The recent mass shooting in the American city of Atlanta that left eight people dead, six of them women of Asian descent, has cast a harsh light on ongoing violence against Asian Americans and Asians globally. Coinciding with the emergence of COVID-19, this latest outbreak of anti-Asian hate got a prominent boost last March, when former U.S. President Donald Trump began referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus.” In the year since, members of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) community across the U.S. have united in protest, campaigning to call attention to hate crimes and organizing events commemorating victims.
But not everyone in the AAPI community agrees that these incidents qualify as hate crimes — or even that America has a racism problem at all. On Chinese-language social media, users, many of them first-generation immigrants from China, continue to deny that Asians are being targeted. Even when presented with evidence, like reports from Stop AAPI Hate that keep track of the mounting number of attacks, they argue the Atlanta shooting was not racially motivated because not all the victims were Asian.
Others blame the victims, taking the gunman at his word and attributing his violence to a “sex addiction,” implying that the victims died because of their connection to massage parlors. This goes beyond what happened in Atlanta. According to one widespread rumor on Chinese-language social media, a 75-year-old Chinese woman who was assaulted in San Francisco’s Chinatown was supposedly guilty of selling free food from charity organizations.
An extension of this is the argument that the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes is understandable in the context of the ongoing pandemic. As bewildering as it may seem, some Chinese in the U.S. agree with Trump’s core premise: that the virus came from China, that the term “Chinese virus” is valid, not racist, and that Chinese people deserve to bear the consequences of this hateful rhetoric. Conveniently, it’s a stance that also lets them nullify perpetrators’ racial motives.
This undercurrent of denial has generally remained confined to Chinese-speaking communities and social media in the U.S., and it has gone largely unmentioned in mainstream American coverage of the recent attacks. To understand where it comes from, it’s important to first understand how it fits into the context of both the pandemic and the recent American political climate. In particular, it can be seen as a continuation of the arguments within the Chinese community over the Black Lives Matter movement: That is, does systematic racism exist in the United States, and if so, how should Chinese and Chinese Americans respond to it?
The Chinese community in the U.S. has undergone a possibly unprecedented split over the U.S. presidential election and its aftermath. This split is largely along ideological lines. Many of those currently denying the existence of hate crimes are strident Trump supporters and anti-communists who refuse to see the U.S. as anything other than a beacon of freedom. They buy into racial hierarchies that position whites — and America — as representative of advanced civilization, and see discrimination against “backward” racial and ethnic groups as justified. They also believe that most perpertrators of the recent violence are members of these “backward” groups, but that the mainstream media only covers those incidents perpetrated by whites.
These views largely echo and reinforce the rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories found on Chinese-language social media and chat groups. They accuse their opponents of being “leftists,” and claim racism is simply a political manipulation. As social media spaces become more and more polarized, there’s little room left for dialogue. Both sides are just repeating their existing views, and find the other’s viewpoints increasingly ridiculous.
Rallygoers hold signs at a protest against hate crimes in front of the New York Public Library, March 27, 2021. Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/People Visual
That said, the roots of this denial stretch back far further than the Trump years. Historically, Asians and Asian Americans have been relatively invisible in U.S. society, not because their population is small, but because they tend to be silent on many social and political issues. While this silence is usually attributed to cultural values or traditions, it’s better understood as a result of the discrimination and violence Asians suffered over centuries of immigration and integration into American society. The term “model minority” was coined to make Asian immigrants believe they could break free from this cycle of racism. As long as they worked hard, so the thinking went, they could one day achieve an equal status with their white counterparts.
Over the years, this “model minority” myth has been internalized by many Asian immigrants to deny or ignore the existence of deeply rooted, structural racism. In particular, many first-generation immigrants are very proud of their success stories: Landing in the United States with a suitcase and little money, they earned an education, found decent jobs, and have built lives for themselves, complete with the American dream of a house in the suburbs. These stories of individual success reinforce their belief in the “model minority” idea, and can be deployed to establish a sense of superiority over other ethnic and racial minorities in the country. Unsurprisingly, many members of this group tend toward victim-blaming in cases involving people of color — even when it’s their own color.
Yet to deny the racial motives behind the recent attacks is to reveal a complete ignorance of the history of Asian immigrants, as well as the history of colonialism and imperialism in the development of modern racism. Anti-Asian racism exists, the harm it’s done to Asian communities in the U.S. is real, and no one, regardless of political ideology or social status, is immune. After all, the current pandemic is far from the first time that Chinese or other Asian immigrants have been excluded — quite literally in the case of the Chinese Exclusion Act —exploited, or scapegoated for America’s domestic crises.
To stop anti-Asian violence, we need to recover this history, and to stand together with other minority groups in calling for justice for all. With a better understanding of how the history of Asian immigration and racism is deeply entwined with America’s social structure, more people can come to see how the model minority myth was developed to suppress minorities, not help them. Just like the death of George Floyd and so many other African Americans before him forced Americans to reckon with the need for police reform, the recent tragedies experienced by Asians will hopefully raise awareness of America’s long tradition of anti-Asian racism. Perhaps then, Chinese in the U.S. could set aside our ideological conflicts long enough to recognize that we share a common enemy: racism.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: People demonstrate against anti-Asian violence and racism in Los Angeles, March 27, 2021. Mario Tama/Getty Images/People Visual)