By Junnie Bae and Min Liu
Since the start of the pandemic, America has seen a disturbing 160 percent increase in hate and violence against Asian American communities.
With horror, we watched video clips documenting senseless acts of violence against the community’s elderly, the most vulnerable. Here in St. Louis Missouri, neither the City nor the County police has received recent reports of hate crimes against the Asian community. But is the local Asian community fearful about anti-Asian backlash in the nation and here in the Midwest? Do Asian youth encounter xenophobic words and acts right here in St. Louis? A resounding yes to both.
Asian American youth can often pinpoint a specific childhood moment when they first became fully aware of their “Asian-ness”, whether it’s a comment about their looks, the smell of their food, or mispronunciation of their names; henceforth begins the lifelong journey of building a healthy cultural identity.
Yet, for too many Asian youth, those unique qualities and experiences that should be a source of pride for their heritage soon become subjects of ridicule by ill-informed people. From disrespecting our cuisine to mocking the sound of our names, hateful and racist comments often come disguised as humor.
“Lighten up it’s just a joke”, we are told. Or “I know your family doesn’t eat dogs but surely you know someone who does?” And the caustic jokes about people like us eating bat soup. Hateful remarks like these are motivated by xenophobic anti-Asian attitudes that date back to the earliest era of Asian settlement in the U.S., which continue to victimize our youth today.
For young Asian Americans who want to be accepted, their options are limited: by either internalizing or ignoring these racist jokes. Hence the complicit silence and the guilt of not having spoken up for themselves and others.
In an attempt to understand the youth’s experiences with anti-Asian hate here in St. Louis, Asian American Civic Scholars, a St. Louis Asian youth group, polled area high school students of Asian descent in the week after the Atlanta shooting.
The respondents reported being called bat eaters, ch*nks, China virus, and kung flu to their faces by peers, strangers, or their neighbors. One Chinese American girl in St. Louis county witnessed her mom, a small business owner, being told by a customer that they did not deserve to be happy because “your people brought this virus to America”.
The youth were jeered at and bullied while peers flashed the racist “slanted” eyes gesture at them, or insisted on calling it the China virus for weeks. Complete strangers took the time to slide into their social media accounts with hateful racial slurs. About 70% of the survey respondents encountered or observed anti-Asian hate incidents, 88% felt overwhelmingly concerned about the increase of hate crimes, and 40% felt it unsafe for them or family to walk alone in public.
The Atlanta shootings shook Asian American communities around the country with a painful reminder of how deeply rooted hatred could manifest into the most sinister form of evil. While rallies and vigils were held, and community members joined to mourn the lives lost, we were infuriated to hear a police statement describing the murders as a result of the killer having “a bad day.” T
he discussions about whether the killings were racially motivated almost felt pointless, as they distracted us from the real important discussion we need to have now—what will each one of us do to effect changes needed to address the xenophobia and racism behind anti-Asian hate?
The Asian communities have lived, worked, run businesses, organized, and voted here in St. Louis for more than 100 years. Yet our youth, no matter how long ago their families settled here, continue to carry the intolerable burden of being treated as the perpetual foreigner.
Now more than ever we can no longer be silent. We must confront the malicious intent behind those “jokes” told in classrooms, on sidewalks, on social media, and yes on the news, and remind everyone, Asian communities and allies, that by not speaking up, we become accomplices in greenlighting more racial prejudice and violence against the Asian community. By speaking up, we join with full force the fight for social justice for all.
(About the Authors: Junnie Bae is a junior at Metro Academic and Classical High School in St. Louis, Missouri, and a member of Asian American Civic Scholars (AACS) and Min Liu is a Professor of Communication at SIUE and advisor of AACS)
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