Anti-Asian racism is real. We must stand against it.
(This article originally appeared in Lancaster Online.)
Two years ago, I rented a room in an apartment owned by a middle-aged white man who lived there himself. Five days after I moved in, I decided that the apartment was not a good fit. Fortunately, the rental agreement was month-to-month. I told my landlord about my decision to move out the following month. He agreed.
Two days later, I returned home to find one of my sandals (which I wore at home) slashed open by a knife. Then I found a new Post-it note near the bathroom door. On the left side of the paper, there was a drawing of my landlord wearing a scarf, smiling. A sentence was written in all caps on the right side: “MY SCARF COSTS MORE THAN YOUR LIFE!”
I was terrified. I wasn’t sure why my landlord did this, but I didn’t need to know his intent to be afraid. The slashed sandal and the words on the note were enough. I had encountered racist acts toward me before. I had been following news about violent acts against Asians in America for years. I didn’t find it hard to believe that someone in America could regard my life as cheaper and more disposable than his scarf.
Anti-Asian racism has existed in the United States for a long time. The COVID-19 pandemic brought it into the spotlight. In the past year, I have seen an endless stream of news reports about people of Asian descent being shunned, spit and coughed at, verbally harassed, punched, shoved, kicked, slashed, stabbed and killed. Asian-owned businesses have been vandalized. People of Asian descent have been refused services, barred from transportation and discriminated against in the workplace. Asian American health care workers, who risked their lives fighting the pandemic on the front lines, have been told to “go back to China.”
Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders, reported nearly 3,800 incidents between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. The AAPI report also stated that the actual number of hate crimes was likely much higher, as many hate crimes went unreported.
Yet, despite all the evidence, many Americans, including many in positions of power, still refuse to acknowledge that anti-Asian racism is real.
I watched in horror the news coverage of the Atlanta-area spa shootings on March 16. The alleged shooter, a 21-year-old white man, specifically targeted Asian-owned spas. He murdered eight people, including six Asian women. Authorities investigating the killings, however, insisted that the motivation behind the killings was unclear. They were quick to cite the alleged killer’s self-professed “sex addiction” as an alternative explanation. Much of the ensuing public debates focused on whether the killer’s actions constituted hate crimes.
I was outraged. The killer apparently regarded the Asian women who worked at the spas as temptations to be eliminated. He thought the lives of these Asian women were so inconsequential that he could erase them to cure his supposed sexual obsession. If this is not racist, if this is not sexist, if this is not hateful, what is?
The Atlanta-area spa shootings were not isolated, random events. They occurred in the context of numerous recent attacks on Asians by non-Asians. Why are so many people so fixated on arguing that the Atlanta-area shootings were not a racially motivated hate crime? I think the main reason is that they don’t want to accept that anti-Asian racism is systemic and deeply rooted in this country. They refuse to see how pervasive anti-Asian racism is and how devastating it has been for the Asian and Asian American communities before and since the pandemic.
A few days ago, I watched in horror the video of a brutal attack on a 65-year-old Asian woman of Filipino descent in Manhattan. The assailant kicked the elderly woman to the ground and continued stomping on her while shouting anti-Asian statements. The assailant then walked away. Three men in a nearby building stood, watched and did nothing. A security guard then closed the door to the building and watched the struggling woman through the glass door.
It is heartbreaking to see the most vulnerable members of our Asian communities being the targets of these brutal assaults. It was infuriating to see the security guard closing the door on the woman as if the violence she just experienced had not occurred at all.
We need to do something about anti-Asian racism — every one of us. We can’t just watch these horrific acts of violence in news reports and then go back to our everyday routines, business as usual. Doing nothing is complicity; it means that we don’t care.
There are many things that we can do even if we are not activists. Donate to organizations that support Asian American communities. Enroll in bystander intervention training to know what to do when we see harassment of Asian people. Learn about the histories and lived experiences of Asian Americans. When an Asian friend or family member shares experiences of racism, listen with compassion. Let them know that they are not alone, and we are with them.
Anti-Asian racism is real. Let us acknowledge it and do something about it together.
Yafeng Wang is a philosopher and a postdoctoral scholar at Penn State University. He does research on engineering ethics and helps engineering faculties incorporate ethics into the university curriculum.