Without Asian American Studies, We Can’t Understand American RacismRoundup
tags: racism, violence, Asian American History, Asian American Studies
Min Hyoung Song is a professor of English and director of the Asian American Studies Program at Boston College.
When I hear Asian Americans talk about anti-Asian racism, it’s often with an apologetic tone—as if we don’t believe the racism we encounter is as serious as what other groups face. Or we don’t want to make other people uncomfortable. Or we are afraid of what might happen if we stick out too much.
So it’s been extraordinary to see the many Asian Americans who have been writing and speaking in very public venues about the anti-Asian racism they’ve encountered.
It’s instructive to compare the response to the Atlanta massacre with the media coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. While many Korean American small-business owners lost their stores during this event, it took days for a Korean American — the lawyer Angela Oh — to appear on camera.
After Atlanta, Asian Americans took to some of the most widely read media outlets right away to offer their perspectives. In Harper’s Bazaar, Durba Mitra, Sara Kang, and Genevieve Clutario wrote about the history of Asian women in the United States by also looking at their treatment in Asian war zones and near military bases located in Asia, while, in The Atlantic, Anne Anlin Cheng wrote about the racial meanings of the “happy ending” jokes that showed up everywhere in social media. These ethnic-studies scholars have been especially attuned to the ways in which Asian women have disproportionately been the targets of racial violence.
These scholars are responding to a widely understood problem for Asian Americans, which is our lack of ability to frame stories about ourselves and to remediate the persistent lack of knowledge about this country’s history. Our perspectives have been marginalized, if not completely voided.
In the recent past, this problem has proven deadly. Just four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered at the gas station he owned in Arizona by a white man who reportedly told a waiter he was “going to go out and shoot some towel heads.” To emphasize his point, he added, “We should kill their children, too, because they’ll grow up to be like their parents.”
Sodhi (who was Sikh and not Muslim) was the first of dozens murdered in similar acts of anti-Asian violence. And 9/11 also ushered in an era of intense suspicion, surveillance, detention, and deportation for Muslims, West Asians, and South Asians — none of whom had much opportunity to shape public understanding of this tragic event.
Asian Americans have never stopped trying to get ourselves into positions that would give us the chance to shape the U.S. media landscape and to educate audiences about issues relevant to our extremely heterogeneous population. We have faced discrimination and prejudice everywhere, and we will undoubtedly face even more as Asian Americans become more visible. But we have also made substantial gains.
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