By Vanna Nauk and Gaonoucci Belle Vang
The South Korean film Parasite made Oscar history when it became the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the K-pop sensation, BTS, was named Time magazine’s Entertainer of the Year 2020 shortly after.
In light of the rise of popularity among Asian artists and celebrities, Asian American community members could not have envisioned the predicaments 2020 had in store for them, and as Covid-19 cases rose, anti-Asian sentiments increased along with that.
Hidden in the shadows of shattered bamboo ceilings, a different reality took over for Asian American communities as they became the scapegoats for the virus.
In March 2020, Anna Chandy, a Fresno Southeast Asian American daughter, reported a hate crime: Tagged on the side of her father’s car, “F*ck Asions [Asians] and the coronavirus” (KMPH).
Media outlets glossed over the rise in Asian hate crimes and instead amplified the anti-Chinese rhetoric of referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” a statement repeated incessantly by the former U.S. president, Donald Trump.
Dr. Davorn Sisavath, Fresno State Asian American Studies co-director and assistant professor, says it is important to critically think and make connections when addressing the root causes of current racial violence.
“When the past president named it the ‘China virus,’ other conservative leaders ran with it, and this misinformation fueled the rise of anti-Asian discriminations,” Sisavath said.
“It’s important to acknowledge what’s happening in the Asian and Asian American communities and to recognize this has long been part of U.S. history, where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have been blamed, harassed, attacked and scapegoated.”
Notwithstanding the warnings and pleas from activists and politicians alike, Trump responded by doubling down on his anti-Chinese rhetoric in a Fox News interview, stating, “I beat this crazy, horrible China virus” (VOA News).
Within weeks, anti-Chinese rhetoric spread like wildfire, and Asian Americans became scapegoats across the country.
According to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, at least 708 self-reported hate crimes and discrimination incidents happened in the San Francisco Bay Area from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to February 2021 (KQED).
According to New York Police Department data, hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment jumped by 1,900% in the last year—there was only one reported anti-Asian incident during all of 2019 compared with 20 in the first half of 2020 (Queens Chronicle).
This has challenged community organizers, such as Paj Yeeb Katie Moua, director of programs for Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP), with having to deal with the aftermath.
“When this began surfacing in the media, I was angry and questioned why it took so long for our issues to be recognized,” Moua said. “Part of my fear is that once this conversation dies down, we’re going to forget about the lives that were lost, the resistance of the model minority myth and our elders who came to this country for a better life for their families.”
The model minority myth (MMM) often stereotypes Asians as obedient, rich and innately successful, reinforcing the Orientalist perspective that Asians exist as a monolithic race.
Simultaneously, the myth erases the diversity and varied socioeconomic, historical and cultural experiences that make up multiple Asian American realities.
Sisavath emphasizes the importance and necessity of understanding the diverse intra-ethnic cultures within any umbrella term.
“I want to acknowledge calling Covid-19 the ‘China virus’ is xenophobic and affects all Asian Americans,” Sisavath said. “For example, a lot of the elders who were attacked were Southeast Asian Americans: Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese.”
Among the growing list of Southeast Asians targeted, Vang Vue, a Hmong community member in Fresno, was a victim of an assault while on his regular one-mile walk at Roeding Park; these events have instilled fear in the community (NextShark).
The stark rise in hate crimes across the nation and here in the Central Valley has prompted a long-overdue public discourse around systemic issues that impact communities of color.
Asian American advocates—including community organizers, professors, political figures and even celebrities—have publicly voiced their views on several media platforms in the efforts to promote the Stop AAPI Hate movement.
Coalition and solidarity efforts have also been illuminated as local and national activists and organizers from both Asian American and Black communities continue to push for long-term, restorative justice interventions that resist the expansion of the criminal justice system and encourage discourse around solidarity and allyship.
“The one thing that I don’t want to happen is to cause more miscommunication, anger and hate,” Moua said. “We need to be careful with how folks are addressing this anti-Asian hate and not contribute to anti-Blackness.”
Coalition-building efforts have also been threatened by prevailing discrimination, including anti-Blackness and anti-Asian conflict among both communities.
Serenity White-Ilole, Fresno State NAACP Collegiate Chapter press and publicity chair and African American Coalition Resource Specialist II, says an important first step in building coalitions is to extend an invitation and express a mutual understanding.
“Black people have dealt with anti-Blackness from Asian people, and as a response, there’s prejudice,” White-Ilole said. “However, there is no excuse for the way Black Americans treat Asian people in response to the pandemic and all its surrounding misinformation.”
Although the tension between the Asian American and Black communities is not new, ending such tension will remain a distant reality until the root causes, such as structural racism, are addressed (Othering & Belonging Institute).
“There’s a long history of not having comradery; yet at the end of the day, we are all neighbors living together in the same communities,” White-Ilole said. “We could get somewhere if we addressed the prejudice on both sides by being willing to understand and talk through these issues.”
On the surface, the interracial and intra-ethnic conflicts among marginalized communities appear to be internal matters that have little to do with institutional forces, but history and research have proven that systemic racism and exacerbated inequity—particularly in times of economic crises—have pitted our most underserved communities against one another.
“Our Asian community has internalized xenophobia, and in order to understand the ways we contribute to anti-Blackness, we must understand the internalized racism we have for ourselves,” Moua said. “The trauma our communities have been through can be solved if we can love and support ourselves and other communities of color; we’re closer than we think we are.”
Moving into 2021, Asian talent and contributions continue to be conditionally recognized; for example, the controversy surrounding the Asian American film Minari being relegated to Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Golden Globes highlights this dismissal.
Despite being directed, filmed and acted by Asian Americans, the success of Minari is a bittersweet allegory of the long, exclusionary battle ahead for Asian Americans and immigrants (NBC News).
These actions continue to reinforce the idea that Asians are perceived as perpetual foreigners despite the long history of contributions to this country, and conversations and education need to be had across the country.
“This is an ongoing issue that we have to work on together as a community to make it a point to understand, learn and create knowledge and space to talk about and address these issues,” Sisavath said. “In order for solidarity and collaboration to happen, it should start by listening to one another.”
These conversations are occurring across the country and within the Central Valley as local organizers mobilize to support the AAPI community through transformative means of justice. We urge our local Central Valley community members to speak out against these attacks and protect our community members. Attacks should be reported to Stop AAPI Hate.
Vanna Nauk is an incoming Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at UC Santa Cruz. He earned his M.A. in Asian American studies at San Francisco State and a B.A. in history at Fresno State. Gaonoucci Belle Vang is a first-generation Fresno State alumna and daughter of Hmong refugees. Belle is currently in pursuit of graduate school and is interested in researching and bridging the diasporic data gap within Southeast Asian American communities.