"Cautious, Vigilant, Fearful: On Being Asian American"
April 5, 2021 issue of The New Yorker. Designed by R. Kikuo Johnson
The mother and child wait for the subway. The mother grips the hand of her daughter tightly, her other hand raised to check the time. A simple illustration, yet the mother’s and daughter’s eyes catch my attention. They are cautious, vigilant, fearful. I realize what else makes me uneasy. The mother wears a turtleneck sweater beneath a long blazer and wide black pants. And tennis shoes. The sneakers clash incongruously with her formal attire—why wear sneakers with a blazer? Unless you fear you will need to run.
The New Yorker’s recent cover, “Delayed” by artist R. Kikuo Johnson, comes at a time in which racial violence against Asian Americans has surged. Just a few days before, a man was filmed kicking and stomping on a 65-year-old Philippine-American woman while onlookers from the nearby building watched. One even shut the door in her face.
It’s simple to blame the violence on the pandemic and the subsequent xenophobic rhetoric, but it’s not as if racism against Asian Americans did not exist before—it’s just that the public is finally made aware of it. It’s difficult to argue that racism is just overblown paranoia when there is widespread video evidence of the harassment. For a while, I used to debate with myself whether someone was being racist towards me. Is it all in my head? Why am I making a big deal of this? Am I too sensitive? Can I not take a joke? It is exhausting to constantly question whether or not an action is racially motivated. I did not want to be so overly sensitive that every slight I experienced came down to race. You start to doubt yourself—is it not worse if you think it is racially motivated when it is not? Am I being hampered by my race, using race to excuse others’ treatment of me when it is just their reaction to me? But then again, my Asianness is written all over my face; how can you react to me without reacting to a core part of my identity? So there must have been some part of that action that was racist, even if it was mostly ignorant.
But it is easier to wonder what you did that made you seem so foreign, so “un-American” to warrant that might-be-racist action. You start overanalyzing your past actions, and you turn silent and reclusive, thinking it best that you should not bring more attention to yourself, but then you realize that by being quiet you are contributing to the Asian stereotype of meekness. You wish that there was a clear line distinguishing what is racist and what is “all in your head.” But that is the issue, isn’t it?
When the news first broke, I think I might have even believed the narrative the
investigators spun about how the spa shootings in the Atlanta area were not racially motivated. In my mind, I hovered between calling the shootings a “hate crime” or a “crime.” It did not strike me until I read the words “sex addiction”—the excuse the shooter used to explain his murder of the eight people, six of whom were Asian women—that I realized the label “racial motivation” contributes to the falsehood that there is a distinct line separating what is racist and what is not.
“Racial motivation” is the covert label we use for the obviously racist. But the phrase doesn’t take into account the subtleties, the dangerous norms we have adopted to mark what is foreign and what is “American.” Or even more relevant, the generations of popular culture over-sexualizing and fetishizing Asian women. Perhaps the shooter’s alleged sex addiction is not inherently anti-Asian, but depictions of Asian women in film and television have dehumanized them into objects of desire, generalized them as “docile,” “demure,” and “obedient.” Easy
But why this compulsion to explain the actions of the perpetrator? This desperate grab for a motive every time a racist crime is committed? Whether or not the shooter’s intent was racist, the ramifications still exist. Asian Americans, especially elderly, do not feel safe in America. I worry about my grandparents’ recent move from Brooklyn’s Chinatown to Staten Island, where they are cut off from all that is familiar and comforting. After living in America for over twenty years, is it not their right to go on an afternoon walk without fearing for their safety?
Anti-Asian sentiment in America has not recently materialized; it’s only resurfaced in our collective attention span. Lately, I have been digging deeper into Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history, approaching it with the intent to examine the longevity of the community’s residence in America, not just the well-taught immigrant story. Asians have been here before many Europeans immigrated through Ellis Island, but even to me, these “newer”
Europeans seem to fit better with the American mold. How can they not, when U.S. history lessons consistently depict Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as foreigners and national security threats? When the few times the curriculum touches on Asian American history, it focuses on Chinese immigration in the mid-19th century, the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act, and the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II? The Asian Americans I learn about in history class seem to exist solely in the backdrop of exclusion, which only serves to highlight their “otherness.”
What of Larry Itliong and his efforts in organizing the Delano Grape Strike? Or Patsy Mink, the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives? Why is it that these milestones in Asian American and Pacific Islander history aren’t taught more? By acknowledging the multifaceted and ever-changing nature of the Asian community in the U.S., we acknowledge the progress made and what we have yet to achieve. Instead, I learn about AAPI history through an antiquated lens—depictions of Asian Americans have remained stagnant,
fixed in time, and painted in broad strokes of homogeneity. The diversity of the AAPI community has often been forgotten, pushed aside for the ease in generalizing one collective group of people. This has not only perpetuated the harmful myth that most Asians, being the “model minority,” have attained success in America, but has also led to blame on the whole AAPI community for the pandemic.
In high school, race was a political topic, one made so controversial that even now, there is still some ingrained part of me that hesitates to voice my opinions for fear that I would “get it wrong.” It was only through my college search that I realized a major like “Ethnicity, Race, & Migration” even existed. And if I, someone who plans to study race, feel this way, how do others—students, teachers—even begin to broach this topic without fear of controversy? Focus on eradicating the stigma behind racism without fixating on being politically correct? So, besides a reevaluation of curriculum, we must also change the culture of avoidance we have fostered in schools, end the mindset of avoiding uncomfortable conversations.
Perhaps during the first discussions, we’ll stumble over a few social faux pas, reveal some implicit biases we’ve kept locked away under niceties, but it is better to acknowledge these societal problems than pretend that ignoring these issues will make them disappear. Uncomfortable conversations elicit defensiveness, but they can also be an opportunity for growth, a way to find empathy for others who at first seem entirely unlike ourselves. Having these conversations can help make true social change, can even help materialize a world in which a mother doesn’t have to fear for her and her child’s safety while doing something as mundane as
taking a subway.
Chen, T. (2021, March 22). Asian women are Hypersexualized, so don't tell me the killings In Atlanta aren't about race. Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tanyachen/asian-women-fetish-racist-atlanta-shootings
Fan, J., Hsu, H., & Park, E. (2021, March 19). The Atlanta shooting and the dehumanizing of Asian women. Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-atlanta-shooting-and-the-dehumanizing-of-asian-women
If the mass killing of six Asian women isn't a hate crime, what is? (2021, March 18). Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-03-17/killing-six-asian-women-hate-crime-atlanta
Mouly, F. (2021, April 13). R. Kikuo Johnson's "Delayed". Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2021-04-05
Waxman, O. (2021, March 30). Why the Asian-American story is missing from U.S. Classrooms. Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://time.com/5949028/asian-american-history-schools/
Cynthia Lin, age 18, is an artist and writer whose pieces have appeared in the Congressional Art Show and has been published in Girls Learn International’s The Feminist Focus. Her work depicting the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has been influenced by recent events and by her experiences growing up working at her family’s Chinese restaurant. At college, she plans to major in Ethnicity, Race, & Migration.