How Systemic Racism Dictates the Lives of Asians and Asian Americans
By Samantha Wawondatu
When reports of anti-Asian sentiment began to spike last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was deeply upset by the actions of those who were determined to profile all Asians as “carriers” of the coronavirus. One of the first articles I read on this phenomenon shared the story of an Asian American woman who was racially profiled on a train in Philadelphia.  This story alone was enough to fuel my anger, but it wasn’t until I heard about the massage parlor shooting in Atlanta, Georgia that I began to feel a sense of dread not only for my community, but for myself as well.
In response to the incident, my initial reaction was rage—this tragedy was one that directly affected the people of my community. My anger only added when I heard later that the perpetrator’s actions were being written off as him having a “bad day”.  Now that the dust has settled, an overwhelming sense of fear for my safety has replaced my outrage. As an Asian American, I have had my fair share of microaggressions and insensitive comments said to my face. I’ve also received the dreaded remarks, “You speak English so well!” and “Where are you really from?” numerous times even though I was born and raised in this country.
However, in the few weeks since back-to-back cases of anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported across the nation, I’ve since developed an “eyes in the back of my head” mentality where some days I wonder if it’s even necessary to go outside.  When I relayed this information to my mother a few weeks ago, she implied that I had the advantage of being ethnically ambiguous and that I shouldn’t worry too much.
However, if there is one thing I’ve learned from the past year, it’s that racism against minority groups is not one size fits all. The unfortunate reality for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is that the system that was put in place to oppress us has only been abolished in theory. In the place of internment camps and massacres, we were put into boxes by the media who labeled us with myths like the model minority and other harmful stereotypes disguised to degrade our culture and our heritage. [4, 5]
When it comes to the Asian American narrative, this systemic oppression takes on a unique form. I didn’t realize it growing up, but I now feel like I was raised in a society that taught me to be ashamed of the things that make Asian culture unique. Being Indonesian-American, I didn’t bother to learn the language until I was much older. I was ashamed of asking others to correctly pronounce my last name. Often, I felt like I was too American to be Indonesian just because I couldn’t appreciate the cultural traditions that came with my heritage. And though these things may not encompass all Asian American experiences, it is often the birthright that is passed down to us.
So, what now? What do we do in times of racial injustice such as this? If the campaign for #StopAsianHate has taught us anything, it has shown us what the effects of racism look like after erupting from underneath the surface of everyday life. During the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, I heard whispers from people in my community who said that Asians and Asian Americans shouldn’t get involved—why side with the oppressed when we already have enough hate towards us to bring to the table? Hearing these comments only saddened me as I realized that the system put in place has pitted people of color against each other, creating further division where unity should stand in its place.
I think that fear is the primary gut reaction to crises such as this. However, turning a blind eye to injustice is not the solution to uprooting this system of oppression. At the same time, reposting a picture on your Instagram story doesn’t make us allies until we recognize that inherent biases exist. The best thing to do in times like this is to educate ourselves on the struggles that people of color go through daily. With this in mind, our fear for the worst should inspire us to reach out not only to people of the AAPI community, but also to become advocates against all acts of racial injustice and inequality.
- Bosman, J., Stockman, F., & Fuller, T. (2020, February 16). ‘Are you sick?’ For Asian-Americans, a sneeze brings suspicion. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/16/us/coronavirus-american-mood.html.
- Meryl Kornfield, H. (2021, March 22). Captain who said spa shootings suspect had ‘bad day’ no longer a spokesman on case, official says. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://wapo.st/3ulzYKi.
- Yam, K. (2021, March 16). There were 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents, mostly against women, in past year. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://nbcnews.to/3rYdaid.
- The history of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. (2021, March 18). Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://n.pr/3cOOrbJ.
- Guo, J. (2019, April 29). The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://wapo.st/3cPaSgJ.