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COVID and anti-Asian American hate

| Thursday, February 25, 2021

Since the beginning of this pandemic, attacks against Asian Americans have surged. Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative aimed at tracking incidents of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, received more than 2,800 reports between March 19 and Dec. 31 of 2020. Of these incidents, elderly people above the age of 60 were disproportionately the victims of physical assault, verbal harassment and workplace discrimination. Numerous videos have surfaced on social media depicting disturbing incidents such as when an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand was pushed while on his morning walk and later died from injuries; when a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown was shoved to the ground in an unprovoked assault; or when a 52-year-old Chinese woman needed stitches after being shoved to the ground outside a New York City bakery. The person attacking her was yelling racial slurs before he pushed her.

While not all of these attacks are categorized as racially motivated, this surge of assaults against Asian Americans ever since the pandemic began is disturbing and something I believe should be talked about and brought to more people’s attention.

There seems to be a clear line between statements about COVID-19 and these attacks: Of the 29 assaults against Asian Americans reported to the NYPD in 2020, 24 were based on the assumption that the victim had COVID. Rhetoric by some political leaders and members of the media over the past year — such as only referring to COVID as the “China Virus,” “Wuhan Virus,” or “Kung Flu” — is not only unhelpful and unnecessary but also has made it easier to associate Asian people, Chinese or otherwise, with the virus. It’s true that the earliest cases of COVID-19 originated in China, but what does calling it “China-virus” do to help stop the spread of it here in America? This is also not me defending China or the Chinese government but rather individual people who have been harmed or Asian Americans who have been made to feel uncomfortable in their own country by this nickname. COVID-19 has touched practically every nation on Earth; it’s not just Chinese or Asian and should never have been racialized. It’s grossly political, and I believe the harm it causes to fellow Americans is being proven now with this surge of crimes and attacks. Words matter. 

This discrimination and violence against Asian Americans has often gone unnoticed or been overlooked by the general public and media, which is another problem of its own. Perhaps this can be attributed to the model minority myth, which “characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success … through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.” This may seem like a positive stereotype, but it’s harmful not only to Asians but also to the efforts of racial justice in general.  

The model minority myth can make anti-Asian discrimination seem illegitimate due to the perception and stereotype that all Asian Americans have higher socioeconomic status and have already “succeeded” in America, so there’s no way any real and serious issues of racism or struggle exist. While it’s true that Asian Americans as a group have some of the highest median household incomes in the U.S., this disregards the fact that this group also has the highest levels of wealth inequality and pay disparity. Focusing only on median wealth misleads and disregards the economic struggles of many Asian Americans. Lumping together a huge and diverse group of people from a huge and diverse continent (and the Pacific Islands) ignores the fact that their experiences in America are not at all the same or one dimensional. 

The model minority myth not only pushes the assumption that all Asian Americans are the same by grouping them under this umbrella stereotype of success and the “American Dream,” but it also makes it easier to erase discrimination against them which has existed and still exists in the U.S., from the Chinese Exclusion Acts, People v. Hall and the Japanese Internment Camps to this surge of violence and discrimination in the midst of COVID. The model minority myth can make it seem like America has always been a perfectly welcoming place for Asians and can ignore or downplay its history of discrimination against them.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the model minority myth is not only harmful to Asian Americans but is also harmful to the strive for racial justice. The myth is often used to pit people and groups against each other: “If they succeeded, why can’t you?” This kind of dialogue is not only extremely offensive but also creates barriers between Asian Americans and other minorities in America. It weaponizes the myth, and Asian Americans as a people, to overlook and blame other groups’ struggles on personal fault rather than systemic and structural fault. It has also encouraged racism within the Asian American community itself — which is a huge problem I’ve noticed in my own conversations. While the model minority myth can obscure struggles that Asians face, it can also incentivize them to disregard the struggles and obstacles other groups continue to face. Myths that create a sort of “oppression hierarchy” and which pit people against each other are unproductive and harmful to the struggle for equality and justice that’s as old as America itself.

I write this column because, as an Asian American myself, I want to offer my perspective as I observe this disturbing surge in anti-Asian attacks in the U.S. I think it’s an issue which should be talked about more — and in a manner that doesn’t bring down other groups’ struggles along the way. In order to build toward a “more perfect union,” we should make sure we’re hearing and paying attention to everyone’s voices and working together. 


Megumi Tamura is a freshman in the Gateway Program. She is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and enjoys going to museums, watching political debates and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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