Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different

The author Cathy Park Hong sees the recent upsurge in violence as a turning point for Asian Americans.

Korean-Americans in 1992 after the Rodney King riots; An anti-Asian violence rally in Los Angeles in 2021.
Dayna Smith / The Washington Post / GETTY; RINGO CHIU / AFP / GETTY

“The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported,” the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Hong, 44, is the daughter of Korean immigrants and was raised in Los Angeles. Although she has written about race in her poetry, Minor Feelings is her first nonfiction book, a blend of memoir and cultural criticism. Her essays explore the painful and often invisible racial traumas that Asian Americans experience—traumas that have become impossible to ignore over the past year, as reports of anti-Asian racism and violence have increased.

Yesterday, a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Hong told me by email that she was grateful to see an outpouring of sympathy from people outside the Asian American community, but also expressed the concern that police and commentators would downplay the significance of the event. “I’m already seeing media trying to whitewash this incident,” she wrote, “saying it’s not racially motivated, taking words of the police over the stories of these women.”

Earlier this year, several attacks on elderly Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area were captured on videos that went viral. One victim, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, died from his injuries. Although authorities in many cases have not determined—or are reluctant to say—whether these attacks are racially motivated, the overall pattern of violence is stark. Since March 2020, about 3,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been reported to the group Stop AAPI Hate. Last Thursday, President Joe Biden condemned “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated”—marking a contrast with his predecessor, who referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu.”

Hong’s work captures the peculiar spot that Asian Americans occupy in America’s racial hierarchy. The political scientist Claire Jean Kim has described this dynamic as “racial triangulation”: Neither Black nor white, Asians are simultaneously stereotyped as model minorities and perpetual foreigners, and thus used as a wedge between Black and white people. But with overt attacks apparently on the rise across the country, Americans of Asian descent are demanding attention to the racism they face.

I spoke with Hong in detail last week, before the Atlanta-area shootings. We discussed why reports of violence and hate have galvanized so many Asian Americans, across ethnicities, in the past year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Morgan Ome: Racism toward Asian Americans is not new. But recently, it feels as though more Asian Americans have been speaking up and protesting. Why?

Cathy Park Hong: A few years ago, David Dao, a Vietnamese doctor, was assaulted and dragged from a United Airlines flight. I remember the media did not talk about his identity. The story was just about him being a middle-class man who was dragged out of the airplane. Whereas when I saw that, I thought, I bet he wouldn’t have been treated that way if he were white. But no one was saying that. A lot has changed between then and now. It’s hard to say exactly what the reasons are. Part of it is because of Donald Trump. There has been a real retrenchment of identities, and people have been much more up-front in talking about race and structural racial inequities in this country. And that has resulted in a lot of Asian Americans speaking up.

When Black Lives Matter [gained force] in 2014—after Ferguson—I saw an increase in Asian American organizing and allyship. And last summer, people really internalized the Black Lives Matter protests and the conversation about social justice. Now, because of the anti-Asian racism that’s been happening, Asian Americans have been more moved to vocalize and organize—from writing commentaries in The New York Times to organizing groups to escort the elderly in Oakland’s Chinatown.

Ome: Has there been a moment like this before? The closest parallel that I could think of was the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982, which led to an outcry among Chinese and Japanese Americans. Other historical examples, such as Japanese internment during World War II, didn’t persuade Asians to protest on a mass scale. The damaging of Korean-owned businesses during the L.A. riots didn’t result in a lot of non-Koreans speaking up for the Korean community.

Hong: It’s true. You didn’t see other Asians coming in to support the Korean community after the L.A. riots. The difference now is that the people who are being attacked run the gamut. Even if they are thought to be Chinese, a lot of times they are Filipino or Vietnamese or Korean. One of the symptoms of racism is that you get all lumped together.

Another historical parallel was after 9/11, when Muslims were being attacked and persecuted. Or when Trump became president, there were talks about detaining Muslims. Americans were attacking Muslims or people who vaguely looked Muslim, including Hindu Indians, Sikh Indians—whoever looked brown. I believe that did galvanize the South Asian community and the Muslim community. We’re seeing that happen now. There is more aggressive activism among East Asians, Southeast Asians, and South Asians. It doesn’t really matter which group is being targeted.

Ome: Do you see any similarities between what’s happening now and what happened after the L.A. riots?

Hong: Similarly to the L.A. riots, there was an economic division between working-class African Americans and working-class Asian Americans. Many Black people resented Korean immigrants for coming into their neighborhood and opening stores they couldn’t open themselves, because they were redlined. At the same time, these Korean immigrants were barely scraping by. They didn’t have any insurance. But they were the next step up [from Black residents on the economic ladder]. There’s still a lot of that resentment from the L.A. riots, and memories of Latasha Harlins, who was killed by a Korean immigrant.

What’s very charged and tricky to talk about today are the optics of a Black or brown person assaulting or attacking the Asian elderly, like the Thai grandfather, Vicha Ratanapakdee. There’s a huge difference between the way second-generation or younger Asian Americans think about race and the way Asian immigrants think about race. Many younger Asian Americans are very sensitive to anti-Blackness in the Asian community, and about policing. With older Asian immigrants, these crimes may reaffirm their anti-Blackness and drive them toward the right.

What I fear is that these crimes are sowing deeper divisions between Black and Asian Americans, and that white people will not hold themselves accountable. Whenever I say on social media, “These attacks are symptomatic of white supremacy,” white people say, “How is it white supremacy when it’s not white people committing the crimes?” Claire Jean Kim has this really great racial-triangulation theory that talks about the relationship between Black, Asian, and white people. You saw that in the L.A. riots, and I see the same kind of dynamics being played out today.

Ome: So how do we move forward?

Hong: I don’t want to overcomplicate this. There are two ways of talking about this. The act of violence itself is wrong. You cannot excuse it. I think many Asian Americans have never talked about it, and so white people still don’t believe that Asian Americans face racism. Because we’re invisible, the racism against us has also been invisible. This is why it’s important that people are speaking up to show: “Actually, this has been happening, and there’s been a spike. But at the same time, this has been going on for a long time. We just haven’t really talked about it. And now we’re talking about it, and you have to pay attention.”

But it gets really tricky when the video [of an assault] becomes viral and we start talking about solutions beyond amplifying it. Part of the reason there’s a spike in anti-Asian violence is that people are angry and desperate. I’m not saying that we should excuse that. I’m just trying to think of the reasons why it’s happening to Asians. Earlier today, I was having a conversation where an interviewer told me that a police officer—who is Asian—said that he doesn’t believe [that recent attacks] are anti-Asian hate crimes.

Ome: The officer didn’t believe they’re racially motivated? What was his explanation?

Hong: Yes—that these assaults against Asians are just part of rising crime. I disagree with him. There have been plenty of incidents where the victims weren’t burglarized—they were attacked for no reason at all—and called racist slurs. I know people who live in Manhattan, specifically Asian American women who live alone, who are scared to go out by themselves, because they are followed and harassed and called all kinds of racial slurs. So this is not just some kind of hallucination.

Ome: Do you think that the events of the past year have forced this country to take racism against Asian Americans more seriously?

Hong: We have far to go. This is typical of this country, to not really focus on racism unless it’s sensationalized in some way, unless there’s a viral video, or someone gets murdered. I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans just forget and think, Onto the next news cycle. It’s great that white people and other non-Asians are picking up on this, but we can’t trust them to continue to train their attention on what’s happening to Asian Americans. We need to continue vocalizing who we are and our role in this country.

Ome: In Minor Feelings, you wrote about the difficulty of using the pronoun we because Asian Americans are such a diverse population. Do you still think Asian American is a meaningful descriptor?

Hong: It’s what we have right now.

Ome: Maybe I can clarify. The term Asian American was coined in 1968 by radical student organizers who were envisioning a pan-Asian, anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement. Is their notion of being Asian American just an ideal? Or is it a real identity-based coalition that you see forming?

Hong: People forget that history. I forget that too. Asian Americans came together because there was no term for us. Before, we were called Oriental, or by our nationalities. What created the name Asian American was the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement. Keep in mind, those Asian American organizers were second generation, maybe even third generation. They were Filipino, Chinese, Japanese. Quite a few of them had family put in internment camps. They were working-class. So they had a lot to be angry about.

It was really powerful, and it got written out of history. Part of it was because of the immigration patterns in America. After the late 1960s, there was this huge influx of Asians coming in from all different nations. We got way more diverse: Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, Koreans. A lot of those immigrants now have children who consider themselves American, but realize that they still have secondary status as Americans because of the color of their skin and because their voices don’t have the kind of reach that white people do.

Part of the new awareness and consciousness is because there are a lot more of us. And there are more of us who have been here long enough to demand that we need to be part of this country. More so than when I was in my 20s or even 30s, the younger generation is so much fiercer, so much more involved, and so much prouder of being Asian American. The rhetoric has changed from We want more Asians in Hollywood. It’s not just about representational politics. It’s also about confronting class inequity among Asian Americans and trying to build solidarity with other people of color.

What I like to say about Asian Americans is that if we think of Asian Americans as less of an identity, and more as a coalition, then maybe Asians will feel more comfortable identifying with it, because it allows room for all of our kind of national, economic, and regional distinctions.

Ome: In your book, you wrote, “Since the late sixties, when Asian American activists protested with the Black Panthers, there hasn’t been a mass movement we can call our own.” Why do you think that is?

Hong: Some people disputed that and said there has been a lot of activism since then. I would say that it was more fractured. But I think it’s really important to build a cross-cultural community among Asian Americans, and also bridges between Asian, Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities. And right now, we’re not really there yet.

If we want to fix the structural inequities, reform the criminal-justice system and the police, and have health care for all, it’s very important to also talk about our racial identity, because people feel intimately close to that. You can’t just say, like Andrew Yang does, that people are getting too much into identity. If white people are misusing identity or race to pit us against each other, we have to address that. In terms of getting what we want, and being proud of being [in the United States], and speaking out against violence, we need to build community. That means building an Asian American identity that’s beyond loving boba tea and K-pop.

Ome: What do you think about some of the solutions that have been put forth for combatting anti-Asian violence? Last April, Andrew Yang encouraged Asian Americans to show their patriotism. This year, President Biden issued a memorandum to condemn racism and intolerance toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. On the community level, there are calls for neighborhood patrols and other nonpolice safety measures.

Hong: I’m not an organizer. I’m not an activist. So I don’t know if I can tell you exactly what needs to be done. Maybe we should go back to what happened after the L.A. riots, and look at how people tried to rebuild, and see how it failed.

There was a campaign to funnel resources into South Central. There were Korean Americans who called for people to pay attention to the fact that most of their businesses burned down and they had no insurance. There were attempts at interracial community building. And they were abandoned. That’s usually what happens: Whenever there’s a crisis, the media and politicians pay attention. And then they abandon it. Right now, we need to continue amplifying these hate crimes. But I don’t think policing is the answer. Asking for more policing is not going to solve anti-Asian hate crimes and bias incidents. The reason being that the police right now have all the money and are completely militarized, and [violence against Asian Americans] is still happening.

Ome: In Oakland’s Chinatown, not everyone favors neighborhood patrols instead of policing. Some people want more policing. So even within a community, it’s hard to persuade everyone.

Hong: If you’re the one who has a store or is an employee in Chinatown, and you’re being harassed, and someone’s telling you, “We need to defund the police as a way to protect you,” that kind of language doesn’t work. We have to find a way to talk to each other and with other people of color in our communities. But we also have to figure out a way to talk to our parents and listen to them, because they’re the ones whose lives are most in danger.

I want to listen. That’s really the policy that all of us should have right now: Listen to the stories and the hardships that Asian immigrants are going through, and also listen to the Black and Latinx people who are living in the same neighborhood.

Ome: Is there anything else you want to add?

Hong: As cynical as I sometimes sound, the fact that anti-Asian violent incidents are being documented, and that people are talking about them, is progress. Because that wasn’t happening before, not when I was growing up. A lot of Asian Americans are more vocal, organized, radicalized, and progressive. And we’re not going to go back.

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