We live in confusing times. Our current events are riddled with controversy and contradiction. I find it both appropriate and heartbreaking for hate crimes towards Asian Americans to be on the rise while education and awareness about racial injustice grows. Another opportunity to voice outrage towards our fractured culture.
Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a hotbed for the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, I was taught to be invisible. Gang violence was rampant and discarded needles littered the sidewalks outside of my family’s grocery store on Flatbush Avenue. It was through my parents’ example, suppressing their smoldering anger and ever-present fear, that I learned: accommodate, assimilate and you will be safe. Whenever a stranger shouted “ching chong” at us or pulled at the ends of their eyelids to mimic our East Asian visage, I learned to become numb. I grew to become a silent victim of racism, but that silence applied to both sides of the race equation. There have been many times when I was a silent bystander as well. When my family members were perpetrators of racist behaviors, promoting stereotypes about non-Korean persons of color and using hateful language to describe them, I said nothing. To cope with my confusion, I later learned to create stories about everybody – perpetrators and victims. I held firmly the threads of compassion crafted in my stories, allowing me to suppress any emotions that did rise.
Responding to Atlanta
But today, one day after several Asian-owned businesses in Atlanta were attacked by a gun-wielding White man with a sinister motive. After eight people, eight employees and patrons of three massage parlors, businesses that exist to help heal the bodies of world-weary citizens, are dead… I find myself shaking. I can’t stop shaking.
This isn’t fear. This is decades of pent-up emotion bursting out of my limbs. This is what remorse mixed with anger highlighted with despair feels like expelling from my veins. I have scattered memories pouring through my mind wanting to be processed. To be seen and understood. Comments from friends saying “I’m not racist,” then declaring an assortment of stereotypes about Asians from being good at math to being subservient in bed. The uncomfortable subway ride in which a stranger seated in front of me playfully commented to his friend that he wanted to “try an Asian” for his next girlfriend. And making sure to be loud enough for me to hear him. The tense drive home through the Holland Tunnel when a White man in a pickup truck pulled up beside me, proceeded to throw his coffee cup on my windshield and scream “fuck you” before driving off with his teenage son in the passenger seat (hopefully unlearning through his father’s example). Living in Maine at the peak of COVID19’s destruction, where I felt eyes fixed on me in public spaces; and my White family responding to my concerns, “they’re staring at you because you’re beautiful.” A loving but short-sighted attempt to comfort me that created even more isolation.
Consequences of silence
I see yesterday’s act of violence as a culmination of collective silence. A more extreme act that was invited to take place after years of hate crimes going unnoticed, of Asian American pain going unseen. After months of Asian Americans demanding the public: “Pay attention! Look what is happening to us!” What’s most unsettling is how certain I am that this violence will only lead to even more violence. When seemingly innocuous acts of psychological abuse, “everyday” racially charged altercations, and attacks on our elderly citizens are ignored by local law enforcement and the culture at large, the hate and anger invoking these acts are given permission to grow even more extreme. When my Asian American and Pacific Islander brothers and sisters are told to not only ignore, but appease racist behavior, what we’re actually being told is to give up our power.
No longer. We cannot afford to give up our power. This isn’t a solely AAPI fight, this fight against racism is for all persons of color to participate. What does BIPOC unity look like? How can we transform our outrage into collective action? And when will society at large understand that attacks on our psyche are just as valid as physical attacks? Words create reality. The language and perceptions allowed to perpetuate in hate crimes are precursors for collective hate, racism and cultural extremism.