Asian American discrimination is real -- and it also isn't new

Precious Fondren, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·6 min read

Apr. 25—Being born in the United States wasn't enough for Yi-Li Wu to avoid a lifetime of constant microaggressions.

From being told she had to be good at math because she is Asian to being told "go back to her country," or being called multiple racial slurs, Ms. Wu, an associate professor of women's and gender studies and history at the University of Michigan, and many other Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have experienced racism their whole lives.

This past year was no different. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, acts reflecting an anti-Asian sentiment have been on the rise, with many crediting political rhetoric blaming China for the virus in stoking the uptick. Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, has reported over 3,800 attacks since March 2020. This group was specifically formed in response to the violence.

In northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, people in the Asian community say they have felt a range of emotions, but through it all they've seen the community grow stronger and tighter.

"Racism against Asians isn't just about Asians," Ms. Wu said. "It's interlinked with a whole mess of racial injustices that have been institutionalized in law and all sorts of different things. To understand that, if we want to fight the current moment, we really have to understand its roots and we also need to understand how different communities are really connected together."

To give people a deeper understanding on the roots of racism, Ms. Wu has moderated one of the many panel discussions in response to the murder of eight people, six of them Asian women, at three Atlanta spa parlors in March. The panel discussion she facilitated was "Contextualizing Violence Against Asians and Asian Americans Within the History of US Relational Racism." Since the murder of George Floyd, Ms. Wu said she has felt both heartbroken and empowered to fight against racism. To her, people can no longer deny the fact that racism exists.

"You couldn't even have a talk about racism because you have to first convince them that racism actually exists," she said. "And suddenly it was like people were like, 'Oh yeah, racism exists,' and I'm like, 'Hello, welcome into our world!'"


Ms. Wu said one way people can support the Asian community right now is being aware that racism against Asians has always existed, and Asian activists have always organized.

In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants began arriving and working in the U.S. in large numbers. Because they were willing to take cheaply paid jobs, non-Asian workers built up resentment against Chinese immigrants. The fright of Chinese laborers taking over was known as "yellow peril" and helped stoke anti-Chinese rhetoric and violence, including the Chinese Massacre in 1871.

The first major law that restricted Asian immigration into the U.S. came in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law banned Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens and required Chinese people to obtain certain certifications to come back to the U.S. if they left. This law significantly impacted families and made it difficult for them to reunite or restart their lives. This law would not be repealed until 1943, but the national origins quota system would not end altogether until the Immigration Act of 1965.

Chinese immigrants weren't the only Asian people experiencing discrimination. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This authorized the removal of Japanese Americans into internment camps. This would affect more than 120,000 lives. Families were given little to no notice of when they would be moved into one of 10 camps. They lived in barracks with no heating in the winter. Those who tried to escape could be shot.

To paint a picture that Asians were a more law-abiding, non-threatening, and intelligent minority race, The New York Times published an article called "Success Story, Japanese-American Style" in 1966. This article propelled the model minority myth, a myth used to provide an example for other minority groups that they can achieve success if they stay out of trouble and work hard.

"First of all, it's not true," Ms. Wu said said of that idea. "If you look at the people who are included in the category of Asian American, there is a high percentage of them that are living in poverty. So you basically just erased a whole bunch of people right from your consciousness. And because you've erased them from your consciousness, you're then able to deny that there's racism against Asian Americans."

For Louisa Ha, who is a professor in the school of communication at Bowling Green State University and a Chinese immigrant, certain forms of discrimination were just part of her everyday life. She understands people's attitudes toward her, but her unease comes in when her kids face discrimination.

"I will be treated as foreigner because they would never see me as a native," she said. "I did not grow up here so I don't have any complaints that they will see me as foreigner. I am. You can hear my accent. However, my children were all born in the United States. Their mother tongue is English not Chinese. The problem is that they will not be accepted as Americans. My children and some of their friends who are also second and third generation Americans faced strong discrimination in school."

"As a parent I felt very upset because we were trying to come here to create a better life and live the American dream and help our kids to become part of America, but they were not accepted," she continued.

Though the community is small, Ms. Ha said they have come together during this time.

"There was the vigil in Woodlands Park in Perrysburg," she said of an April 3 event. "There was a couple hundred people out there, including the Chinese Association of Greater Toledo representatives to show the respect for the victims of Atlanta and also cry against Asian hate crimes."

"I think people are becoming aware, but because the killing did not happen here, it did not have that strong uproar like some other places," she continued. "I think that this is actually an indicator of a lot of hidden issues about discrimination against Asians. It relates to the model minority myth."

University of Michigan student and artist Regina Egan has also found and given support within her community. The 21-year-old grew up in a white family in Cleveland after being adopted from China. Though she's never experienced any physical violence, she's endured microaggression after microaggression. For now, she's expressed her feelings through her art and said that's the best way she's been able to cope.

"My feelings of anger were very much deeper inside of me in ways that I couldn't necessarily articulate, but my art could," Ms. Egan said. "I also found a lot of comfort in talking with my other friends who are Asian. There's this level of fear for yourself that I think for my friends who aren't Asian don't necessarily quite fully understand."

"My mom reached out and I really appreciate the concern that she has, but it's so hard," she continued. "I wish that there was an easy way to explain the 10,000 things that I feel after I hear about anti-Asian violence. It's fear, it's anger, it's this intense sadness. But it's hard to articulate to people who might not fully understand."

First Published April 25, 2021, 11:00am