Breaking our silence: The fight against racism should include Asians too.

Many people, including world leaders like former US President Donald Trump, have consistently conflated Covid-19 with “Asian” identity. It is thus unsurprising that such racist rhetoric has culminated in a surge in violent hate crimes against “Asian-looking” people, particularly those perceived to “look” Chinese. As much as these heinous crimes disgust and anger me, the lack of international attention given to these racial crimes saddens me more. The scarce political activism surrounding anti-Asian discrimination is particularly appalling against this backdrop of burgeoning xenophobia. These shortcomings must be rectified.

Anti-Asian racism has always existed, no matter how much anyone may claim otherwise. It might not have been prominent, but it has always been there, simmering beneath the veneer of racial assimilation, false perceptions of colour blindness, and the model minority myth. The pandemic merely brought this truth to light by giving racists an excuse to express their hatred openly.

However, it is worth noting that racism against Asians isn’t always overt or physical. I have never been physically attacked based on how I look, but I have been assaulted by the microaggressions I’ve experienced amid atmospheres of condescension: countless seemingly harmless racial remarks made by my peers, or subtle racial biases held against me by previous teachers.

It can happen when you least expect it. Once, I was chatting with my friends on the LSE campus when the topic of theft came up. I remember making a generic comment, on how I’d heard stories of students stealing unattended lecture notes, when someone I considered a close friend blurted out, “Maybe that happens in your country but not where I’m from.” I vividly recall how shocked and confused I was by their insensitive words. However, nobody else seemed as affected as me, so I laughed off their racial remark and pretended nothing was wrong. Looking back, I know now that it wasn’t okay. It only seemed okay because I was the only Asian person in the group. That incident made me realise that anti-Asian racism is often a “vibe”. A “vibe” of feeling foreign or excluded in a crowd of people, where the only difference between you and everyone else is the colour of your skin. A “vibe” of shame over anything that differentiates you from your Western peers: your culture, your language, your food and even the way you look.

Racism against Asians can also be as simple as using terms like “Asian” or “BAME”, for the way they try to essentialise and homogenise. When you refer to someone as “Asian” or “BAME”, what exactly are you referring to? Do you mean East Asian? South Asian? Southeast Asian? Someone hailing from the vast lands of Central Asia? Are you, for example, talking about someone who is Pakistani? Korean? Malay? Or perhaps someone of more “obscure” heritage such as Hmong descent or Peranakan (like myself)? Are you referring to someone who simply “looks” Asian (as if “Asian features” are exhaustively identifiable), or someone who spent their whole life raised within Asian cultures? The point is: “Asians” aren’t monolithic. Lumping such a diverse group of people under the terms “Asian” or “BAME” ignores a myriad of complex cultures and histories, ethnicities and nationalities. In effect, this form of generalisation dehumanises all Asians and is in itself racist. 

Now, in the wake of Covid-19, the everyday racialised Asian experience arguably includes the anticipatory anxiety and fear of being the target of hate, as opposed to merely receiving it: Will I be attacked on the way home because I’m “Asian”? Will my sweet and loving grandparents be jumped and killed by racists just because they’re “Asian”? Will people avoid me on public transport because I’m “Asian”?

To make matters worse, Asians have been conditioned to keep their silence out of fear and habit. I am guilty of this myself. In order to stay out of trouble and fit into Western society, many Asians associate the concept of invisibility with safety and acceptance. As a result, we brush off and internalise so much discrimination that it even becomes a habit to make fun of our race and trivialise our own feelings, as if they don’t matter. 

But they do matter. The increased global awareness of police brutality and anti-racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement has made me realise that I’m ready to break my silence. Our feelings on racism and discrimination do matter and it’s more important now than ever that we acknowledge and vocalise them. 

Some may argue that in certain respects, Asians – particularly those who are fairer skinned – benefit from colourism when compared to other communities of colour. We certainly aren’t exposed to the same level of police brutality and hostility Black people are used to, and we are more likely to live in integrated neighbourhoods than other people of colour in Western countries like the US.  

However, this doesn’t mean that we should be excluded from the anti-racism narrative altogether. Greater racial assimilation is not synonymous with immunity from harm, nor does it equate to “white privilege”. Just by existing, Asians, like other people of colour, run the risk of all dangers associated with simply being “The Other”. This has never been clearer than during the pandemic. Just one example is the racially-motivated murder of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, who had been on a morning walk in his San Francisco neighbourhood when a man ran at him at full speed, smashing his frail body to the ground. Vicha’s murder wasn’t the first Asian hate crime and it certainly won’t be the last. Not unless we do something about it. 

I’m not saying that we should speak up about anti-Asian racism because our problems are more pressing than those of other races. I’m saying we need to include Asians in the anti-racism narrative because having national conversations ignoring the plights of all Asians constitutes an unforgivable omission. We can condemn anti-Asian racism without being anti-Black or trivialising the marginalised experiences of other minorities. Colonialism, capitalism and racists in power have thrived for eons by pitting minorities against each other. The model minority myth, for example, is regularly deployed to drive a wedge between African-Americans and Asians in the US. They profited off our divide and suffering and we can’t let them continue to do so. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves and start standing up for each other as one human race. 

The time to include Asians in the anti-racism conversation is now and it begins with all of us, regardless of our race, nationality or ethnicity. We need to break our silence and have uncomfortable conversations on anti-Asian racism in all of its forms – be it hate crimes or covert discrimination. And we need to have these conversations with people and friends we fear offending, not just those who support our views.

Using the words of Angela Davis, an African-American political activist, “it is not enough to be a non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Instead of merely acknowledging that racism exists, speak up about it. Before making sweeping statements, think about the lasting impacts your words can leave on someone else. Finally, rather than distancing yourself and watching racism play out in front of you, intervene calmly so nobody else becomes a victim of it. At the end of the day, kindness and compassion are neither racial nor partial. 

We need to break our silence because it is the right thing to do.

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