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Opinion

Condemning Anti-Asian Violence Requires More Than Words

Anti-AAPI violence has surged since the start of the pandemic. We have the opportunity to create a new era of justice and solidarity—if we choose to take action.

By Soukprida Phetmisy

Illustration by Heather Aquino

March 10, 2021

An illustration of a group of Asian American Pacific Islander individuals of varying ages and skin colors, holding a banner with a dove to symbolize peace.

In early February, many of my Asian American friends changed their profile pictures on social media to an illustration of Vicha Ratanapakdee in a show of solidarity. On January 28, Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man from San Francisco, was violently pushed to the ground while on a walk, resulting in his death. When I caught the image for the first time I felt a twinge of familiarity—that light, white-gray hair and mustache, those gentle black eyes smiling through the lenses of thick-framed glasses—and immediately, my late grandfather’s sacred face swam to the top of my heart and mind. Multiple attacks just like Ratanapakdee’s began going viral, video and images of elders being shoved, spat on, slashed across their face, all over the country.

While mainstream media had not yet picked up the stories, many Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community organizers and activists were raising the alarm. I watched a press conference at which community leaders gathered in front of Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center, in the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown, to condemn what was happening and call for solidarity. Last year, I was standing right where they were, but instead of a press conference, I was attending a summit with hundreds of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AAHNPI) teachers, educators, and community leaders. We gathered for the weekend to dialogue around issues impacting our multifaceted and diverse communities and interrogate the ways white supremacy and systemic racism impact us.

Right after the summit, cities across the country began declaring COVID-19 lockdown protocols. Media coverage of the virus outbreak, which the former President often referred to as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu,” manifested in unwarranted xenophobia, stigma, and discrimination disproportionately impacting AAPI communities. The harmful rhetoric made its way into classrooms where bullying continued its steep incline—even Asian preschools were being defaced with hate speech. In response to the surge, the Stop AAPI Hate initiative was established to capture these attacks with a simple vision statement: Our communities stand united against racism. Hate against Asian American Pacific Islander communities has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we can stop it.

Between March and August of last year, the initiative received nearly 3,000 reports of hate incidents. While AAPI elders and women were among those most frequently targeted, the initiative also received 341 reports of anti-Asian discrimination involving youth, with more than eight out of 10 (81.5%) reporting being bullied or verbally harassed. And as schools across the country begin to reopen, principals are raising concerns about Asian American students’ return to classrooms. Many Asian and Asian American families are making the decision to keep their children home, citing worries their students may face heightened racist harassment at school and feeling distrustful of the promised safety measures.

While there has been a significant increase in overt anti-Asian hate incidents, it is also important for us to illuminate and spotlight the long-held American history of using Asian Americans as scapegoats for diseases, which dates back to the 19th and 20th centuries. It is critical we understand this history of anti-Asian racism existed long before the violent attacks that are going viral today. We cannot talk about anti-Asian racism and xenophobia as if it is new and isolated, because it is not. When we erase history while it is resurfacing, we silence and invisibilize multiple communities who’ve faced (and continue to face) a long tradition of being othered in this country.

This includes laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which lasted 60 years and made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and for Chinese nationals already in the U.S. to become citizens; Supreme Court cases like United States v. Wong Kim Ark, a landmark case for the U.S. to consider whether someone could be a natural-born citizen if their parents could not, the final decision ultimately establishing birthright citizenship for Chinese people born in the U.S., and subsequently, all children of immigrants born in the U.S.; and incidents like the Bellingham Riot of 1907, in which 500 white working men in Bellingham, WA, based on their fear that South Asian migrant workers would crowd out white labor in the mills, were successful in driving the whole community out of the city. And there are many more I could cite. 

Understanding these critical moments for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our history strengthens our understanding of what is happening right now. Anti-Asian racism did not start with the pandemic, but instead has been seeded throughout the very fabric of our country’s upbringing. For centuries, AAPIs have been targets of white supremacy, used as a wedge, and lauded as the model minority, a stereotype characterizing AAPIs as “a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than other communities of color and white peoples through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.”

“Anti-Asian racism did not start with the pandemic, but instead has been seeded throughout the very fabric of our country’s upbringing.”

Soukprida Phetmisy

Senior Managing Director, Asian American & Pacific Islander Alliances, Teach For America

Interrogating how these narratives and tools work together to oppress our AAPI communities while also pitting AAPIs against other communities of color provides a clarity to the systemic nature of this violence. It helps us connect the dots between the violence we see (physical attacks, bullying, murder) and the violence we don’t see (poverty, economic disparity, educational inequity, gentrification). This analysis requires us to be coalitional in our actions; it requires us to see the ways this system harms all of us while using that analysis to move toward a cross-community, multifaceted approach to our solidarity. While we understand the harmful systems at play, we must also uplift and amplify the long and rich history of cross-racial solidarity and resistance, which has always included AAPIs; a story that is multi-generational and cross-racial at its core, and one that often gets conveniently left out of the broader narrative. 

For every moment of racism in this country, there has always been resistance. In moving toward solidarity, we need not look far to find examples throughout the history of cross-racial movements that have always included AAPIs. We can find it in the shared struggles of laborers and farmworker movements past and present. This solidarity was exemplified in the establishment of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965—an effort led by the Black Power Movement—which abolished the federal national-origins quota system placed on immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa and changed migration patterns and the face of this country. And we see it in the continued actions of Asians For Black Lives of today. When we lift up these stories, we see we are not short of examples of how to lead with solidarity at the heart.

These devastating attacks on our Asian elders have awakened a different kind of grief and pain, one fueled with a hope for a new era of accountability and solidarity across multiple communities. As anti-bias, anti-racist (ABAR) educator-in-progress Liz Kleinrock so aptly said: We must include AAPIs in our anti-racism. We must bear witness to what our AAPI communities are going through and reject the notion that our AAPI community members are the model minority—an insidious myth that has been pervasive in its strategy to silence and oppress AAPI folx as tools for white supremacy. 

It is not enough for aspiring allies and co-conspirators to say “we see you” and “we hear you” anymore. These words have to come with real solidarity and accountability. They must be backed with intentional actions to amplify our AAPI community before one of our AAPI colleagues, friends, community members, or students has to add their voice to the cries for us to say and do something. We must always include, within our anti-racism work, a critical understanding of anti-Asian racism, where it stems from, and how it persists in our lives and especially within our own institutions. And for us within AAPI communities, while we honor our pain and our rage and take the actions we need to heal, when we do call for this solidarity we cannot, in the same breath, call on the systems that continue to oppress all other BIPOC communities.  

Here are ways you can show up in solidarity with the AAPI community:

  • Educate yourself on the history of anti-Asian racism in this country and expand your understanding of how white supremacy and systemic racism have positioned AAPI communities for discrimination, erasure, invisibility, and harm. 
     
  • Educate yourself on transformative justice practices. Learn about white supremacy. Understand how oppression is connected and recognize how anti-Blackness is at the root of all of this.
     
  • Use whatever platform you have to raise awareness about what is happening. Denounce violence and xenophobia in your circles. Raise awareness about this to those in power at your institution. Do not leave it to your AAPI community to ask you to do this. 
     
  • Disrupt anti-Asian racism when it is happening; attend bystander intervention training and build your skills around how to anticipate and interrupt the harm. We must keep each other safe. 
     
  • Differentiate your social media feeds: Do you follow any AAPI educators, community organizers, activists, scholars, media, or organizations doing work within the community? Some recommendations on where to start: educators/voice: @TeachandTransform, @TonyRosaSpeaks, @DearAsianYouth; organizations: @SmithsonianAPA, @AAPIWomenLead, @ActToChange, @AdvancingJustice_AAJC; media: @NextShark, @NBCAsianAmerica 
     
  • Invest in long-term community care by supporting mutual aid networks both locally and nationally. Watch out for each other and give when and as often as you can. If you are unable to give financial support, follow-up with your local community mutual aid organization to see how else you can provide resources. 

Soukprida Phetmisy (she/they) is a queer Lao American activist, DEI capacity builder, teaching artist, and anti-racist/anti-bias organizer-educator. Her passion for community, storytelling, and disrupting the status quo was catalyzed by a decade of organizing and advocacy within the arts and education sectors. In her role leading Teach For America’s national Asian American and Pacific Islander Alliances, she works in coalition with community leaders, organizations, and media committed to strengthening the leadership of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander educators, students, and their communities. You can find her @soukprida on all social channels. 

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.