Anti-Asian Racism: It’s Histories and Present


Table of Contents

When Asian communities are dehumanized, seen almost exclusively through the lens of suspicious, dirty, dangerous, and diseased, then violence at the state, institutional, or interpersonal level is permissible and possible.

The first point to raise is that what people have been calling anti-Asian sentiment or hate is anti-Asian racism. It is crucial to use accurate language to describe what has and is happening because language shapes our understanding of the world. Both ‘sentiment’ and ‘hate’ individualize the nature of the harm to mere personal grievances that some people may have towards Asian people, which erases and obscures the systemic nature of racism, allowing us to dismiss violence as the consequence of the odd ‘bad apple’. Further, hate as in ‘hate crime’ is best understood in the words Ruby Beth ‘as a prosecutorial strategy for incarceration not a reckoning with racism’. In short, we must be deeply skeptical of any approach to confront racism and bring safety led by the police and criminal punishment system (to use Mariame Kaba’s term) when they are themselves, institutional enforcers of racism, as most recently the Black Lives Matter movement over the last almost decade has shone a light on.

Tweet from @Ruby-Beth that says “We need nuanced ways to talk about racialized violence beyond “hate crimes”. A hate crime is a prosecutorial strategy for incarceration, not a reckoning with racism. Of course, violence is racialized. That is America.

How racism operates

Anti-Asian racism operates as all racism does at its root by positioning, in this case, Asian people as a variety of negative things and ideas (dirty, suspicious, cunning, etc), which while entirely false, shape our collective perspectives.

These negative ideas are then enforced through structures too: laws, policies, and institutions that directly or indirectly produce negative outcomes, en masse for groups that the system of oppression targets (in this case it is racism targeting Asian people). This is rooted in history and is a continuum through to the present. So for example, the Page Act of 1875 effectively banned Chinese and Japanese women from entering the USA because they spread disease (due to them coming for alleged ‘immoral purposes’). It was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which went on to ban Chinese men too. Various laws prevented East Asian people from being able to vote in various states during this time too. We then of course have Japanese Internment, made possible on the basis that Japanese people in America, no matter their affiliation or connection to the USA, would never be American enough, and therefore relegated to the category of non-citizen. In 1930, mobs of white men attacked Filipino farm workers leaving many many dead in Watsonville. It was produced by politicians saying Filipinos were a “menace” and that they wanted them deported so “white people who have inherited this country for themselves and their offspring could live.” It’s worth noting that the Philippines was part of the USA as a colony at this time. Chinese people were only able to become US citizens in 1943 with the Magnuson Act. ‘Oriental Schools’ in San Francisco segregated Japanese, Chinese, and Korean children in their education – a law only struck down officially in 2017. We can see that these structures, enforce and give power to the underlying negative ideas and serve to produce negative outcomes for Asians in America as a group.

Other necessary lenses

We can’t understand the violence of anti-Asian racism without including a lens around colonialism/imperialism too. The Philippines was a US colony until full independence in 1946. Many Pacific Islanders still live within a US colonial regime (the people of the Marshall Islands for example survive under the toxic conditions of being the USA’s radioactive dumping ground) to this day. Colonialism is the coerced subjugation of a people by another nation or the purpose of their profit. It relies on dehumanizing the indigenous people to permit the violent behavior of the colonizer.

Now while much of the above are historical examples we know that history is a process that shapes the present. Longstanding narratives from the 19th century saw Asian culture, including food and customs, as dirty and contagious. But with see the echo of this in a very recent incarnation in the naming of COVID-19 by the Trump administration and other outlets as the ‘Chinese Virus’ and ‘Kung-Flu’ – which while a narrative has fuelled violence against Asian people.

So we see above just a small selection of legislative and institutional examples that create the conditions today that permit white and other non-Asian folks to engage in violence against Asian people. When a group of people is dehumanized, seen almost exclusively through the lens of suspicious, dirty, dangerous, and diseased, then violence at the state, institutional, or interpersonal level is permissible and possible. So too is the diversion of resources away from these communities the invisibilization of their needs and the complexity of their experiences.

But of course, these examples cannot be looked at in silos. The murder of 8 Asian people, 6 of them Asian women in Atlanta, largely poor, is the outcome of a combination of racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism and it has a long history. Asian women have long been fetishized by white men – fetishization being the false elevation of a particular dimension of someone’s marginalized identity that results in objectification and commodification. As we know from how sexism operates, when men have desires that they wish they didn’t have (in this case informed by racism and the negative ideas of Asian people at play) and yet simultaneously do desire such women – you can be sure they will respond with violence.

America’s immigration and border regime today continues to represent a threat to many Asian people’s safety. It’s this kind of regime that leaves many Asian people (and other racialized communities) in jobs they do to survive (hence it seems many of the women murdered were sex workers) that are further criminalized. This combination of oppression makes Asian folks in America extremely vulnerable to all sorts of violence day to day.

‘The model minority’ myth

What’s interesting of course is that (some) Asian people are simultaneously identified as exclusively high achievers and shielded from racism in an idea that is called “the model minority” – which is a myth. In this myth, all Asian folks are understood to have attended good schools and be in well-paid jobs – and therefore people who do not experience economic insecurity, precarity or poverty. This is not true. When we actually look at the data we see that on average, AAPI women make 85 cents for every dollar that white, non-Hispanic men make. When we look past the average, some AAPI ethnic subgroups, particularly Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander women, experience even bigger wage gaps. Cambodian women, for example, earn just 57c on the dollar compared to white men. As recently as 2011 2.4 million AAPI workers – or 33 percent of the API workforce – didn’t have access to a single paid sick day to use to recover from common illnesses. Also from 2011, nearly 42% of all nail technicians in the U.S. are Asian women – low-paid, dangerous work (due to the chemical exposure). Needless to say, the model minority frame is simply a potent racist narrative and excuse not to invest in Asian communities, while also delegitimizing Asian people’s right to rage, pain, and anger at the racism they do experience.

The model minority frame also ignores that White Supremacy has very specific and narrow arenas where Asian communities may be permitted to ‘succeed’. White Supremacy will always allow racialized communities to thrive in certain areas: it’s a feature that enables its survival. For example, Black people have space made within sports and entertainment because it aligns with the (false) negative ideas at the root of anti-Black racism, but are simultaneously prevented from succeeding in academic contexts, or as surgeons, computer scientists, and so on. Similarly, Asian people are allowed to thrive in contexts of science or engineering, for example, but prevented from spheres where creativity is central, such as fashion and the arts. Neither of these outcomes is because of the talents, skills, and passions of Asian people (or Black people).

Additionally, within the ‘model minority myth,’ Asian people are positioned as “the good people of color” (versus the often unnamed ‘bad ones’: black people, Latinx, Native people, etc). This narrative is then used by white people within White Supremacy to drive a wedge between communities of color – good ol’ divide and conquer. While some Asian people (as any marginalized community) may align with this idea of being “the good ones” because it may provide access to some safety in its proximity to whiteness, assimilation does come with a personal cost in the denial of one’s culture and customs which is painful in its own way. We ultimately see however that aligning with narratives that are to the detriment of other people of color doesn’t guarantee safety: safety for all people of color is always precarious under racism and White Supremacy, at the whim of white folks. And ultimately, when Asian people do too well – white people will turn on them too.

Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages