We live in confusing times. Our current events are riddled with controversy and contradiction. It’s both unsurprising and heartbreaking that hate crimes towards Asian Americans are on the rise while education and awareness for racial injustice grows. Another opportunity to be outraged about our fractured culture.
Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a hotbed for the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, I learned 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 – as they suppressed their smoldering anger and ever-present fear, I learned: “accommodate, assimilate and you will be safe.” Whenever a stranger shouted “ching chong” or pulled at the ends of their eyelids to mimic our East Asian visage I learned to become numb. I grew to become silent about racism and that silence applied to both sides of the equation. There have been many times when I was a silent bystander as well. When my family used hateful language or promoted stereotypes about other persons of color I said nothing. To cope with feelings of contradiction I eventually learned to create stories about both perpetrators and victims. I held firm the threads of compassion crafted in my stories allowing me to suppress any negative emotions.
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 which 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. Scattered memories are running 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 next to me told his friend he wanted to “try an Asian” for his next girlfriend. 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 my car, hurled his coffee cup onto the windshield, and yelled, “fuck you” before driving off with his teenage son in the passenger seat (who was, hopefully, un-learning from 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 strangers followed me during my grocery runs, and my White family responding to my concerns, “they’re staring at you because you’re beautiful.” A long history of microaggressions collected in my body, seemingly innocuous but still inflicting pain. Hundreds of needles pierced into me.
Consequences of silence
I see yesterday’s act of violence as a culmination of collective silence. A more extreme act that took place after so many hate crimes went unnoticed – Asian American pain unacknowledged. I feel certain this violence will grow. When racist language, behaviors, and perceptions are ignored, the hate and anger invoking these acts become more extreme. And 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 solely an AAPI fight. 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 used to perpetuate hate crimes are precursors for collective hate, racism and eventually cultural extremism.