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Dean Michael C. Lu: We must lift the veil on anti-Asian racism in America

At a candlelight vigil held Sunday in Pittsburgh, attendees honored the victims of last week’s Atlanta shootings where eight people, including six Asian women, were killed. “Anti-Asian scapegoating has become an American tradition,” says Berkeley Public Health Dean Michael Lu, in a message urging the campus to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community during the national upsurge in anti-Asian violence. (AP photo by Alexandra Wimley)

Today I am writing to you with a broken heart.

Several times over the past two months I started to write this message. After the fatal assault of Vichar Ratanapakdee. After the murder of Angelo Quinto (at the knee of the police) came to light. After the string of violent attacks in our own backyard in Oakland and San Francisco. But each time, I stopped halfway because the pain got too personal.

But today, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shooting in Atlanta that took the lives of eight people, including six Asian women, I can no longer be silent.

While the motive is still being investigated, the mass shooting is the latest incident in an upsurge of violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) since the pandemic started. Stop AAPI Hate has received 3,800 self-reports of anti-Asian racist incidents (with more than two-thirds reported by AAPI women) since March 2020.

All this has stirred up intense personal anguish, which has made this message almost too painful to write. It took me back to my first experience of racism at age 11, a few months after my family immigrated to the Bay Area (Concord) from Taiwan. One day, I was riding my bike in the neighborhood and was stopped by a little white girl shouting something at me. She couldn’t have been more than 6 years old. Even though I could barely understand English at the time, I could tell she was shouting racial slurs at me, making a slanted eyes gesture and telling me to go back to where I came from.

Years later, I’d often wonder what could have filled her heart with so much prejudice and hate at such a young age. And what made her feel so privileged on the basis of race that entitled her to put down a stranger twice her age and size.

But at the time, I didn’t know what to say or do. So, I just left. I didn’t even tell my parents because I didn’t want to worry them. Frankly, all I wanted was to fit in. To belong. I thought if I just kept my head down and worked hard, one day I would prove my worth and earn my rightful place in this country. Like many of my AAPI friends, that’s how I’ve dealt with racism most of my life.

But I was wrong. By not speaking out more, I’ve contributed to the invisibility of anti-Asian racism. It’s not taught in most textbooks. It’s not talked about much in the media. Even after recent killings, there have been few mass protests. No national reckoning.

But it’s there. It has always been there. Anti-Asian racism has been a stain on our nation’s history, even if we don’t always see it.

It was there in 1882 with the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first and only major federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality. Chinese Americans were demonized as the Yellow Peril, even after 20,000 Chinese immigrants had risked their lives to build the transcontinental railroad a decade earlier.

It was there in 1942-46, when 100,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, all while brave Japanese American men and women in uniform fought against Germany and Japan to defend our freedom.

It was there in 1982 when Vincent Chin was brutally murdered by two white auto workers who mistook him as Japanese and blamed him for the loss of their jobs. The two assailants never served time in prison.

In times of crisis, anti-Asian scapegoating has become an American tradition. We saw it after 9/11, with the surge of hate crimes against many of our South Asian American communities of Muslim, Hindu or Sikh faith.

And it has been on the rise ever since the beginning of this pandemic, inflamed by President Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric about the “China virus” or “kung flu” and spread by his followers, which added fuel to the surge in anti-Asian racism, even as many AAPI front-line workers put their lives at risk to protect the public’s health.

Anti-Asian racism comes in many forms. The fetishization and misogyny against Asian women. The desexualization of Asian men. We are made fun of for the way we look. The way we drive. What we eat. What we wear. How we speak. How we parent. We are treated like perpetual foreigners, no matter how many years or generations we have been in this country. A guest in our own home.

By the way, calling us the model minority is no accolade. It is nothing but a ploy to downplay the role of racism in the persistent struggles of other BIPOC communities, a convenient rationalization for white supremacy. But it has pitted Asian Americans against other BIPOC communities and fueled anti-Black racism among Asian Americans, and anti-Asian racism among African Americans, that erupted in the (1992) LA riot and persists today in many marginalized communities.

The model minority myth of universal success among AAPIs also obscures the fact that many in our communities are struggling. By lumping all AAPIs together, it masks a poverty rate of 29% among Burmese Americans and 22% among Hmong Americans, compared to 11.8% among all Asian Americans. While infant mortality was 3.6 deaths per 1,000 live births for Asian Americans in 2018, it was 9.4 among Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. Without disaggregation of health and other data for AAPI groups, health inequities and social injustices in many of our diverse communities will remain invisible.

Anti-Asian racism isn’t always in your face. It can manifest in subtle biases and stereotypes that reduce us to unidimensional, overachieving, almost robot-like caricatures that play into the whole myth of the model minority; capable of working hard and following directions and getting the job done, but incapable of full expression of our humanity, including vision and judgment and creativity and emotional intelligence and other qualities required for organizational leadership. These stereotypes cause many AAPIs to get passed over for promotion or even training for leadership roles, which may explain why Asian Americans make up 27% of professional staff at the top five companies in Silicon Valley, but only 14% of executives and 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs11% of law firm associates, but only 3% of partners7% of tenured faculty, but only 3% of deans and 1.5% of college presidents9.8% of federal workforce, but only 4.4% of senior executive service. Some in our communities refer to this as “the bamboo ceiling.”

I can go on and on, but I am only one voice. One of many, many voices out there that need to be heard. So, I have three asks of our community today:

First, to our faculty, academics, staff and students who identify as AAPI, please speak up. Make your voice heard. Tell your story. Share your experiences of racism. This is our moment to name it, confront it, shine a light on it. Our collective pain will remain invisible until we call it out.

I know how hard this has been for many of you. Our hearts go out to the victims of recent racist attacks and their families, as well as so many in our community who have been in anguish. For those who may be in need, here a few helpful resources:

Second, to our non-AAPI faculty, academics, staff and students, please say something. Many of your AAPI friends, colleagues and neighbors are hurting silently right now; tell them that you see them. You feel their pain. You stand in solidarity with them. For those of you who want to learn more about anti-Asian racism, here are a few good recent articles to get you started.

Please share other articles or resources you’ve found useful. You don’t have to be an expert to speak up; you just have to care.

Third, let’s recommit ourselves to becoming more anti-racist as individuals and as a community. In these dark days, I have to say I’m so thankful to be in a community where I can send out a message like this, knowing that many AAPIs out there going to work (or appearing on Zoom) this morning will have to hide their pain because no one at work will understand what they are going through. It’s comforting to know that I am among friends and colleagues who believe we are better than this and are willing to roll up their sleeves to make this country and the world a better place.

People of BPH found in this article include: