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Asian Americans now see why we need to fight back against racism, not ignore it

NBC News logo NBC News 3/6/2021 Xiao Wang
a group of people walking down a street © Provided by NBC News

My son entered the world just days before the lockdowns and quarantines spurred by the coronavirus pandemic started to sweep across the United States; this week, he turns 1.

But as the virus spread, so too did violence against Asian Americans, spurred in part by then-President Donald Trump’s repeated use of the term “Chinese virus” and the even more offensive (and deeply scientifically inaccurate) "Kung flu."

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Advocacy groups estimate that anti-Asian violence surged, with nearly 3,000 incidents reported between March and December of 2020. For instance, last summer, an 89-year old Chinese immigrant grandmother in New York was slapped and set on fire; the victim chose to go unidentified out of fear and shame. In December, Filipino immigrant and U.S. Navy veteran Angelo Quinto was killed in his mother’s home by police who knelt on his neck for five minutes. The next month, Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee was slain while walking in his San Francisco neighborhood at 9:00 a.m.

In recent weeks, a series of viral videos showing racist attacks against elderly Asian Americans across the United States have stoked fears that violence against members of our community is once again on the rise. A 91-year-old Asian American man was pushed to the ground in Oakland, California, in early February; an Asian family's house in Southern California was repeatedly vandalized in February; an Asian man was beaten in an unprovoked attack on the New York City subway in March.

Although these recent news hits have shed light on violence against Asian Americans, anti-Asian American sentiment, particularly against Asian immigrants, goes back centuries.

The very first piece of major immigration legislation passed by the U.S. Congress was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred all people of Chinese descent from entering the country. But beyond those better known “yellow peril” days following the Gold Rush and those of World War II, when Japanese Americans were locked in internment camps, history is heavy with government-sanctioned racism against Asian immigrants: Asian children were segregated in "Oriental" schools in California in the 1880s; the 1892 Geary Act forced all Chinese living in America to obtain and carry government identification proving their legal status; laws passed in 13 states, starting in 1913, barred "aliens ineligible for citizenship" — which many Asians were — from owning and/or leasing land; and Chinese immigrants weren't eligible to naturalize until the 1943 Magnuson Act.

These overtly discriminatory policies of the past have morphed in recent years to prejudice by association accompanied by violence, including acts like the murder in 1982 of Vincent Chin by disgruntled autoworkers who blamed Japanese car imports for Detroit’s decline and the killings of turban-wearing Sikhs following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (even though Sikhs had nothing to do with the attacks).

The attacks on and even murders of Asian Americans blamed for spreading that so-called “Kung Flu” is simply the latest in a long line of both government-promulgated anti-Asian racism and violence against individual Asian Americans for world events that had little to do with them.

Asian Americans, though, have often collectively remained silent in the face of both, and that collective silence by both our ancestors and those of us living in the U.S. today — stemming from cultural roots in staying quiet and a willingness to ignore that which we felt we could not change — has enabled the implicit racism against Asians to go unchecked.

For my parents, and many other Asian immigrants like them, establishing a family and an identity in America trumped everything else. They dismissed being repeatedly overlooked for raises while waiting for a green card as an “inconvenience”; when their bosses passed them over for promotions, they chalked it up to their “lack of English ability,” despite excelling at all measurable metrics.

Later, for me, “fitting in” became an excuse for an accommodation of the same unacceptable patterns my parents faced. I laughed along when my peers made fun of the smelliness of my school lunches, at my squinty eyes in pictures, and at my smaller physical size. When teachers first struggled to pronounce my name and then gave up altogether, I let it pass. I had grown up in America, but when people complimented my English, I still thanked them.

I deeply cherish the values of diligence and perseverance my parents passed on to me. From an early age, I was taught to put my head down, work hard, and excel — getting good grades, high SAT scores, admittance into quality schools, impressive employment opportunities — and not worry about what others thought of me if that didn't affect my achievements. Unfortunately, by prioritizing outward success, Asian Americans like me ignored an equally important imperative: to stand up for ourselves, our history and our rights.

The real world violence engulfing our community today is proof that the time has come to change that dark inheritance.

For generations, Asian Americans have been enabled American society to ignore or dismiss anti-Asian racism. We’ve put up with all of the “Ching Chong” name-calling as long as it doesn’t affect us getting to college. We’ve put up with being ignored in television and the movies as long as it doesn’t affect us buying a house. We’ve put up with not having representation in government, since we vote at a lower rate than any other racial group.

This is the result: It took three weeks for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to apologize for making a racist joke about Asian accountants during the 2016 Oscars ceremony that was criticized as #OscarsSoWhite and with no major Asian nominees. Over 46 seasons and 500+ hosts of "Saturday Night Live," only six hosts have been Asian and only four cast members — Fred Armisen, Rob Schneider, Nasim Pedrad and Bowen Yang — have been of Asian descent. Asians make up 13 percent of the U.S. professional workforce but only 3 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and are the least likely group to be promoted into management.

For too long we’ve been passive observers, reveling in how much better America is compared to where we or our ancestors have come from, instead of actively shaping how good America could be.

More than two months have passed since the death of Quinto, and there have been no major marches or protests demanding justice for him and his family; there are no rallies scheduled for all of the many other Asian American men and women who have been the victims of hate crimes in the last year. I cannot sit silently on the sidelines anymore and I hope my fellow Asian Americans will join me.

There are countless ways to speak up and help things start to change. You can begin challenging co-workers who perpetuate Asian stereotypes, or speak out at PTA meetings about how racism in the schoolyard is affecting your child. You can vote; you can even consider running for office. It’s the least our children deserve.

And, yes, I will make my son do his math homework and learn how to play piano, but I will also teach him how to be proud of who he is. He doesn’t need to be ashamed about the size of his head, his face flushing after a beer or his last name. I want him to grow up in an America that will treat him equally as a U.S. citizen, and not one where he will be asked “But where are you really from?”

But if they do, I want him to be sure of himself when he says, "The United States. Just like you."

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