I feel anti-Asian bigotry in Kansas, and it’s a story with a long American history

Lucca Wang
·5 min read

A white man killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, on March 16 at three different spas in the Atlanta area. We continue to see violence inflicted upon Asian Americans everywhere across the nation, and this racism is not new. These racist actions are also related to the xenophobic and anti-Asian racism I encounter in and outside of the workplace.

I was in the office in Kansas, and my former co-worker was surprised I am Chinese.

I said, “I am …” She interrupted, “First generation.” As a multiracial young woman, I looked at her, a white, middle-aged woman.

“I’m third generation. My grandparents were the immigrants from China, and my father was born here in the U.S. My mother is of European descent.”

“So, you’re a mutt.”

“I prefer multiracial,” I responded as I also thought to myself, “I’m not a dog. I’m a person, and my family tree follows the same pattern as yours.”

We need to acknowledge Asian Americans belong here in the U.S. and have resided in this land for centuries just like many other people of different ethnicities. We need to work individually on ourselves and collectively to prevent any kind of racism, from microaggressions to murder.

We hear about violence in cities on the coasts. My impression is that many Midwesterners think, “That doesn’t happen here.” In the same incident, that same former colleague asked me if I had encountered racism and then quickly, without giving me much time to respond, told me her Asian friend’s mother, who is also Asian, was hit by a car last year while the driver yelled anti-Asian slurs at her near the post office. The woman, who is an immigrant, never reported the incident.

I’m not surprised she never reported, because I know there is a lack of support for the Asian communities and women. I was surprised, though, to hear this person tell me about a violent, racist act against “my people” so readily and in the workplace — so eager to connect, yet allergic to actually listening.

“Well,” she cheerily went back to focusing on her work. I took a deep breath and walked back to my office. That’s what I consider to be lack of awareness, lack of compassion for me, and entitlement. This racism didn’t impact her.

I should not have to feel privileged that I personally haven’t been violently attacked and that the only racism I’ve experienced are microaggressions or environments in which I was fearful for my and family members’ safety based on how we look.

What we all have witnessed in the past year with the attacks on Asian children, women, men and older adults is a vein of anti-Asian racism that has always existed.

Chinese immigrants deemed ‘cheap working slaves’

Documented severe violence inflicted upon people of Asian descent in the U.S. dates back to the 1800s. In 1868, Irish immigrant Denis Kearney declared Chinese people were “cheap working slaves” and prompted Congress and President Chester A. Arthur to pass anti-Chinese legislation. This later led to Congress passing an act to placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining so-called white “racial purity,” and Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law on May 6, 1882, banning immigration from China for a decade and preventing Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. It was the first and one of the only times an entire ethnicity and nationality was explicitly excluded and unprotected by law.

In the 1860s and 1870s, despite the 13th Amendment banning slavery, Asian women and girls were both trafficked and sold at auctions in San Francisco. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the U.S. each year, with the largest number of people coming from East Asia and the Pacific — a statistic that especially stings in the wake of the Atlanta mass murder in March.

In October 1871, one of the largest reported mass lynchings in the U.S. occurred in Los Angeles: Seventeen Chinese men and boys were killed by white men, none of whom were held accountable with a criminal conviction.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese people for the duration of World War II. These people were left to figure out how to reintegrate and restart their lives after being released at the end of the war.

Forty years later, two white male autoworkers blamed Japanese people for taking American jobs and killed Chinese American man Vincent Chin. They receive no jail time, and the Supreme Court case in 1983 was the first to establish Asian Americans as a protected class of people by U.S. law.

COVID-19 in US not Asian Americans’ fault

These events are omitted from historical U.S. discussions. They hold a deep history and context for the anti-Asian violence we are seeing now.

Although China might have mishandled information in the very beginning of the pandemic, as foreign policy expert and writer Jamie P. Horsley documents in a Brookings Institution article, the extent of the early COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. was in large part the result of our own leaders’ actions and inactions.

If Americans are not to blame for our government’s failures, why are Chinese people to blame for theirs — and more wildly, why would Asian Americans be to blame?

In a lot of ways, we see the discrimination against Asian Americans — also known as racism — intersect with sexism, ageism and xenophobia. As we see the attacks on poor Asian American women and older Asian American adults, we need to remember that the idea of the so-called “model minority” is actually a myth. We must recognize now: The most vulnerable members of our society, those who have been constantly marginalized, are at risk.

Since the U.S. is home to Asian Americans too, we need to make our anti-racism inclusive for the sake of those in our communities who have felt invisible, uncared for or vulnerable — and for our fellow citizens who are attacked or killed simply for who they are.

Lucca Wang 王曦 is a third-generation biracial Chinese American woman native to Kansas, where she lives now.