After COVID-19, Asian Americans cannot afford to be invisible again

A writer traces how COVID-19 exposed the false promise that if we keep to ourselves, we will be treated well.

My mom always told me that if I worked hard for the first 25 years of my life, I would be able to relax for every year after. For her, this meant working hard in school, getting into university, and graduating with a degree. She also warned me not to get political with others because that meant potentially collecting enemies that would prevent me from getting further in life.

These things were said so I would eventually earn enough money to live a more comfortable life than my parents, who had to labour long hours for years for my chance at living the Canadian dream.

I always questioned the effectiveness of this approach. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized this approach is not only questionable, but woefully inadequate. 

Living on the sidelines

As a result of this tendency to stick to the sidelines and focus inwardly, our diverse Asian communities were silenced with the Model Minority label, dividing Asian North Americans from other people of colour and closing us off from them. 

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that Asian Americans were less likely to have been contacted by a campaign during the 2020 Presidential Election than Black or white voters. Even before the pandemic, racism against Asians was normalized in society. One example is through comedy, where the Asian accent gained notoriety for being “inherently” funny. 

Our struggles and concerns have become invisible because of our willingness to be invisible. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has truly shone a light on why as a community, we cannot afford to keep our heads down. 

See also: We need to drop the model minority myth and respectability politics

A wake up call

Back in the early stages of the pandemic, not a week went by without a news report of an Asian hate crime coming out: a 39-year-old woman in Brooklyn had acid thrown on her face, an 89-year-old New Yorker was set on fire, and a 44-year-old in Montreal was brutally stabbed in public. 

Nearly a year later, racial attacks have only gotten worse, particularly among elderly Asians. First there was Vicha Ratanapakdee, shoved and left to bleed on the pavement. Then Noel Quintana, who was slashed across the face on the subway, and then Ms. Cheng, who was thrown like a “rag doll” in Queens, New York. 

Before I knew it, faces that looked like mine were flooding my Instagram feed, along with a simple message; this cannot be tolerated anymore. 

Two Asian women wearing coats, standing outside in the winter. One is holding a sign that says Hate is a Virus. The other is holding a sign that says Stop Asian Hate.
Photo Credit: The Washington Post

In the span of a year, Asian Americans have turned from “Model Minorities” to “viruses”, exposing the false premise in most Asian parents’ minds that if their children just stay out of trouble, the West will treat them right. It doesn’t matter how much we try to assimilate into Western society by becoming doctors, engineers, and lawyers. It doesn’t matter how much we try to laugh off microaggressions, or simply ignore them. And it doesn’t matter how much we try to stay out of social justice issues.

We will never be white no matter how hard we try to conform to Western standards of excellence, and we will never be seen as enough unless we start speaking up for ourselves. But how?

See also: Navigating through the rise in Anti-Asian racism.

Civic engagement, a way forward

In a different poll from 2020, the Pew Research Center noted that nonvoters are less likely than voters to be contacted by a campaign. Combined with the fact that Asian Americans were under-targeted during the 2020 election and one solution becomes increasingly clear: we have to start going to the ballot box. 

As one of the fastest-growing electorates in the United States and one that remains undecided compared to the rest of the population, Asian Americans are uniquely positioned to decide crucial elections. This was particularly true in the 2020 presidential election, where the number of Asian voters in Georgia and Arizona was larger than the number of ballots Joe Biden won over Donald Trump. Driving those results are community groups that are being created all over the United States to connect with these voters in creative ways, like with apps such as the Korean mobile messaging app KakaoTalk.

Asians holding signs supporting Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Photo Credit: The Washington Post.

But it is simply not enough to engage the general public in politics; we must increase the number of Asian Americans who are willing to bring Asian issues to the forefront of federal, state, and municipal politics. 

The current situation looks promising, with Andrew Yang emerging as one of the top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, state politicians like Alex Lee, Theresa Mah, and Sam Park winning seats in recent years, and federal politicians like Tammy Duckworth and Andy Kim establishing firsts in national politics. 

But challenges remain. Politician Lori Yokoyama who sought office in Illinois’s Cook County found that the Republican party was “not supportive or not assisting us in our efforts [to seek office],” while one of Chicago’s former aldermen, Ameya Pawar said that there are still those in the city council who think Asian Americans are overrepresented compared to other minorities. 

The solution to this lies not in excluding Asian Americans from political spaces, but in “broadening the pie” so that all minorities can get a larger share of it, says Ram Villivalam, a state senator from Illinois. He says that right now, politics is designed to create divisions between minority groups, and that we will all lose unless we are able to work together. 

But in order for Asian Americans to be able to meaningfully work with other minorities, we need to address the historic elephant in the room: our communities’ anti-Black racism. 

See also: The myth of Asian American political apathy

We must address anti-Black racism

One of the prime arguments that many second-generation Asian Americans hear from our parents when talking about systemic oppression is that our parents had it hard too, yet we are succeeding, so it is other minorities’ faults when they are not able to succeed too. 

What this argument fails to consider is that Black people have had historic successes. One of the most notable is Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District home to what was then known as “Black Wall Street”.

The Greenwood District. Photo Credit:

Initially just a plot of land spanning over 40 acres, wealthy African-American O.W. Gurley envisioned creating a land of opportunity for those escaping “the harsh oppression of Mississippi”. Among those opportunities was a loan program that allowed Black people to start businesses without financial insecurity. The result was a district with a  thriving middle class (average incomes well exceeded today’s minimum wage) and a plethora of commercial services. However, on May 31st, 1921, that all changed. 

White people at the time were displeased with Black peoples’ economic progress in Greenwood, and all it took for that displeasure to erupt into violence was one single event. When news came out that a white woman was allegedly assaulted by a Black male, hundreds of furious white people descended upon the Greenwood District and destroyed the city for two days. By the time they were done, over 1200 homes were destroyed and an estimated 300 people died. 

Although it was eventually rebuilt, Black Wall Street never managed to recover fully from the massacre. Unfortunately, Tulsa is only one of many stories of Black Americans achieving exceptionality in the face of incredible odds, only to be pushed down again by American society.

It is understandable why the Black community is hurt by Asian Americans’ rhetoric that they are lazy and destitute, especially when there is so much evidence that shows this is not reality. If we are to have any hope in having other communities support us, then we need to make sure that we do not tear down Black people and other minority groups. Who would want to stand in solidarity with a group that only looks at them with contempt, not with respect? 

We must address the lie that Black people aren’t succeeding due to something on their part and start to teach about the long lasting effects of white supremacy. This is crucial in creating effective community activism and politics.

See also: How to talk to your Asian immigrant parents about racism and Black Lives Matter

This is our home, too

Despite some Americans’ perceptions of Asian Americans as foreigners who don’t belong in this country, this is our home, and just like other Americans, we too are American. However, as citizens of this country, it is also our responsibility to stop enclosing ourselves in silos.

We need to start having difficult conversations to combat the racism against our communities, address racist thoughts we all hold ourselves, and put Asians directly into the decision-makers’ houses. John F. Kennedy says it perfectly: “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” 

If it takes making a few enemies to ensure that doesn’t happen, then sorry mom, but it needs to be done.

Featured image from PBS

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