What It’s Like When Racism Comes for You

woman wearing a mask that says "Hate is a virus / End white supremacy"
Mel Cole

Mari was at Taco Bell filling a paper cup with Baja Blast when the man started shouting. White and 30-something, and wearing a bulky winter coat, he lumbered up to the soda fountain and confronted her. His words sounded slightly slurred, Mari thought, like he might be drunk. At first she ignored him; this wasn’t the first time a drunk man had shouted at her at a fast-food place in Chicago. But then her brain focused on his words: “The Oriental touched the dispenser!” the man yelled to the other patrons. “Somebody stop her!” Mari, who is half-Japanese, turned to look at the man, with just her eyes visible above her mask. He poked his index finger at her face. “She started this whole thing!” he said.

A few things happened at once. Mari’s friend moved to stand between her and the shouting man. Two workers behind the counter asked the man to leave. He said something about how he was just making a joke—Mari doesn’t remember the specifics. She was still stuck on “Oriental”—how old the word sounded, how it conjured the racist imagery of anti-Japanese World War II propaganda, and how strange she felt to hear it used to describe her. “I had never experienced anything like this,” the 26-year-old told me this week, a month after the encounter. It felt “like a time jump.”

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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.

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.”

As for her daughter, Mari’s mom said, the attack at Taco Bell “unmistakably reminded” Mari that she’s not 100 percent white. “In a sense, I think it was good that she experienced that.” Now Mari will be “more careful”—the way people of color are in order to protect themselves, she said.

Moments of national upheaval have historically made anti-Asian harassment worse, from the discrimination against Chinese immigrants during the bubonic-plague epidemic in San Francisco in the early 20th century, to the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the targeting of Asian American autoworkers in the 1980s during a rise in unemployment in that industry. This dark precedent is one reason Asian American advocacy groups protested former President Donald Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to rile up his supporters last year. Just as in crises past, the pandemic has clearly exacerbated anti-Asian racism, Melissa Borja, an American-culture professor at the University of Michigan, told me. Borja and a team of researchers have spent the past year compiling a list of more than 700 incidents of anti-Asian harassment reported in local news outlets in places as varied as Martinsville, Indiana, and Bayview, California. Almost all of them involved a direct reference to the pandemic. Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, a civil-rights organization that offers an online tool for self-reporting harassment, in 2020 recorded the highest number of incidents it’s seen in four years. Together with two other organizations, it has captured more than 3,000 incidents since April, a spokesperson told me.

But even as the pandemic begins to wane in America, the frequency of anti-Asian discrimination may not, Borja warned. The trope of the “perpetual foreigner” has long kept Asian Americans from being viewed as fully American. Geopolitics can make it worse, Borja said: American politicians now regularly criticize—even villainize—China, admonishing its government on issues related to trade policy, technology, and human rights. When that rhetoric is irresponsible—when it targets regular people, not leaders—even Asian Americans who aren’t Chinese can feel the effects stateside. As long as these tensions continue, Borja said, Asian American people and communities will be vulnerable. Government leaders should speak and act carefully, she added.

After leaving Taco Bell that day, Mari went to her friend’s apartment, where she ate her Doritos Locos tacos and watched a few episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Then she went home and called her mother to tell her what the man had said by the soda fountain. When Mari finished the story, her mom let out a long sigh—one that seemed to imply she was sad, but not surprised. “Well,” she told Mari, “unfortunately, it finally came to you.”