By Judy M. Lam
When it shows itself, hate strikes by surprise and in our safest spaces.
My heart breaks to see hate strike at Occidental College, fondly referred to as Oxy by those of us who studied there. Earlier this month, year-old private texts between two Oxy students were publicly shared on social media. They start with the false belief that Asians are to blame for the pandemic, and conclude that all Asians should die. Excellence and equity are among the cornerstones of Oxy’s mission and my experience as a student. And yet, this did not make my alma mater immune from racist ignorance.
This incident exposes the hate and ignorance that can flourish in private spaces, even among youth who are educated and talented enough to get into a highly competitive, elite college like Oxy. This prompts me to ask how such fervent beliefs came to be in such young minds. What do these students (and others who think like them) draw upon to form their beliefs about Asian people and decide that “all Asians” should die? Do they have any idea of the multitude of different cultures within the term “Asian,” as distinguished from the unique experience of those who identify as white Americans? What happened in their preparatory education and life experience that failed to prepare them to respect and be curious about people who probably share a lot in common with them? And what can we do in response?
The college took several actions to support students immediately after the Instagram post went viral, and the author of the offensive text withdrew from the school. Still, Oxy’s students and many writers have demanded stronger and swifter action to keep students safe from such hateful expressions. After 30 years as a lawyer, nonprofit leader and an advocate for the Asian American community, I feel gutted by this incident and the great wave of hate and threats across the country, aimed at Asians, Blacks, immigrants, and other marginalized people, even in our most sacred spaces–churches and schools. We must find other solutions to change the understanding of my community, because legal solutions do not help here – the law cannot stop private thoughts, and it actually protects the speakers of hateful speech.
Such hate and prejudice are based on misinformation and prejudice about people of Asian descent. The U.S. has a long history of scapegoating us when times get tough – blaming us for job losses, economic insecurity, coveted seats in schools, painting us as a threat (The Yellow Peril) and as the perpetual foreigner who should “go home”–even though many of us have lived here for generations. This bias was used to incarcerate 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. These seeds of prejudice were invoked by a sitting president who blamed the Chinese for causing the Covid-19 pandemic. What followed was a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021, almost three times the alarming growth seen in 2020, according to a national study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Just today, a man pled guilty to targeting and viciously knifing a family at Sam’s Club because he believed they came from the country that started spreading the Covid-19 disease.
While Oxy is going through its own process of addressing the harm caused by that text chain, the incident led me to consider what I and others can do to fight hate and find healing. Here are some suggestions:
1. Dose up on courage. Show up and do the courageous thing.
Stand up and speak up. Call out, call in, and call on. Report hate when it happens, but also consider whether you escalate the harm by making private words public. Train in bystander intervention. We can show our true selves, our heritage, and our humanity so brilliantly that we defy the stereotypes and myths about Asians and Asian Americans. We must confront and battle racism among Asians as well. This means addressing the biases instilled in us about White, Black and Brown people, and breaking down barriers between us and other racial groups.
It’s easy to post on social media. How about holding tough and compassionate conversations with those who disagree with us, or those who don’t even want to know us, instead? We can build understanding, appreciation, empathy and common ground, not with speeches and demands, but with curiosity and dialogue.
2. Unite as a coalition against hate.
The antidote to hate is unity. We should battle hate, bias, and inequality – not people. We can’t let hate blind us, divide us. The sun still shines brightly on the Oxy that I know and still believe endures as a haven for education, differing ideas, and respect. Racism has deep roots, so more challenges will come. We can meet them better together.
Let’s recognize and count on good people and institutions. When they falter, or one of us falters, we should speak our truth, and then help each other do better. As Tema Okun says, holding someone accountable means supporting each other to be our best selves.
Let’s ask our black and brown friends for their support and experience, because they know too well this pain we feel. They’ve built coalitions and movements and civil rights struggles that secured the rights we enjoy. Let’s bring along our elders and family who may have differing generational opinions, but who will unite against hatred. In this way, we create brave spaces. We find safety, unity and a new narrative.
We need a coalition of talented minds and souls determined to uplift the Asian and Asian American community and the greater community of all who stand strong with us and for us — for equity – united and courageous.
Judy Lam, a Los Angeles attorney in private practice, was the first in her family to attend college. She currently serves on the board of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). The ideas expressed here are her own and not those of any group or firm she has been / may be affiliated with.
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