The bigotry Asian Americans face

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On a walk a few months ago, Jeremy Cooney was asked by a passerby to return to his country. Cooney, an Indian American, has lived in the U.S. since his adoption at a young age—and today he represents the 56th District in the state Senate.

Paul Cripps, a Korean American who works at Wegmans, in the last year was told by a group of teenagers that he didn’t belong here and needed to back to his “COVID country.”

Rev. Shari Halliday-Quan, who is mixed race—Chinese and white—recalls an incident at a restaurant when patrons chose to move their seats away from hers. Halliday-Quan, the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, says it was not a social distancing move—the incident occurred before the pandemic hit here, and other customers were seated close to the patrons’ next choice.

Thuan Pham, owner of Phamiliar Technologies and a Vietnamese American, in the past was more active on social media; that changed because of postings like “Asians will need to affirm their loyalty to the country.”

Thuan Pham with his family.

These stories illustrate the animus experienced by many Asians in Rochester. While not violent, such incidents reflect xenophobic sentiment—viewing those of Asian descent as outsiders and foreigners—that has intensified here since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

Some blame former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric—his references to the “China virus” and “kung flu”—because the coronavirus outbreak was first was detected in Wuhan, China. (Scientists have yet to determine the actual origin of the virus.) Others say that anti-Asian prejudice never died. It has just become louder. 

“Anti-Asian racism can easily go undetected if you’re not the target,” says Pamela Kim, assistant case manager at Refugees Helping Refugees. “Sometimes even if you are the target, it’s easier just to deny it, because it’s painful and there’s a fear that we won’t be heard, believed or cared about anyway.”

Kim, a Korean American, avoids going to places where she believes she might be targeted. She prefers to shop at international groceries and dine at ethnic eateries.

A rise in violence

The experiences of Asian Americans in Rochester are shared by others nationwide. Last month, Pew Research Center reported that 32 percent of Asian-American adults say they fear that someone might threaten or physically attack them. Nearly half (45 percent) of Asian-American adults who took part in the Pew survey, said they have experienced at least one of five specific offensive incidents since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Twenty-seven percent said they had experienced slurs or jokes while 16 percent said someone told them to go back to their home country and 14 percent reported that they had been blamed for the coronavirus outbreak.

In the same survey, conducted in early April, one in five Asian-Americans said Trump was a factor in the rise in violence against Asians. One respondent said: “Four years of Trump has normalized racism and bullying. His continual example of blaming Asians for the coronavirus is allowing people to openly discriminate against Asian(s).” Another cited “a mix of coronavirus news and its origins in China coupled with talks regarding racial inequality. Asians are not accepted as people of color as they are seen as the model minority, but also are seen as foreign because they are not white.”

Preliminary data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism show that anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in 15 large U.S. cities and counties rose 169 percent during the first quarter, compared with a year earlier. Populous metros have witnessed violent acts like the March shooting spree in Atlanta that killed eight, including six women of Asian descent, and assaults like one on an 89-year-old woman in Brooklyn, another on a 91-year-old man in Chinatown in Oakland, Calif., and two stabbings this week in San Francisco.

Rochester has not seen violent attacks—or at least none that have received public attention.

“I think in Rochester, it’s more subversive,” Cooney says. “I haven’t heard of an Asian being kicked or punched, but what I’ve heard is very racist comments such as, ‘I don’t want to work with that person’ or ‘I’m concerned about the coronavirus in that person, that person brought it here.’ I think that’s very real in Rochester.” 

Pervasive stereotypes

The 2019 American Community Survey, the most recent data available, lists categories of Asian Americans—more than 18 million nationwide—as Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and “other Asian.” Chinese and Indians are the largest population groups. In Monroe County, Asians totaled 26,360, with Indians and Chinese making up the majority. 

Despite their differences, Asians often are lumped into a single group. Though their roots lie a continent with nearly 50 nations, Asians have been subject to the model minority myth, a term coined by demographer William Peterson, which refers to a minority group perceived as highly successful in contrast to other minorities.

While the term could be applied to other groups as well, Asians are often tagged with it, feeding stereotypes of a community that is extremely diverse, multifaceted, and who face many disparities and challenges of their own. The model minority myth can hide racism against Asians and therefore denies them the need for anti-racist efforts, experts say.

“We’re always the perpetual foreigners. We just don’t belong here or if we do belong, or if we are here, that we better be doing something good like being doctors—the model minority myth characteristics,” says Shane Logan, a Korean American. After Trump was elected, he says, playful slurs became more harassing and he was the target of racist comments from strangers.

In addition to being viewed as a model minority, Asians, especially women, deal with hyper-sexualization and fetishization. The man charged in the deadly shootings at Atlanta-area spas reportedly blamed his “sex addiction.” Researchers have long pointed to the fact that racism and sexualization are connected. Seen as submissive, Asian women are often exoticized.

“The term ‘anti-Asian hate’ is actually a little misleading because racism toward Asians doesn’t always look like hate,” Kim says. “Yes, it can look like shootings like the one in Atlanta or violent attacks on the elderly, but it can also look like perpetuating the model minority myth or fetishizing/hyper-sexualizing Asian women. It can look like assuming everyone with slanted eyes is from China.

“It can look like not allowing us to take up space in the dominant society. The racism that the (Asian American and Pacific Islander) communities experience is complicated, multifaceted and not often acknowledged.”

Rage against Asians

Racism against Asians in the U.S. is not new. From the Chinese Exclusion Act restricting immigration based on race to the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, Asians have repeatedly faced discriminatory policies. 

“If people were paying attention, they would have found evidence all along,” Halliday-Quan says.

When Asian Americans became a larger part of the U.S. workforce, they were accused of taking American jobs. Globalization has not tempered the feeling. Political rhetoric around the COVID outbreak offered up another target.

Natasha Chen, associate professor of sociology at Monroe Community College and a Taiwanese American, says it is a common technique to blame social problems on an easily identifiable group with little power.

Natasha Chen

“And then it becomes very, very easy to just say, ‘OK, well, this group is the cause of it,’” she says. “I think that’s what happened under the last presidential administration—they were being called for the mismanagement of COVID and they very conveniently then decided to blame China as a convenient scapegoat, or excuse.”

It gave permission for xenophobic comments to rise to the surface, Chen believes.

“Part of the assumption of living in this body is that people interpret you as not being an American or belonging,” she says. 

Cooney says the increasing hostility Asians have encountered dates to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He has been pulled off airplanes by U.S. marshals for various reasons, including a white passenger feeling unsafe. 

“I’ve always been hyper-aware of my brown skin,” he says.

Cha Ron Sattler-LeBlanc, senior director of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Academic Success Center, notes that fear is easily fueled.

“It’s like truth can barely get its pants on in the morning and a lie can go around the country in five minutes,” she says. “Unfortunately, fear is very powerful.”

Cha Ron Sattler-LeBlanc

Sattler-LeBlanc, who is Korean and white, recalls an incident when she was at a fundraiser in Iowa years ago. “This lovely woman came up to me and put her hand on my arm. She’s like, ‘Honey, I just can’t figure you out. What are you?’ There’s all these things that you grew up hearing. And sometimes they sound like compliments, but they’re just reminders that you’re different.”

Adds Sattler-LeBlanc: “My birth certificate says I’m white, but no one is ever interested in that part of my story, usually.”

While studying the Rochester City School District, Cooney remembers struggling to explain his origins. He was adopted by a single mother and has an Irish last name. 

“I’m not Black enough to be Black, and I’m not Brown enough to be Latino, so what are you? Where are you (from)? That was kind of the question,” he says.

White parents who adopted Indian children would bring them together, becoming their own community. Things changed when Cooney was in college—he suddenly became Brown enough. His Muslim middle name—Akbar—drew attention. 

Other than playful racism, Logan felt shielded growing up as an adoptee, whereas Sattler-LeBlanc didn’t learn Korean because her parents didn’t want her to struggle with English. Her parents met in Korea where her father served in the U.S. Army and her mother worked in the cafeteria on the base. 

“I have memories from grade school—’go back on your boat,’ which confused me because my mother came on an airplane in the early ’70s,” Sattler-LeBlanc says. “We were just dealing with coming out of war in Vietnam. So, it’s something I’ve heard different times in my life.”

Dealing with the backlash

The latest rise in bigotry has left Asian Americans with feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment and trauma.

“I just feel this country is going downhill now, it’s falling apart,” Cripps says. “It’s not what it used to be.”

Shari Halliday-Quan

Cooney feels traumatized when he sees Asians assaulted.

“Every single time I see a video of … an Asian being kicked, hit spit on, sworn on, I get emotional,” he says.

Recently, Logan was crossing the street when a car pulled up close to him before he reached the sidewalk. The passenger in the car yelled, “Fuck you, coronavirus,” along with other slurs. That incident hurt even though he had faced racist comments following Trump’s election.

“That hit me mentally hard,” Logan says. “It was weird because I felt like I was overreacting.”

Even for Asians born in the U.S. or adopted and raised here from an early age, steering clear of ethnic connections is often seen as the best way to blend in. It is easier to conform. 

“My parents would never buy a Japanese car, because they knew they would be targeted. They always made sure we bought American cars,” says a Korean American woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Halliday-Quan’s family also was assimilationist. 

“The ‘how do I survive in a predominantly white context’ was very much the mentality for my dad and his siblings and for their parents,” she says.

Coming together

Acknowledging racism and standing up for their civil rights has intensified among Asian Americans since the recent rise in racist attacks. The Black Lives Matter movement validated feelings among Asians and fostered solidarity. Many Asians—Kim is one of them— joined the BLM protests. BLM has issued an official statement condemning the attacks against Asian Americans.

“I’m so grateful for the Black Lives movement,” the Korean American who declined to be identified says. “They got tear gas in the face (and) they still never gave up. And it’s because of them that we can say, ‘Hey, there’s also anti-Asian (hate) going on.’”

Rallies, marches and talks in support of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities continue to take place in Rochester and its suburbs. Acknowledging racism here is a first step toward healing, Cooney says.

Jeremy Cooney

“Discrimination does not discriminate,” he says. “Everyone, whether you’re Asian, or whether you’re Black, or whether you’re Brown in some other way, it’s going to feel like discrimination because hate and racism go along hand in hand.

“Because until we recognize that this exists in a community like Rochester, things will never change,” Cooney adds. “And so, we need to make sure that it’s part of our experience, whether you are an employer, whether you are an elected official, or whether you’re a neighbor to someone, you have to recognize that this, this level (of racism), exists.”

Being aware of stereotypes is necessary, Cooney says, pointing to the fact that Asians—Ph.D. or no Ph.D—are struggling equally with the pandemic.

Says Pham: “It is a hard time for everyone in the world. I pray for everyone’s health and a quick recovery for all. I also pray that people should treat people as individuals and not as a group. I am very proud of my heritage, but I have more in common with my neighbor next door, than my cousins in another country.”

Opportunities to connect with Asian Americans need to expand, however. Listening to people’s stories and understanding their heritage is an essential component of understanding and building bridges, those interviewed for this article say. Allies and support groups are a welcome relief in trying times. 

“Let’s celebrate our stories. … We all have stories about growing up, even the things we grew in the garden,” Sattler-LeBlanc says. “And that’s what we have in common.”

Asians need space to share lived experiences—whether they migrated here in the last 20 years, were adopted like several people in this article, or have been Americans for generations. 

Bringing Asian Americans into leadership roles and popular culture can go a long way toward changing the narrative and dismantling stereotypes of an Indian or Pakistani 7-Eleven owner, a Chinese cash register clerk or a Vietnamese manicurist.

“It’s mindboggling that it took until (2020) to have an Indian or an Asian elected to state office from Upstate New York,” says Cooney, referring to his win in November’s election. “We’ve got to change that.”

Cripps hopes people will engage in dialogue and resist discrimination, but he is not very optimistic that will eliminate racism.

“I doubt that will ever happen,” he says. 

Cripps and other Rochester Asian Americans continue to fear public spaces and derogatory remarks.

“I’m hearing folks say they’re afraid to be in public because they’re not sure how people will receive them,” Halliday-Quan says. “To be really clear that that’s unacceptable in a place like Rochester would be really necessary moving forward.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. She is an Indian American.

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