book how the civil right movement in the 60s was creating concern among politicians. A hundred years late in fulfilling all that was promised to African Americans in the Fourteenth Amendment, a reckoning seemed inevitable. What better way to shift the blame back onto the protesting minority than using another minority’s success?
So once again, Asians were used as political pawns. But Wu is honest with the insights from her research. When speaking to The Washington Post in 2016, she said that it is critical to understand how the model minority myth as we understand it today was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asian Americans to be accepted and recognized. In other words, Asians were complicit, but only in wanting to fit in and never wanted it to be at another minority’s expense.
Will you get to know me first?
The victims of the Atlanta shooting feel so close to me. They were hardworking citizens who contributed culturally, economically, and socially to their communities. They learned the language and ways of life in this new place they chose to call home. They were in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones, yet they were hunted down and murdered senselessly. My heart breaks at the helplessness and guilt that will haunt their family and friends forever.
Misogyny makes women frequent targets of violence. For Asian immigrant women, this is often exacerbated by a fetishized image, exploited by sex traffickers, and exposed by vulnerable industries. The shooter drove more than 30 miles between three locations, with six of his eight victims of the same race. He was believed to be heading to Florida with the intention of carrying out more shootings at similar businesses. The fact that investigators are still refusing to recognize how the shootings constitute a hate crime twists the knife in the still-bleeding wound that Captain Baker has cut open.
I feel more invisible and insignificant than ever.