BY SYLVIO MARTINS
Vincent Chin was brutally murdered by Robert Ebens and Michael Nitz on the night of June 19, 1982. His White assailants thought the young Chinese-American was of Japanese descent, and beat him to death in a racially-provoked attack. They were each asked to pay $3,000 and serve three years of probation, but did not receive jail time for Chin’s murder. On October 24, 1871, a mob of White and Hispanic men carried out a massacre in LA’s Old Chinatown which left 19 Chinese immigrants killed. Out of the 500 rioters, only 10 were prosecuted and 8 were convicted. All convictions were eventually overturned, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed into law the following year. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps from February 19,1942 to March 20,1946, effectively stripping them of all personal property and excluding them from American society. After years of forced imprisonment, poor living conditions, and enduring decades of racist attacks, Japanese-Americans were officially given reparations in 1988. That is 46 years after a government-backed campaign of xenophobic and racist ideologies.
The tragic events that took place in Atlanta on March 16th have been largely perceived as part of a sudden wave in violence targeting Asian Americans. The senseless killing of 6 Asian women sent shockwaves throughout the country, leaving many of us asking how we got to this point. Was this motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic? How could someone feel this much hate? Why them? We might never get a clear answer as to why these innocent victims lost their lives that day, but our society can try to search for answers by first educating ourselves on the Asian American experience.
The story of Asian communities in our country is one plagued by scapegoating, false stereotypes, and a lack of understanding from its neighbors. In times of national crisis, such as the ongoing pandemic, WWII, or economic declines, Asian Americans have consistently found themselves on the receiving end of populist animosity. But regardless of whether the national narrative chooses to turn on Chinese, Japanese, or even Vietnamese Americans, Asian people of all backgrounds are continuously grouped together in the eyes of the racist. We saw this with Vincent Chin, we saw this with Vicha Ratanapakdee, and we saw this in Atlanta.
The grouping together of Asian identities means that the fight for social justice transcends cultural lines. But even with a diversity of voices calling for change, the community still struggles to be heard. Attacks against Asian Americans have notoriously failed to be labeled as hate crimes, sparking public outrage from people of all backgrounds. A simple explanation for this could be the lack of hate symbols that target Asian communities, or at least any that carry the same weight as a swastika or dangling noose. Another could be Westerners’ historical disinterest in the Asian experience, leaving many to wonder what it will take to increase awareness of what this community has endured. In fact, the idea that Asian Americans have quietly navigated society without causing any “trouble” plays directly into what we know today as the “Model Minority” myth.
Depicting all Asian Americans as law-abiding, well-educated citizens that never spark public disorder might seem amicable on paper, but in reality, only promotes harmful generalizations. For example, the experience of an average Japanese-American might be entirely different from the experience of an average Vietnamese or Korean-American. A second-generation Asian American might face a different set of barriers than that of a recent immigrant. To portray Asian Americans as a “model minority” is, in fact, to pardon systemic racism towards other groups. It claims that if Asian Americans can “make it”, so can you. But the realities of the Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+ communities are innately different. This stereotype only emboldens the differences between Asian Americans and other groups, therefore isolating them and creating a breeding ground for anti-Asian sentiments. To use Asian Americans as a model is to not only generalize them, but silence them in the process. The message is: you’ve cracked the code to the American Dream, therefore you must demand no more or no less.
When I was asked to write about AAPI Heritage Month, my initial reaction was: why me? For the record, I’m not Asian nor do I have any ties to Asian culture. It seemed, frankly, out of place for someone like me to speak on the matter. However, the more I dwelled on what to say, the more I found myself discovering parallels to my own experience as a first-generation American. I am the proud son of Latin American immigrants who grew up in a predominantly White Phoenix suburb. Living in a border state meant that the national dialogue surrounding immigration was something constantly circulating around me, and at times became even deeply personal. Racial jokes, meant in jest or as insults, were common. Verbal attacks towards my family in public spaces for speaking in Spanish happened. Being told that my accomplishments were a result of me being Mexican and not of my own merit was something I experienced more than once. But more often than not, I bit my tongue and laid low. It’s best to not provoke, I thought.
What Asian Americans are currently experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic brought back vivid memories of my teenage years when anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in Arizona. After the passing of SB1070, people within the Hispanic community were genuinely afraid for both their futures and personal safety. Many chose to take to the streets to fight for immigration reform, but others hid away in silence out of fear. It was a fear of deportation, a fear of violence, and a fear of only further provoking a system that has already labeled you as the problem. My experience of living between these two polarized worlds has profoundly shaped who I am today, but also taught me what it feels like to be silenced or left unheard.
I call upon everyone who is not a member of the Asian American community to do their part this upcoming AAPI Heritage Month. It is time we collectively amplify the voices of all Asian Americans, regardless of background, during such a dark time in our nation’s history. It’s time to educate ourselves on the Asian American experience and to support our Asian friends, communities, and local businesses. It’s time to tell our Asian American friends that we see them, hear them, and care for them. If we continue to interpret these hate crimes as momentary tragedies or isolated incidents, we will never acknowledge the root issue that has caused Asian Americans so much pain. To be defined by your otherness is to be misunderstood, and the Asian American community has struggled to rally the needed support in its fight for social change.
As we’ve witnessed in many civil rights movements over the past century, there is true strength in numbers. However, the Asian American community has historically lacked the helping hand of its fellow minorities and constantly faces the danger of history repeating itself. There is no “model minority” in America because we are more than just minorities. It’s time to speak up but to also listen. It’s time to forget otherness and promote openness. It’s time to stop scapegoating and ask yourself why a certain group makes you feel a particular way. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie solely in them, but rather within yourself. #StopAsianHate.
If you are unfamiliar with the complex issues that AAPI community faces, we highly recommend We Need to Talk About Anti-Asian Hate by Try Guys. In this video, YouTuber celebrity, Eugene Lee Yang, led an in-depth conversation about the complex, often untold history of the Asian American community, the unique struggles they face, and find out how you can help.
About the Writer
Sylvio Martins is a writer, blogger, editor, and actor based in Los Angeles, CA. After graduating from UCLA with a B.A. in English, he decided to pursue his creative endeavors full-time. Besides his work on-screen, Sylvio writes on a variety of lifestyle beats, as well as providing social commentary on current events and cultural trends. He now produces his own blog, Amalgam, which launched in April of 2020.
When he’s not writing, he enjoys cooking, binging Netflix, foreign films, and calling random friends to catch up at random hours of the day.
Profile picture sourced from iStock.