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Op-Ed: Why Asian hate isn’t surprising

By Irene Kim

For a larger half of my life, it felt wrong to even categorize myself as a person of color. When classmates would call me Asian slurs or pull their eyes back, I felt uncomfortable. Yet I loathed myself even more for the discomfort I felt. Shouldn’t I just be grateful for my “privilege”? After all, I was the model minority; I was supposed to be silent. 

Despite seeing the immediate uptick in hate crimes as the pandemic hit, I still hesitated in my advocacy for Asian hate. I had spent years advocating for others, yet I suddenly forgot how to advocate for myself. Racism against my kind was already too normalized.

In 2016, I joined my first public school in a suburban, White area of New Jersey after attending school in Korea. All of a sudden, White people were the majority. And all of a sudden, I was constantly, silently looked down upon. Excelling in my classes meant microaggressions constantly flung at me, stereotyping me as the nerd of my class. I was hit with various microaggressions that weren’t “harsh” enough for me to tell an administrator, but just enough for me to feel belittled and enraged. 

The sudden and stark difference in the way I was treated after moving to America should have been an immediate red flag. I silently took in the grimaces my White peers made as I opened my lunch, the silent mockery of Korean celebrations and music, the way they pulled back their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking. Yet, lacking the full understanding of racism and White supremacy at the time, I remained silent. Quickly, my outgoing personality was forced into silence — exactly what society wanted of me as a “model minority.” I did not yet know that being silent as the model minority was just another gaslighting tool posited by White folk.

Instead, as a naive middle schooler, my biggest takeaway was that acceptance was tied to being as associated with White people and whiteness as possible. Therefore, the immediate reaction of me and hundreds of Asians across the country was to distance ourselves from our culture. Our Korean lunches, with bulgogi and kimchi, were replaced with slices of pizza from the school cafeteria. Any previous appreciation of Korean music morphed into a disdain for KPop. Though I missed the rich aspects of my culture that once encompassed my life, I felt trapped. We Asians were walking a fine line of choosing between embracing our culture or being silently isolated at school. 

Now, I know that choosing avoidance is exactly what our society, constructed by and through racism, wanted of me. So this is why I understand the ongoing silence of so many of my Asian peers. They’re afraid that associating themselves with Asian advocacy will mean distancing themselves from White assimilation and undergoing possible rejection from their majority White peers. 

I’m sure that the millions of people who had perpetuated these microaggressions saw the pandemic as a perfect opportunity to actively harm us now, without blame. 

 However, for the first time in centuries, #StopAsianHate has become a movement spurring important conversations at the national level. Harmful Asian racism and rhetoric are being deconstructed and investigated. And finally, we Asians feel we have the opportunity to come forward to share our stories of the stereotyping and racism that has shaped our lives. 

 It shouldn’t have taken a worldwide pandemic and multiple women being killed in a mass shooting for us to have initiated this conversation, but now that we are here, please stop trying to silence us. Listen to our stories. We are not and do not want to be your model minority. 

About the Author: Irene Kim, a junior at the Bergen County Academies in New Jersey, an avid Asian American activist, and the founder of the Justice Education Project. 

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