On March 9th, 2020, I walked into a BART train and made eye contact with a
middle-aged white woman who immediately pulled her shirt up to cover her nose.
“Oh,” I thought. “It’s because I’m Chinese.”
That realization stung. I didn’t know how to react, so I didn’t. I sat there and took
it. Well, I actually sat there fuming and wondering why I was born Chinese, and why I had to be blamed for COVID-19.
I didn’t want to think that the entire world was against me. It was much easier to blame
everything on the BART woman, so I did. With every assumption I made about her, my anger grew. She didn’t deserve to be debated with. It was perfectly fine for me to sit back, because it would be impossible to argue with her, because she was racist. She is racist. She probably teaches her children stereotypes about everyone who isn’t like her family. She probably thinks that immigrants stole a better job from her. She probably works in a small office and listens to Rush Limbaugh religiously. I packed all of my wordly anger into a wildly stereotyped persona that I had crafted around the BART woman.
That night while I was in bed going over what had happened, a thought occurred to me. Maybe she didn’t mean it that way. Maybe she just hated the smell of the train. Maybe she just felt cold.
So, I lay there, struggling with my thoughts. Did I want her to be racist or not?
Say she was. Say she wanted me to physically see her disgust. She looked at me and
couldn’t contain her hatred. That would make this an isolated incident, an act of hate and ignorance that I can in turn ignore. I could go on in life never worrying about this again. It was her problem, not mine.
But say she wasn’t being racist. Say she was just cold, or her nose was itchy. If she wasn’t being racist, why did I feel the way I did?
Living in the Bay Area with its prominent Chinese American population, I always felt like anti-Chinese racism was removed from my daily life. People who are racist towards Chinese people reside in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, not in our beautifully diverse metropolitan areas. Despite my false sense of security, social media, the news, and the sitting president’s use of the term “Chinese Virus” were all screaming at me that it was only a matter of time before I was attacked.
My encounter with this particular white woman isn’t a proper reflection of the racism I experience in America, nor is it a proper reflection of the racism that people of color regularly experience. However, this incident reflects the constant struggle BIPOC face on a day to day basis. We must always be on the lookout for racism. In a society that is inherently racist, there doesn’t need to be a direct attack for me to feel uncomfortable. Indeed, in America, we can be extremely diverse, but our country was founded on racism and xenophobia, a shared heritage we have to fight every day of our lives.
When the Chinese came for the Gold Rush, America responded with the Foreign Miner’s
Tax Act. When the Chinese started settling down on the West Coast, America responded with the Chinese Exclusion Act. When the Chinese simply existed, America responded with the Pigtail Ordinance, the Cable Act, and anti-miscegenation acts. With no way to gain citizenship, we were perpetual foreigners, squeezed into Chinatowns and surrounded by anti-Chinese sentiments. San Francisco, which now has the largest percentage of Chinese Americans in the United States, was the birthplace of the Workingmen’s Party of California, which coined the then-popular statement, “the Chinese must go!” We were seen as a “race of people whom nature has marked as inferior” by the California Supreme Court case, People vs. Hall in 1854. We were degraded and humiliated. As strangers in a foreign land, as well as members of a community, we were attacked in our homes, during the San Francisco riot of 1877 and the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles as well as many other examples since.
Despite all this, we carried on, and America moved on. Now, the model minority myth follows us everywhere. We are “perfect immigrants,” model students, and complacent followers. In only 100 years, the Chinese went from despised vermin infecting America to being perceived as hard-working and well-educated. This switch didn’t happen just because we were recognized for our hard work. This switch was a product of a time of turmoil in America, when the Civil Rights Movement, led mainly by Black activists, was awakening the nation. In calling for equal rights for all people of color, activists were seen as radicals. In response, white America cited the success stories of Asian Americans, arguing that Black Americans could also gain success by focusing on education and conforming to the racist structures of America. This was not an example of Asian Americans finally being applauded for their work; we were being exploited as tools to undermine the Civil Rights Movement.
This model minority myth makes Asian Americans one-dimensional. We are test scores,
brand-name purses, and quiet sustainers of the status quo. The work we do is dismissed because we are supposedly inherently more intelligent. This dismissal ignores the history of violence and discrimination we experienced to get where we are. It encourages ignorance, and ignorance drives racism. Ignorance breeds fear and hate, and ignorance is taught. Ignorance is what killed Vincent Chin, a Chinese man about to be married when two white men violently murdered him, apparently blaming him for the success of Japan’s auto industry. They didn’t spend a day in jail. Ignorance impacts people from all regions, and from all races. We’ve all heard stories like Vincent Chin’s, because unfortunately, he wasn’t an outlier. The public execution of George Floyd and of Rayshard Brooks 30 years after Chin’s murder attest to America’s sad reality.
The COVID-19 pandemic that started in Wuhan, China did not start a new strain of
racism against those of Chinese and Asian descent in the United States; it simply re-opened age old wounds. Nevertheless, the struggles that Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans face aren’t specific to us. Discrimination, microaggressions, and racism are widespread in modern America, and they impact everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. A call to end racism is a unifying call, a call to put aside our differences and agree that all racism should be condemned. When one of us suffers from racism’s sting, all of us are poisoned.