A Vietnamese American mother traveling with her young children wonders if a cashier’s cold stare could turn into a verbal assault. A Chinese American nurse hears a patient refusing to be treated by her. An older Japanese American man gets nervous walking by a group of white men.
Even in cities that haven’t reported a high-profile physical attack on Asian Americans, life has changed in the shadow of rising bigotry during this pandemic. For a community that has often felt invisible in the white and Black politics that dominate the headlines, racist rhetoric has heightened a sense of isolation. It has also galvanized those who had preferred the perceived safety of quiet obscurity to speak out about the toll it’s taken.
Min Liu, a professor of communication studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, says her volunteer service used to center around cultural events in the AAPI community.
“In the past year, I think I’ve subconsciously moved to more of an advocacy position,” she said. “I have definitely become more alert as a community activist.” Liu helped organize a vigil in March that drew hundreds of people locally; she also hosted a “Stop AAPI Hate” webinar and has advised students promoting civic engagement among Asian American youth.
Liu’s shift into advocacy has been fueled by the concerns she’s heard from others in the St. Louis area. She recently met with a group of Chinese American women, who told her they have never felt this unsafe before. One shared the experience of her elementary school-aged daughter, who loved helping her teacher by passing out papers and supplies in class. A classmate told her, “I don’t want you to touch my desk. I don’t want to get the virus.”
The teacher intervened and told the student that was not OK.
Another friend confided that her second grader had seen one of the videos of an elderly Asian woman being beaten. She came to her mother, terrified, and said, “What if someone tries to kill you?” She begged her mom to let her dye her black hair.
Even before the mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, hate crimes and assaults against those who appear East Asian have been increasing.
“These things cumulatively make people fearful and anxious,” Liu said. And yet there’s a fear that reporting such incidents may invite backlash or alienate those who perceive criticism of racial slurs as “political.”
Katie Xu, a senior at John Burroughs School, is part of the Asian American Civic Scholars, a group that advocates for more Asian American participation in civic life. She said some of her peers used to be hesitant about sharing their experiences because they would say it “felt less significant than the other forms of discrimination that other groups face.”
The past year changed that attitude.
“People my age are speaking out a lot more than I have seen in the past,” she said.
Ron Sakai, 60, is a compliance officer and a third-generation American of Japanese descent. His parents were imprisoned in internment camps in Arkansas in the 1940s: His mother was freed after about 18 months so that she could resume nursing school, and when his father was released, he petitioned to go back in order to rejoin his mother and younger brother. Sakai’s father was drafted into the service once he was released, made to fight for the country that had discriminated against and imprisoned him.
“My parents didn’t talk about it much,” Sakai said. They wanted him to assimilate. He didn’t have many Asian friends growing up, but that’s changed as he’s gotten older and more involved locally.
The rhetoric around the virus perpetuated by some political leaders is a reminder that some will always consider people who look like him foreigners.
The battle against xenophobia is a “centuries-long journey,” he said.
It’s one he plans to keep fighting.