A surge in racially motivated anti-Asian attacks over the past year, to a large extent fuelled by the pandemic, has led community campaigners in both the US and the UK to call for action.
The harmful rhetoric from former President Trump, who continuously, and despite correction, dubbed Covid-19 as the “Wuhan” or “China-virus”, undoubtedly flamed tensions.
“I was walking in Battery Park when this guy randomly came up to me and shouted, ‘Go back to China’, and I just went blank,” Yohey Horishita, a New-York based Illustrator and advocate against anti-Asian racism, tells us.
“A couple of weeks before that incident, I attended a Japanese-American workshop hosted by the New York City human rights department,” he adds.
“We had this whole town hall meeting, they gave me numbers, what we should do in the moment, call this number, call the police, this and that, I had the knowledge, and then that happened, and I couldn’t do anything.”There is no right way for the Asian community to respond to attacks like these, but for Yohey the most “unfortunate part, personally, is that I have to live with the disappointment to myself because I couldn’t say anything in that moment.”
But incidents like these are far from isolated “’Go back to China’ is now like saying ‘Hi’ in New York City. I mean, people think New York is this liberal, leftist, beautiful utopia in the world, the best city in the world; no, it isn’t. Racism doesn’t pick and choose where it goes,” says Yohey.
However, while increases in anti-Asian racism may appear to be the result of the pandemic, those within the community say these often-insidious attacks are nothing new, though the pandemic has brought it to the forefront.
The Asian community has for decades been lauded as a ‘model minority’. That is to say by integrating with western society, they can achieve greater socio-economic success.
This harmful narrative perpetuated the idea that Asian communities needed to be quiet in the face of discrimination and adapt to American norms to be accepted and achieve the elusive ‘American dream’.
Similarly, south-Asian diasporas in the UK are often celebrated for achieving well academically and for low crime rates. A theme carried on by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, hailing his cabinet as the most diverse in history when three ministers of Indian descent, in reality, make it the most Indian cabinet in history.
The myth of a ‘model minority’ displays the structural racism that, to this day, exists within US and UK institutions. It does not heal the inequities that people of colour face. But instead, it creates tensions between them by lauding the ‘successes’ of the asian community as something for other minority groups to aspire to.
“Using Asian success is more of a way to oppress other POC communities and say why don’t you be more like them,” Yohey says.
“Now the younger generation is becoming more vocal, and really protesting against this whole power dynamic, doing what the first-gen tried to avoid.”
He also tells me how the myth perpetuates the stereotype that Asians are monolithic. Telling me, “the financial success and the racism are just two separate things, there are financially successful people, and then just the regular ordinary people like me as well.”
Sarah Penman, 21, is a student from London of both Filipino and caucasian descent who understands the struggles of identity within the asian community.
“I struggled when I was younger because I was influenced by my mum and grandparents who struggled to be Asian in the UK; it was only once I got older and educated myself in a way they weren’t able to that I can now celebrate my Asian identity,” says Sarah.
However, while younger generations like Sarah are finding their voice within Asian communities, the story was very different for those first and second generations. like her parents.
“They were scared that if they put a foot out of place or messed with the wrong white person, they would be sent back to the Philippines or lose their jobs. They both worked as nurses in the NHS, but that was a genuine fear for them though they had both come to the UK legally,” Sarah says.
“Then they had children here and from the stories I’ve heard, my mother struggled to identify with her Asian culture and would hide it as much as possible because of racism and she then adopted white culture and white characteristics as a coping mechanism.”It’s a feeling that Yohey, as a first-generation Asian-American sympathises with, telling us that “in the early days, I tried so hard to kill my Japanese accent and to change my mannerisms so that I could be more accepted as American.”
Having emigrated to the US with his parents at a young age, Yohey understands the attitudes of first and second generations and how they differ from the hybrid cultures of younger people in the Asian community.
“They tried so hard to really march into this American society, this western or Eurocentric culture, it’s almost like, ‘don’t start none, won’t be none’ kind of mentality, try to remain unseen and disappear within this community or white community, and that’s how they protect themselves,” says Yohey.
He recalls his experience starting school in Alabama: “I went to the cafeteria at college, and in the middle, there was a buffet section, with a hallway with tons of tables, and then this buffet in the centre. Once I stepped in the very first time, on the right side they’re all white students divided by the hallway, and the left side is all black.
“This was 17 years ago, and I was the only Asian student there. I was like where do I sit? I’m not white, I’m not black. I have no friends since the semester just started. So, in 0.5 seconds my mind started racing, I was like where should I sit? where should I sit?” Yohey recalls.
“So, I sat down on the black side, but towards the hallway so I was close to the white community, but I knew that I wasn’t white. And I think that’s what we (Asian-Americans), consciously or unconsciously quickly think which side? The black side or the white side? But I really just always wanted to be American.”
Yohey’s experience is one that Asian diasporas often have to confront. Their identities are reduced to socio-economic metrics and used as propaganda by white supremacy structures, which hinders their ability to identify as people of colour.
Despite that, their experiences of anti-Asian racism mean they are not accepted as white. The increases in anti-Asian racism and attacks in the US and UK, as a consequence of the pandemic, indicate how this is true for Asian communities and dispels the myth of a model minority that is accepted into society.
According to a report by the Asian-American Bar Association of New York, 2,500 hate crimes were reported towards Asian-Americans related to Covid-19 between March and September of 2020.
“This guy randomly came up to me and shouted, ‘Go back to China’, and I just went blank.”
In the UK, a Home Affairs Select Committee reported a 21% increase in anti-Asian hate crime during the same period.
Though Sarah believes the legacy of the ‘model minority’ is a factor is why anti-asian racism is often overlooked in the wider conversation, telling me “the majority of asians, though I can’t speak for all, but I speak for the asian family, friends and acquaintances I know, don’t like to bring attention to themselves and will usually try and avoid any conflict.”
But now asian communities, especially younger generations are speaking out against the worrying uptick in sinophobia and using social media as a tool to do so. Users like Yohey and Sarah use their platforms to increase visibility and start conversations.
“Now the younger generation is becoming more vocal, and really protesting against this whole power dynamic, doing what the first-gen tried to avoid,” says Yohey.
He says a difference does exist in the way some first-generation and third generations (who have grown up with both Asian and Western cultures) approach the issue, and believes that “deeper conversations and understanding needs to happen within the Asian community as well.”It has taken time for Yohey to understand that older generations within the asian community have their own, perhaps more subtle, ways of protesting and that “it’s not always our way is ‘the way’ to protest.”
Hashtags such as #WeAreNotAVirus, #StandForAsians, and most recently #StopAsianHate have been trending on Twitter, with young third-generation Asians the driving force behind them, increasing visibility and starting conversations.
Though he is active on social media and through his work as an illustrator, Yohey understands why people may be wary of social media, saying he “used to believe a retweet is nothing, sharing is nothing, you have to get involved in the movement.”
He says he now recognises that the “pace is so much different compared to the Dr King civil rights era.” Adding that through social media “information can spread around the world in just one second.
Still, some question how effective social media can be in changing attitudes, the Black Lives Matter movement being a testament to this. With justifiable contention over the intentions of users who some view as pseudo-activists. Others feel it is meaningless if not followed by actively involving yourself and others in change.
Sarah sees social media as a double-edged sword, saying that while it is useful “there are two sides to it, the side that helps to educate people on Asian racism and racism in general and a side where social media can be a place where ignorance and misinformation is spread.”
Both Yohey and Sarah recognise social media as being useful for increasing visibility, but as Yohey puts it, you “have to be strategic about the movement, hashtags are one way. But whatever you can do within your talents is telling the story. I’m an illustrator, so I use my work to promote the movement and awareness, and that’s part of the visibility and the representation.”
Despite any contentions over social media, conversations surrounding Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism more widely are necessary to have. They can dispel the myth of a model minority and create more understanding between communities.
Asian-Americans have been organising events to raise awareness of their experience. However, they have received little media attention and are not on the scale of protests seen this past summer.The Washington Square Park protest on February 20th in New York City is one example, which Yohey says was attended by people from the LGBTQ community as well as and other POC communities.
“Seeing those people in that small gathering was so good, you can see as minority people, as people being oppressed, we really support each other, and really try to gather the communities together. Visually, you can see the effort, which is very nice.”
Yohey is hopeful for the Asian movement and racial justice in America more widely thanks to both grassroots efforts and the new Biden administration, which has promised to deliver on racial equity under their tenure.
He says that this sentiment runs deeper than a political statement, telling me “Kamala Harris being half south-east-Asian and half African-American, you know that the violence against people of colour is somewhat personal for them. It gives me comfort.”
Though, in the UK, it is not the first time British-Asians have had to stand up to Sinophobia. In 2001 an outbreak of the foot-and-mouth disease was widely attributed to Chinese meat in restaurants, though the cause has never been confirmed.
As a result, racist attacks increased against east Asians in the UK. Drawing parallels to the situation that British-Asians find themselves in today as a consequence of the coronavirus.
Since then, little has changed as Boris Johnson’s recent message extending his “best wishes to everyone celebrating Chinese New Year” received hundreds of racist comments.
The following are just some of the vile racist comments left beneath the Prime Ministers message:
“I know the Prime Minister has to be diplomatic, but this is a step too far”
“China went ahead with celebrations this time last year when they knew they had a virus and now look where we all are!”
“Happy New Variant more like.”
The danger we must avoid is allowing anti-Asian sentiments like these to return to the equally damaging but subtle forms they took pre-Covid.
Rather than holding the Asian community up as a model minority, we must instead listen to their experience, respect them as the diverse and varied community they are, and allow space for young voices, like Yohey’s and Sarah’s.
Featured image courtesy of Ken Lopez.
Edited by Giuli Graziano and Susu Hagos.