Going to Chinatown became self-care trips for me during the global pandemic. These little grocery store outings, where I comforted myself with bubble tea, food and skincare hauls, were a break from doom scrolling; they gave me a sense of community and nostalgia. Instead of being reminded that I would always be seen as an outsider — even though I was born and raised in NYC — these grocery runs to Flushing reminded me to be proud of being Asian and to look forward to the future.
It was on one of these trips, where I needed a break from online racism and everyday stories of Asians being attacked and harassed, that my aunt suddenly texted me to stay away from Black people. She then proceeded to spam my phone with videos featuring anti-Asian violence with anti-Black messages. Every day throughout the pandemic, I saw stories on social media of Asian women and senior citizens being attacked and killed. I was already in a state of grief, and she drove the knife deeper by villainizing Black people. Growing up, I needed my family to talk about racism and how to cope with it, and to remind me that times change for the better. Yet my aunt and a handful of family members were only concerned about distancing themselves from Black people.
In the end, it was an older, taller white man who went out of his way to single me out on the street. He glared at me and quickly tried to swing his phone towards my face, but I stepped back in time to avoid the slap. As bystanders did nothing, I cursed him out and retreated around the corner, clutching my pepper spray just in case he followed. He may not have said any slurs, but I know that the combination of my gender and race didn’t help my cause in his eyes.
Although perpetrators of color quickly go viral, white men actually make up the majority of perpetrators in anti-Asian harassment according to a 2020 study by the Virulent Hate Project.
Melissa Borja, who has a doctorate in history and is the founder of The Virulent Project, explains, “The first thing that is surprising is how rarely the media identifies the race of the offender or perpetrator of these attacks. When they did, most of the people they identified were identified as being white, [but right now, social media] focuses on Black violence against Asian Americans, [on] Black hostility. But basically from what was reported in the news, I didn’t see strong support that Black people are driving anti-Asian racism in 2020.”
While there have been calls for police and guns to protect Asian folks, and a long-overdue response to the violence and murders from the government, it hasn’t changed much. President Biden’s signing of anti-Asian hate crime bills hasn’t stopped the surge of violence — because these bills actually fund policing, even though we have evidence that community-based solutions are more effective. This increase in policing does not consider the structural racism that contextualizes these crimes. They don’t address the gaps in the educational system, particularly one that refuses to acknowledge the unpaid and exploitative labor completed by enslaved Black people and immigrants of color who built this nation. They don’t address the lack of healthcare and systems to appropriately respond to mental health crises, and they don’t address housing insecurity. This is why over 85 Asian American and LGBTQ+ groups opposed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.
Nevertheless, the media continues to peddle narratives that villainize Black and Brown folks, driving wedges between marginalized communities because they know that a united people can break cycles of violence and abuse. That’s why while Black and Brown communities are scapegoated as criminals, and in the same breath, Asians are lauded as a submissive model minority. These stereotypes keep people of color divided under the foot of white supremacy.
“If you look at the data from Stop AAPI Hate, as well as what we found in our research using news media, […] the vast majority of anti-Asian hate incidents were not violent hate crimes. A small share of them were physical attacks, [but] the vast majority of them were verbal harassment incidents and nonverbal incidents, like being avoided or shunned at a business. And, of course, there was stigmatizing rhetoric by politicians,” says Borja. “For us to only focus on ‘hate crimes’ is to pay attention to only a small share of all the forms of anti-Asian racism that have taken place in the past year, and to only focus on anti-Asian hate crimes is to not focus on the underlying force that is causing, in my view, this poor treatment of Asian Americans.”
Just because the media propagates images of assailants with darker skin and downplays white attackers, does not mean that Black and Latinx folks should be treated like a monolith either. Asian American activism cannot call for greater policing at the expense of people of color or threaten to retaliate in violence. We need to examine the roots of white supremacy and the inequitable landscape it bred through institutional racism and capitalist culture. By delving into our shared histories, we can find intersectional solutions for a collective liberation.
The long history of solidarity between our communities has been erased in our education system and forgotten by many. American institutions of power do not want us to remember and celebrate these moments because they don’t want us to learn from our ancestors and build transformative justice on top of their progress. The cases of Mamie Tape and Linda Brown helped desegregate schools. Filipinx and Latinx agricultural workers fought side by side to unionize farm labor and fight against exploitation. Having experienced forced relocation and concentration camps themselves, Japanese American activists continue to protest ICE and fight for reparations for Black people. Vietnamese and Black communities in New Orleans worked together to recover and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Black people supported the Filipnx community in the Philippine-American War, and protested the Vietnam War and Korean War. The life work of Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs show the importance of intersectionality in activism and battling anti-Blackness. Even people in Asia took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd to protest against racism and colorism. Small business owners whose businesses were damaged during the protests still voice their support and stand in solidarity for Black lives because they believe in the community taking care of each other.
Viral videos featuring perpetrators with darker skin are shaping the public conversation on community safety, just like how images of Asian were used for COVID news. I needed one day to enjoy myself, and my aunt’s ignorance ruined it. In the darkest times, I needed love and care, not even more prejudice. We need long-term solutions for transformative justice, not face-value “quick fixes” like more policing, which only exists to further control and abuse marginalized folks. We need to focus on dismantling and rebuilding systems like education, healthcare, youth services, and community safety that works for everyone. It is the lack of these resources that leads to normalized racism and violence. That’s why we need to learn from grassroots organizing and local activist groups, like Asian American Feminist Collective, Warriors In The Garden, Yellow Jackets Collective and By Us For Us, who work to build trust and understanding across cultures and communities by stressing community accountability and solidarity.
“I think this is an important moment to be an Asian American and in particular to be Asian American activist,” says Borja. “It forces us to confront a variety of different issues about what racism means and what a meaningful response to it is, […] but also how we should respond to it as people who are working in solidarity with other marginalized communities.”
Photo credit: Jason Leung//Unsplash