Content warning: This newsletter contains references to racial violence.
One day last year, I was doing a phone interview for a story about race and activism. It was with another racialized person, so it wasn’t weird that we were discussing our own experiences—until, about halfway through the conversation, they told me that I haven’t really experienced racism. At first, I wasn’t hurt as much as I was confused. I’m racially ambiguous, sure, but I have brown skin, so I haven’t run into very many people who doubt my experiences. Then I realized what was going on: we were on the phone and they had no idea what I looked like. They only had my last name to go on, which seemed to be enough for them to decide not only that I must be Chinese, but that my experience as a person of colour wasn’t valid. They went on to clarify that, okay, maybe I had experienced some racism, but it couldn’t have been that bad. What’s more, they were sure that my parents came here with money, which must have eased my path.
When I realized what they were really saying, the first thing I thought was, ‘You can’t react.’ This was a work call, and I was (maybe irrationally) worried that my behaviour in the next few moments could reflect poorly on the publication I was writing for. So, I tried to explain that those stereotypes weren’t accurate and quickly moved on—though honestly, I think all I managed to communicate was that they weren’t true of my experience.
When I hung up, I was kind of surprised at how emotional I was. I felt dismissed, overlooked and even kind of embarrassed, because I thought this person and I were on the same side, and realizing they didn’t think of me that way felt like a punch to the gut. And then there was the confusion of whether I deserved to feel anything. My last name comes from my grandpa, who was half Chinese, so maybe what they said kind of did apply to me? Then again, I wondered if the connection to my Asian heritage might have been too distant or diluted to “matter.” Plus, they’d dismissed me based on an inaccurate assumption, so in a way, it wasn't even really about me? Here’s the thing, though: Confusion over exactly where I belong in conversations about race doesn’t prevent me from being caught in the net of someone else’s prejudice.
I’m not telling you about this conversation to imply that I know what it’s like to be East or Southeast Asian—to watch over the past year as hate crimes against your community spike by 149% in America (where overall hate crimes have actually dropped) and 600% to 700% in some major Canadian cities, to see your grandpas and grandmas beaten, and sometimes die from their injuries, or to fear going out by yourself. I don’t, any more than I know what it’s like to be Black, Indigenous, South Asian or Pacific Islander.
But I’ve been thinking about that conversation more and more over the past few months, and especially this week, after a 21-year-old white man went on a shooting rampage at three massage parlours in the Atlanta area. He killed eight people, six of them Asian women. And it’s hard not to see a throughline connecting that person’s comments and this tragedy: white supremacy, and the fact that our media still can’t, or won’t, recognize it when they see it.
Last May, after a week where Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Tony McDade and George Floyd died in “officer involved killings” and Christian Cooper narrowly escaped what could have been a deadly altercation with New York City police, I wrote about the importance of being an ally to our Black family and friends. When I sent that edition of the newsletter out, I’d already been writing and editing stories about race for years, not to mention a literal lifetime of discussing these issues with my family and friends. And the suggestions I made back then still hold up, with many applying here, too. But, like a lot of people, I’ve done a significant amount of learning in the intervening 10 months (I’m not sure about the word ally anymore, for one thing) and this week has made it extremely clear that many journalists and news outlets, well, didn’t.
You can tell by the way the Atlanta spa shootings have been covered: journalists parroted Cherokee County Sheriff's Capt. Jay Baker’s assertion that there’s not enough evidence to say whether this was a hate crime, even though the shooter killed eight people—Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels, plus two more who have yet to be identified—and all but two of them were Asian women. (Park and Grant were identified by Korea Times Atlanta, which didn’t cite the sources of this information; the other victims were identified by Atlanta police.)
In contrast, South Korea’s biggest daily newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, quoted an eyewitness who reports hearing the killer shout “Kill all Asians” while he was shooting.
Journalists also amplified Baker’s inappropriately sympathetic statement that “yesterday was a really bad day for [the killer] and this is what he did.” They allowed police, and the shooter, to float a narrative around sex addiction, even though there’s little evidence that this disorder even exists (or that he even means it the way we think). They wrote headlines about his church attendance, and quoted former classmates who described him as “innocent seeming,” “sorta nerdy” and “big into religion.” They emphasized his youth. In short, they humanized a killer—just like they always do to white men who carry out mass murder. In fact, they helped kick-start the rehabilitation of his image before his victims were even all identified.
This is a massive failure and a disservice to the entire Asian diaspora. As journalists, our job is not to repeat what police tell us uncritically. Our job is to to tell the truth, situate news events in a larger context and give our audiences—our entire audiences, not just the white segments—the information they need to understand what’s happening in the world.
as we get past the news breaking of this anti-asian violence, we need to acknowledge and grapple with the specificity of this violence: that these were attacks on asian women who were made more vulnerable by their class status and work status— bettina makalintal (@bettinamak) March 17, 2021
And in this case, context is particularly important. This killing is the unsurprising outcome of former U.S. president Donald Trump whipping up anti-Asian sentiment by referring to COVID-19 as “Kung Flu” or the “China virus.” But it’s also part of a long tradition of anti-Asian racism in America. As Nicholas L. Hatcher writes in Teen Vogue, “the string of high-profile attacks on Asian American elders like Vicha Ratanapakdee, and the surrounding discourse, has served to characterize violence against Asian Americans as a new phenomenon; but in fact, it is rooted in a long history of racism and U.S. policy. Violence against Asian Americans is not just isolated violent attacks by bad actors; it is also a system of policy and a legacy of dehumanization.” That legacy belongs to Canada, too; from laws discouraging or straight-up preventing Chinese immigration, to barring Chinese, Japanese and South Asians from voting (which lasted until the 1940s), to school segregation, to Japanese internment camps, we have our own long and brutal history of anti-Asian racism.
The hypersexualization of Asian women plays a HUGE part in the violence we face. I've been cornered on the street as men say "me love you long time." I've been offered money for a "happy ending massage." I've been hit on because I'm Asian and told it's a "compliment."— Christine Liwag Dixon (@cmliwagdixon) March 17, 2021
But it’s not just about racism. We can’t separate out the victims’ gender. According to new data from Stop AAPI Hate, 68% of the people who experienced racist incidents between March 2020 and February 2021 were women. (Trans and non-binary respondents made up 2% of the respondents.) Some of the victims were working in precarious, low-paying jobs during a pandemic; their class matters too. And while we don’t know that these women were sex workers, it’s clear the shooter saw them that way, which plays into long-standing stereotypes about Asian women’s submissiveness and sexual availability.
Of course, the vast majority of pieces I read didn’t include any of this necessary, intersectional perspective. It took days before we even learned who some of the victims were, and even then, North American media outlets were only able to provide the barest sketches of their lives. This matters, not just because they were human beings who deserve to have the fullness of their lives recognized but also, from a practical perspective, because some people need these details in order to dredge up empathy.
I don’t necessarily think that these editorial decisions were malicious. But the fact that journalists are still making these basic-as-fuck mistakes after months of conversations, unconscious bias training, social media call-outs and supposed “listening and learning” around anti-Black racism makes me question, again, just how likely this industry is to change.
all oppressed peoples should be in solidarity at all times. nuanced conversations about our own power dynamics can still happen within that solidarity but i’m tired of it only coming up in times of murder.— FLEEKNIK (@Judnikki) March 17, 2021
Last July, I attended an anti-oppression workshop where the facilitator told us something that has stuck with me: white supremacy is like the air. We’re all constantly breathing it in, even those of us who are working to unlearn and dismantle it, even people of colour. I thought about that after my terrible interview, and I’ve come back to it again and again in the months since. If the media we consume doesn’t spell out the cause of racism (white supremacy) and instead only focuses on its outcome (discrimination, hatred and violence against racialized people), we are left to understand it as individual action, not a system that benefits from pitting us against one another.
So, it’s not surprising that the person I interviewed didn’t see Asian people's experiences as valid. And to be fair, when they said I didn’t experience racism the way they do, they were right. But none of us experience racism in exactly the same way. That doesn’t change the fact that it comes from the same place, and if we want to actually overcome it, that’s where we have to focus our work.
Here’s how you can support the Asian people in your life, and work to end Anti-Asian racism.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta is the first and only non-profit legal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in Georgia and the Southeast.
Metro Atlanta Mutual Aid is an Atlanta-based mutual aid fund that supports marginalized communities impacted by COVID-19.
The Chinese Canadian National Council For Social Justice promotes equity, social justice, inclusive civic participation and respect for diversity, and runs Fight Covid Racism, a site that documents instances of anti-Asian racism.
Red Canary Song is a U.S.-based grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers.
SWAN Vancouver provides culturally-specialized supports & advocacy for immigrant sex workers.
Butterfly is a Toronto organization that provides support to, and advocates for, the rights of Asian and migrant sex workers.
The Asian Mental Health Collective aims to normalize and de-stigmatize mental health within Asian-American communities.
Heart of Dinner provides elderly Asian-Americans in New York City with weekly hot lunches, fresh produce and bulk ingredients.
Red Canary Song’s response to the shootings
The Asian American Journalist Association’s guidelines for reporting on this week’s shooting
This action plan for Asian-Americans and their allies
It Was A Banner Year For Asian Representation. Now What? by Connie Wang
Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different by Morgan Ome
3. Take Action:
If you are a Canadian man, sign up for one of my FREE #WeStandUp bystander intervention trainings beginning this April.— Julie S. Lalonde (@JulieSLalonde) March 17, 2021
I want to see men *actually doing the work* & not just performing allyship through pithy tweets. ✌🏻
To get on the waitlist :
julie @ ihollaback dot org pic.twitter.com/9shQhUKGF3
Sign up for bystander intervention training. Hollaback!, a grassroots initiative that works to combat street harassment, offers both customized and free anti-harassment training, including several targeted at anti-Asian racism. Or get in touch with Canadian women’s rights advocate and educator Julie Lalonde directly.
Support your local Asian-owned small businesses, which have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.
And as always, proactively speak out. Check on your loved ones. Shut down anti-Asian racism when you see or hear it. Stand in solidarity.
Did I miss something? Send me feedback and corrections at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buzzfeed writer Albert Samaha’s excellent essay about trying to coming to terms with his mom’s support of QAnon.
This really thoughtful critique of Time’s Elliot Page profile.
The former Woody Allen superfan reckoning with the consequences of his fandom.
This nuanced essay about representation at the Grammys—and what a solution would actually look like.
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