My mom called me recently and told me to wear a mask and gloves when I leave my apartment to prevent possible exposure to COVID-19. I told her to do the same, and what she told me in response was not so much a shock as it was a disappointing keepsake from my upbringing as an Asian American.
She told me she wasn’t allowed to wear a mask at her workplace in downtown Chicago during the initial coronavirus outbreak in March. She works with elderly people who she said might racially profile her and assume that she’s sick because of her race. She wouldn’t wear a mask even if she could, she said, out of fear of being attacked on the street.
Chicago isn’t as safe as Bloomington, she said. But having grown up in this region of Indiana and knowing its history of white supremacy and anti-Asian violence, I know that whether you live in a big city or a rural suburb, being Asian in America means to live in constant danger.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month begins in May. While many Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent will use this time to celebrate their racial and ethnic identities, we should also use this time to organize against the onslaught of violence that has plagued us for centuries.
It's not enough to be against racism in name only. To organize means to come together and act against racism, to protest anti-Asian sentiment, oust anti-Asian political leaders and give Asian people the education necessary to dismantle racist governments and social hierarchies until someday, no more Asian people in America or abroad suffer racial oppression.
I’ve always lived in fear of either me or my family being discriminated against, physically harmed or even killed because of our race. For many Asians and Asian Americans living across the country during the pandemic, those fears have become a reality.
The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, based in Los Angeles, launched a reporting center in coordination with the Chinese for Affirmative Action and the San Francisco State University’s Asian American studies department last month. The reporting center gathers reports of verbal and physical harassment from Asians across the country. It received over 1,100 reports in its first two weeks alone.
The coronavirus pandemic and the anti-Asian racism it brought out in Americans is just the latest in a centuries-long history of struggle and oppression for Asian people. To many Americans, imperialism and colonization seem like relics of a long-ago past, but the lasting impression still rests heavily on Asia and people of Asian descent.
My mother’s home country, the Philippines, was a U.S. colony as recently as 1946. She left her poverty-stricken home in southeast Asia because decades of colonization at the hands of the U.S. left her country economically and politically destabilized. About 10 million Filipinos are living abroad and about one million Filipinos leave their home country every year in search of better financial opportunities.
Immigrants from around the world including Asia come to the U.S. to escape economic ruin left in the wake of U.S. imperialism only to face racism and xenophobia in their new home country.
My mother immigrated to the U.S., had three American children, gave us all American names, taught us English as our first language and put us through American public school. These advantages were the most practical gifts my mother could have given us, granting us access to opportunities she never had.
Despite these American assets, earned for us through my mother’s lifetime of hardship as a colonized and racialized person, the cruel reality is that even her half-white American children are still barred from full acceptance into white society on the basis of our Asian race and heritage.
We should not only celebrate our Asian heritage, but weaponize it in the fight against white supremacy. This means we must extinguish the racist violence committed by our oppressors by any means necessary, whether these oppressors live in our neighborhoods or live in the White House.
And we truly must fight. If liberation could be achieved through model citizenship, the model minority would have earned it generations ago. It’s time Asian populations around the world became a danger to the systemic violence that plagues us.
Abby Malala (she/her or they/them) is a senior studying cinema studies. She wants to become a writer (and get paid for it) in the future.