"The Anti-Asian Sentiment Has Always Been A Problem"
After over a year of increasing violence and hatred targeted at Asian Americans, news sources, social media, and influencers of all platforms have finally begun to speak out against the issue. This sudden influx of information has created the illusion that the anti-Asian sentiment is a new phenomenon that is solely a result of COVID-19.
Asian Americans like myself understand that the issue has underlying roots. Discrimination and disrespect—no matter how jarring or subtle—has always been the reality for us, just as for any other peoples of color in the United States.
This fact became apparent to me at a young age. Curious children would come up to me and ask if I were Chinese; I was not. Nicknames as unimaginative as “China girl” were established and elicited bursts of laughter among my classmates. As those classmates grew older and their jeers more focused, the mocking turned into taunting, sexual harassment, and isolation. Mine was not a unique case. I came to the realization that the roots of their cruel humor ran far deeper than I knew.
This is the modern issue. Asian Americans are viewed as comedic, second class people. This idea is regurgitated over and over again in books, television, and film. The character Mr. Yunioshi in the film adaption of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a classic example. Mickey Rooney, a white actor, appropriates stereotypical East-Asian features and wears them as a costume, a phenomenon known as “yellowface.” He speaks in broken English, carries himself clumsily, and serves as comedic relief simply because he is Japanese.
There is also a special place for Asian women in the media. For years, they have either been represented as quiet and subservient, or “exotic” and promiscuous. From Trang Pak in Mean Girls to Josie Packard in Twin Peaks, film and television has never empathized with Asian women.
There is a greater reason why these themes are so familiar to us. The ideas that Asians are foolish, complacent, conniving and promiscuous go beyond the simple explanation of American ignorance. For the most part, the basis of the maltreatment of Asian individuals is seated in xenophobia, and particularly, Yellow Peril.
At the start, Yellow Peril was a fear of the unknown; “a fear of the Oriental, non-white Other” as described in Lothrop Stoddard’s book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). In World War II, this evolved into a more empirical fear that was fueled by American nationalism. The antagonism of the Japanese and Asians in general became a political tool to unite Americans against the “enemy aliens” who posed a looming threat to their benevolent nation.
We see the commonalities in the way that Asian Americans are portrayed today, and sadly, they are not so different from the way that Asians have been portrayed throughout history. From racial stereotyping in entertainment to the “othering” language used in today’s news sources, what we are witnessing is simply modern propaganda.
This consistent attitude of mockery that is based in fear has a long standing history in America. Considering the anti-Asian discrimination in the past, whether it be the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment camps, or the McCarthyism, it should not be a surprise to us that these feelings are resurfacing in monumental proportions in response to COVID-19.
To truly stop Asian hate, we must acknowledge the greater issue at hand and be cautious not to forget about the extensive history of discrimination. That is perhaps the most debilitating thing in the effort to put an end to anti-Asian racism—an unwillingness to recognize the severity of it.
I was inspired to write this article after hearing about the Atlanta shootings of eight Asian women. The rapid rise in anti-Asian acts of violence reminded me of certain personal experiences with race-related hatred dating back to early childhood, which prompted me to write a piece exploring the underlying roots of what deceitfully seems like a new issue.
Grace Doh, 17, is a second generation Korean American student and writer for ReDefy NJ. Through her articles, she aims to delve deeper into the broader context of modern day issues and encourage readers to examine them with a historical gaze in order to understand today’s sociocultural phenomena to the fullest extent.