Mari does not want her experience to be compared with any of the violent attacks against Asian Americans that have occurred across the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, she told me. Because she is biracial, she explained, her own experience with racism is notably different from that of other Asian Americans, a category that itself is not monolithic. Last month alone, an 84-year-old man in San Francisco, originally from Thailand, died after being shoved to the ground, a Korean American military veteran was beaten in Los Angeles, and a Filipino American man was slashed with a box cutter on the New York City subway. But the physical attacks are outnumbered by the smaller and sometimes subtler episodes of racism that Asian Americans have experienced. Researchers and hate-watch groups have gathered thousands of examples of these moments; taken together, they are an astonishing collection of viciousness. They also demonstrate that the past year has been doubly hard on many Asian Americans, who go out in public bracing themselves not just against a deadly virus, but against the scourge of racism too.
Read: The other problematic outbreak
For Mari, who asked that I not publish her last name out of privacy concerns as she applies for doctorate programs, the incident at Taco Bell was more surprising than traumatizing. She’d never been harassed or attacked for her race. Actually, her racial identity has always felt a bit uncertain. Mari’s mother is Japanese and her father is white. As a child in Tokyo, where she lived until she was 4 years old, Mari was considered white, she told me. But in Honolulu, where she attended elementary, middle, and high school, she blended in with the many other mixed-race students. Now, in Chicago, where Mari works as a research technician in an immunogenomics lab, most white people view her as Asian.
Mari’s firsthand experiences with racism came from watching her fellow Americans interact with her mother, she told me. Her mom, who is in her 60s and works for the Hawaii state government, grew up in Tokyo and has lived in Honolulu for two decades. She moved to the city in part because she liked that it was diverse, and tolerant of many cultures. But discrimination was still common. When Mari was young, white strangers would often address her instead of her mother when the two of them were together, because they assumed that her mother didn’t speak English. Once, in the elevator of their condo building in Honolulu, an older white woman examined Mari’s mom for a moment. “Is this your nanny?” she asked 5-year-old Mari. Interactions like these occurred regularly throughout Mari’s childhood. It didn’t matter that her mother speaks perfect English, or has a Ph.D. “She’s told me that moving through the world with me is a different experience,” Mari said. “It’s almost like I legitimize her.”
The recent incidents of anti-Asian harassment are nothing particularly new, Mari’s mom, who requested anonymity because she’s worried about her colleagues and employer identifying her, told me in an email exchange. “Although this pandemic certainly triggered the violence,” she said, “it’s been in this country for a long long time.” But just because encounters with racism are typical doesn’t mean they are forgettable. That’s the difference, she said, between racism’s perpetrators and its victims: “They forget, and we never forget.”