It happened in Chinatown first.
Before we had a single case in the city, before we had a mask mandate, before we had our first shut down, the xenophobic stigma attached to coronavirus started to tear away at my neighborhood. Some businesses were down by more than half by early February last year.
By April, the Center for Public Integrity found more than 30 percent of Americans had witnessed anti-Asian discrimination.
A year later, Chinatown is a ghost of its former self. We used to feel like strangers who somehow belonged to one another in the most minimally neighborly way. Now it all just feels strange.
The sidewalks no longer come alive with people. The sounds of Bostonians too busy to be quiet are mute. Eye contact is rare.
Donald Trump used his power as president to paint the virus as China’s fault. He empowered folk to act on their hate. He openly bullied CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang. Much like we saw a rise in Muslim hate after 9/11, with COVID-19 came a cultural complicity in anti-Asian violence.
Over the last year, Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that has documented incidents of anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, has received nearly 3,000 accounts of anti-Asian assaults. Sixty-seven of those incidents were reported in Massachusetts.
While this wave of hate may be pandemic-driven, anti-Asian attitudes have always existed in America.
Michael Tom was in second grade, waiting to swing into playground joy, when he heard kids laughing. They pulled their eyes back. And said, “Ching-chong.”
Growing up in a mostly white suburb in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t until 2010 as a Boston University student, that he felt community. Exploring Chinatown and Quincy, breathing in the cultural celebration, gave him a sense of pride.
“To be Asian American is to be stuck in between,” said Tom, 28, a Somerville public relations associate. “I often feel like I am not American enough to be American. People readily assume I don’t speak English. I was an Eagle Scout whose grandfather fought in the Korean War for the United States.”
He’s cautious about leaving the house. Early on in the pandemic, his brother was spat on while running in Philly. For him, whether we are talking about the Hell’s Canyon Massacre of 1887, the vicious murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, or the recent violent attacks against Asians in America, it’s related.
“White supremacy bears down on all of us,” Tom said. “America has a pattern of using Asian Americans as pawns. Historically, you can see it with the Immigration Act and then post-World War II, you see it with the myth of the model minority and the way it’s used to pit Asian Americans against Black Americans and Latinx Americans. Who benefits? Who is pulling the strings behind us?”
America has always used citizenship, discrimination, and division to preserve whiteness.
During the era of World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans, everyone from Dr. Seuss to Life magazine pushed anti-Japanese propaganda. Over time the hate was baked into American culture, and it showed up in Boston, too.
In 1987, the Asian American Resource Workshop wrote a report, “To Live in Peace ... Responding to Anti-Asian Violence in Boston.” The report cites incidents like the case of Chinese immigrant Long Guang Huang, who was brutally beaten by a police officer in Chinatown in May 1985.
About seven years later, when Kibbee Miller was born, her parents knew they had to prepare her for a world that would look at her differently.
Growing up in Mattapan, she was not yet 10 by the time classmates asked if her mom packed cat or dog in her lunchbox. Around that same time, she was called the N-word for the first time.
A Black woman who is also Chinese, Miller said stereotypes about Asians make people think they can get away with hate and violence. And anti-Blackness in America affects everything.
Not every assault on Asian Americans, Black folk, and marginalized communities is by a white person. White supremacy birthed this divisive and violent behavior. A side effect is that prejudice affects how people of color see each other and mistreat each other, too.
“There’s this idea of Asians being submissive, quiet, and nonthreatening. At the same time the model minority myth aligns Asians with whiteness. It’s fragmenting us. We are all fighting systemic racism. But to tear down these barriers we have to also talk about anti-Blackness in the Asian community.”
For Miller, these are her identities. And she had to fight both anti-Blackness and anti-Asian attitudes to embrace herself. To her, the cultures overlap, from the way they center family to how they cherish their elders to the importance of family dinners. And both cultures are experiencing racial trauma.
“Colonialism is so indoctrinated in America,” said Miller, 29, a Boston digital marketer. “We have to come together.”
But what will that take? Carolyn Su thinks we need to be able to lay all the messy, complicated, and painful truths bare. To understand accountability is not a punishment but a way forward.
When Su moved to Arlington from Texas in 2013, she noticed how teachers were confusing her daughter, a preschooler then, with the other Asian student in her class. It was her own history repeating itself.
“I was very much ashamed of being Taiwanese American because that is what I was taught by all of the implicit messages growing up. Do I want my daughter to feel that same sense of self-loathing, fear, and shame? Or do I want her to feel proud of all that she is?”
Su had to put in self-work to gain confidence and examine how her insecurity around her identity stemmed from how Asian Americans are deemed outsiders. The recent rise in violence against Asian Americans, has been a reminder of the source of that fear.
“It’s brought to light how Asian Americans can be so easily demonized as the perpetual foreigners,” said Su, 37, founder of Diverse We Run, celebrating athletic inclusion.
“We can be so quickly blamed as having been the cause of this pandemic and therefore any anger can be directed toward Asians and justified. For so many Asians, it’s representative of our experience, like the pain and hurt that we feel doesn’t matter,” she added.
Su doesn’t know where to start, but she knows acknowledgement is necessary.
“There’s no fixing it if we don’t agree on there even being a problem to be fixed,” she said. “I don’t know. It always feels like the people of color who are affected by white supremacy are tasked with solving it.”
Mayoral candidate Michelle Wu believes we have to start with partnership, community, and policy.
“It’s not enough to say we are having a conversation about Asian American issues and check the boxes. It’s not enough to do that with any identity,” the city councilor said. “Just as important are policy changes. We need to make sure there are processes and everyone needs to have a voice in shaping the future.”
Like Miller and Tom, Wu’s first experiences with racism date back to being teased over her seaweed snacks and having her language mocked as a young girl in Illinois. She would see the bias again, even more painfully, in how her mother was treated by the mental health care system.
“What I have known my whole life and what I have found in shared connection with far too many Asian American friends is a feeling of invisibility,” Wu said.
It wasn’t until she was a student at Harvard, volunteering in Chinatown at the Asian American Civic Association, that she felt truly connected to the pieces of her identity she had to code-switch growing up. We can’t let that happen to the next generation.
“There’s over 110 different languages spoken in BPS,” Wu said. “The breadth and beauty here, the diversity of race, ethnicity, background, lived experiences — for me it is most important to create the spaces and community for people to bring their full multidimensional selves into the conversation.”
In February 2020, as Chinatown was being crushed by xenophobia, Wu co-hosted a dim sum brunch at China Pearl to combat the stigma. Since then, she has been in conversation with people all over the country about not just anti-Asian discrimination, but racism. The violence against Asian Americans is a reminder of hate crimes across communities of color.
“The model minority myth has pitted us against other communities in a generational fight for equity and justice. Our communities have been closely intertwined. Many of the Asian American immigrants benefitted from the Civil Rights activists and leaders who fought for justice and kept the door open for everyone else,” Wu said.
“The partnerships for communities of color standing side by side through the decades — we need to be building that infrastructure for communities to connect and stand shoulder to shoulder to end racism against all communities who have been otherized in our system, period.”
We cannot continue to treat the fight against supremacy as a segregated fight. The cost of division has been our freedoms. Collective liberation requires a collective revolution.