I know most of us are on overload right now as we continue to witness the brutality enacted upon Blacks in the United States. From police killings to false accusations of criminal assault to medical experimentations and the lack of access to housing, employment and healthcare…all this continues to play over and over for black and brown Americans. Amidst the strain of COVID19, we bear witness. Some march in the streets. It’s a lot, friends. Almost too much!
But, there’s more.
Today, Ellen Oh is going to detail what it’s like being Asian American in the time of COVID-19. The same imperialism breeds the biases, the fear and the hate again Native Americans, People of Color, Jewish and Muslim people, those with disabilities and those who are LGTBQIA+. It’s all the same, just repackaged and wrapped in ways that convinces these groups to fear and distrust each other and to play oppression olympics when we’re all oppressed by different sides of the same coin.
So, you may be on overload, perhaps you’ll need to read this tomorrow, or next week. But, do read Ellen’s passionate essay and keep reading. And, keep resisting. Teach the young; buy and read diverse books.
“The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.” ~Maya Angelou
It’s been hard to celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month because of this pandemic. Truth is, it’s been hard to do anything in what has been deeply trying times for the whole world. But for diasporic Asians in America, we have been reminded once again that a large section of this country will never see us as Americans.
My Covid-19 experience started in March just as my allergies kicked in and I was on a plane back from a conference in Utah, the last in-person event of the year for me due to the lockdown. I coughed and the African American woman next to me immediately asked to switch seats. I coughed on the platform to take the train to the terminals and a group of old white ladies glared at me and continued to evil-eye me the entire ten minutes we waited for the train. I walked to the other end of the platform, away from them. There were plenty of people on both ends. The train is 2 cars long. I was the only Asian amongst a group of about 30 people that was fairly mixed racially. When the train arrived, I got on the first car and suddenly noticed I was completely alone. All the other passengers got on the second car. It struck me as surreal, I didn’t know what to make of it.
It wasn’t until I was home that I really understood how the rhetoric had taken hold. “Chinese virus” “I hate Chinese” “The Chinese are to blame” it went. But I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean so it shouldn’t have bothered me, right? To the many ignorant Americans ready to excoriate an entire country’s people, all Asians look alike. The violent anti-Asian attacks in the news were only those reported. Thousands more were kept quiet, part of the “don’t make waves” mindset of many Asian immigrants.
For me, I live in a fairly diverse area, so I’ve not been afraid for my life, but my whole family has had to deal with microaggressions. An old white guy staring at me as I slowly drove past him, spits and misses my car. Two older white ladies yell out “you people should know better” as I walk my dog in my neighborhood without a mask (our state only requires masks in stores). A young Black boy, who is one of my neighbors, points and shouts “you’re the virus” at my kids as they step out of our house with the dogs, and then runs away. These are just a few that we’ve dealt with. But I’m glad that it has been minor and non-violent. And it hasn’t been too bad because we’ve followed our state’s quarantine guidelines. But there have been terrible stories spreading amongst the community. Beatings, harassment, and ugly racial incidents that don’t make the news. The older generation is particularly targeted. I fear for my mom in NY, who had a few young people follow her for a block, harassing her to take her “diseased ass back to China” until a good Samaritan stopped them. My mom, who considers herself a life-long New Yorker and never wanted to leave, is now making plans to move from the city she loves.
Racism of this sort is always used for purpose. It is to demonize one race and turn the others against them, so they can’t join together against their mutual oppressors. For Asian Americans, they are literally the model group used for that divisive spirit. The term model minority was meant to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and the other marginalized groups, but specifically Black Americans. It pushed the myth that racism can be overcome by studying and working hard without taking into consideration that: 1. There was selective immigration of highly educated Asian Americans allowed into the US, and; 2. Ignoring the role and legacy of slavery in this country.
The model minority is not only a myth (Asians are not a monolith and for many the American Dream has been completely out of reach) it is a racial wedge. And that’s the only time it is every used, to divide POC. It is discarded easily when it doesn’t suit the narrative of the time. Like now.
Systematic racism divides even those within the Asian American community. Too many non-Chinese Asians are also buying into the harmful rhetoric that the Chinese are to blame. There are historical roots for this. During the Japanese internment, Chinese, Korean, Filipino immigrants wore “I am not Japanese” buttons as a self-defense measure against the harmful Anti-Japanese propaganda of the time. Fast forward to the Cold war period and Anti-Japanese rhetoric is replaced with Anti-Communist and Anti-Chinese hysteria. Not long after, North Koreans becomes the despised yellow man of the time. In all of this, one thing has never changed, the conflation of different Asian ethnicities into one. So that being identified as the wrong Asian is a racist microaggression faced by diasporic Asians to this very day.
And ultimately what it all comes down to is othering. Asian Americans will always be looked at as outsiders first and foremost. We will never be true Americans. Our culture and foods? too foreign. Our ways? too inscrutable. Our people? too exotic. Othering dehumanizes and keeps us as some form of alien species.
The only way to counter this narrative is to share our cultural joy, our powerful narratives, through literature in ways that break the stereotypes and makes othering harder to do. That is why diversity in children’s literature is so important. It is the first line of defense against racism. It teaches our young empathy and exposes them to new worlds, new cultures, new peoples. As we live through a frightening and uncertain time, I must believe that it can change. That those holding on to the power structures created by the history of racism in this country, are fighting desperately to retain it like cornered rats, lashing out viciously and violently. But we CAN change. There’s enough of us who care. We WILL win. If not today, definitely tomorrow. But only if we continue to fight for diversity in all kid lit.
Ellen Oh is a former adjunct college instructor and lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She loves martial arts films, K-pop, K-dramas, and cooking shows, and is a rabid fan of the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra series. Ellen is the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diversity in children’s literature. Originally from New York City, Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband and three children and has yet to satisfy her quest for a decent bagel.