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First person

For young Asian Americans like me, the rise in hate crimes reinforces a lifetime of racial trauma

I am learning that fortune, privilege, and adoration do not erase racial trauma I’ve experienced being a Chinese American woman in this country.

Kids teased the writer, Kami Rieck, at school about being Chinese.
Kids teased the writer, Kami Rieck, at school about being Chinese.Handout

Fridays were National Hate Asian Women Days. That’s what a boy told me in middle school.

In high school, some girls on my swim team said I was born in a rice basket. As a transracial Chinese adoptee who grew up in a predominantly white city in Indiana, my identity was formed around racial slurs, racial comments, and racial stereotypes.

“You’re Asian on the outside, but white on the inside,” people would often say. It was not until years later that I understood these actions were rooted in racism, sexism, and xenophobia. The adults I looked up to as a young girl failed to label the discrimination I experienced as racist or sexist. How was I supposed to understand what I was encountering?

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When I stood up for myself to that boy in middle school, our principal suspended him. Begrudgingly. The man who was supposed to guide and protect us as students said my advocacy was “holding my class hostage.”

The teachers at my Christian middle and high school preached love and forgiveness, yet I cannot recall a time when they extensively discussed anti-Asian hate and systemic racism. My adoptive parents love me with all of their hearts. But they did not warn me of the fetishization and dehumanization many Asian women face regularly or explain what it meant to be the only Asian person in my family.

There were no warnings — no deep, vulnerable dialogue. I had to encounter pervasive racism day after day before I even knew what racism was. It wasn’t until I was 21 years old that I allowed myself to acknowledge a lifetime of racial trauma.

The deadly mass shootings in the Atlanta area on March 16 that left eight people dead — six of whom were Asian women — forced Americans to confront anti-Asian hate that has skyrocketed during the pandemic. It was the first time in my life I had witnessed people from all backgrounds speak openly about violence against Asian women.

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In the past year, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by almost 133 percent in Boston, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The national nonprofit organization Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate has received nearly 3,800 reports of anti-Asian hate and discrimination, mostly against women, since March 19, 2020.

Racism against Asian Americans started way before the former president called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Japanese internment during World War II, people of Asian descent have faced perpetual bigotry, despite having lived in the United States for generations. Discrimination against us has been normalized.

Strangers often ask me if I am grateful for being adopted. The simple answer will always be yes. My parents would dive to the depths of the ocean to protect me and they have the epitome of a healthy marriage. My relatives love me as their own, and different DNA makeup has not affected our connection. I’ve been privileged with opportunities I probably would not have experienced if I lived in my native land.

I am learning that fortune, privilege, and adoration do not erase my experiences of being a Chinese American woman in this country. When you face subtle and blatant racism as a child — at a time when your outlook on life and brain are developing — it changes the way you carry yourself.

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I’ve wept over the 13-year-old girl who was me, the only Asian girl in her class, who wished nothing more than to look like the blonde and blue-eyed girls who captured the attention of everyone in my classroom. I’ve become disillusioned with anger when I think of the white teachers who doubted and questioned the hurt I felt when a boy told me he couldn’t like me because I was Asian. I feel ashamed for abandoning my Chinese culture and tradition. And I have prayed for all of the young girls and boys who will grow up in spaces that are not designed to serve them.

Will their teachers offer solace and comfort when someone tells them to go back to their country? Will they grow up listening to a comedian make degrading comments about the size of their vaginas on national television? How will their loved ones approach uncomfortable conversations about racism?

It wasn’t until I moved to Boston as a sophomore in college that I became immersed in my own culture and ethnicity. Students did not look at me twice, and I ate dim sum for the first time. I slowly opened up about experiences from my early childhood and as an adoptee, and it felt liberating to notice people’s interest in a topic I used to find so mundane. I bonded with other Asian women over the enduring stereotypes that often rendered us invisible.

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I started to take pride in my nationality, but I still never referred to myself as a person of color. Every time a person asked about my time growing up in Indiana, I downplayed my pain and said, “Yes, I experienced verbal abuse, but I did not have it as bad as some other people.” That’s when the conversation usually ended.

Well-meaning people still made comments about Asian Americans being the model minority. My journalism professors did not always understand the ways people of color have been historically underrepresented and misrepresented in the media. And people still asked me where I was really from.

I’m a senior now. Speaking out comes easier because I found my community.

When the Atlanta shooting sparked a national conversation around race, gender, and class, I found refuge in the Asian American journalists who led their newsrooms’ coverage with fortitude in the face of pain.

Millie Tran, chief product officer of The Texas Tribune, prioritized taking care of the reporters, photographers, and editors in her newsroom during a moment of crisis. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, president of the Asian American Journalists Association and a journalist at The Washington Post, offered guidance to reporters across the country on how to accurately represent the victims in the media.

She created a safe space for the AAJA community to grieve, air frustrations, and reflect when we tried to process the news while also doing our jobs. Authors Chanel Miller and Nicole Chung showed me that I can, should, and will take up space as an Asian woman.

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My dear friend and soul sister Angela Yang cried with me when it felt like some news outlets’ coverage focused more on the shooter than the humanity of the eight victims. It is journalists like her who make me excited for the next generation of newsroom leaders.

The love, care, and protection I found in these women is something I will never forget. We are not invisible. We see each other.

Here’s to Asian women and girls everywhere, standing strong even when we are often one of a few in the spaces we inhabit. I am finally proud to be one of them.

Kami Rieck is an audience engagement intern for The Boston Globe.