Safety in Numbers

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SOLIDARITY Street portrait of Yuri Kochiyama and Angela Davis, located in Downtown Oakland.

On denying anti-Asian racism as an Asian-American

When I first heard about the rising hate crimes against Asian-Americans, I didn’t think much of it. Maybe it was due to my exhaustion, my numbed acceptance towards racism or that as an Asian-American woman, I didn’t believe I was generally treated poorly.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I rarely considered race into other people’s identities and I felt people often didn’t do so with me. I grappled with being a first-generation Filipina-American, but seldom did I think people perceived me based on problematic biases surrounding Asian women. 

When a friend stated that I was “basically white,” I knew what he really meant—people did not define me by my race. I could go about freely without race dominating my identity.

This is not to speak for all Asian-Americans, nor does it suggest that we cannot have similar experiences based on our race, just that we cannot pack the stories and struggles of all Asian-Americans into one, neat narrative.

For one, when I talked to my Chinese-American friend about dating white men, she expressed her concerns about being fetishized. I knew it was common for Chinese women to encounter fetishization, however as a Filipina-American, I never felt I had. 

“But you are often exoticized,” she said.

I thought about the moments a non-Asian person claimed that the prettiest women came from the Philippines. There was an exchange with a man who asked if I was Filipina, because I had a “soothing voice.” Then there was the professor who commented how he’d only regarded Filipina women as alluring. I brushed it all aside.

This is not even to mention the times that non-Asian friends presumed my caretaker tendencies were intrinsically tied to my Filipino genes, or mentioned that I had big eyes for an Asian because I was Filipina.

Their perceptions of Filipina women weren’t necessarily negative. Therefore, if others wouldn’t make my ethnicity a problem, I wouldn’t either, despite their insidiously progressing harmful, narrow-minded perspectives.

I’ve started to replay interactions with non-Asian boyfriends, friends and colleagues, wondering how much my race affected our relationship. Did my race distort their views? Had I really faced racial biases? Or, was I just being gaslighted, abiding by troubling norms?

That I even have these questions is frustrating; attempting to deconstruct all my relationships and wonder if my race was a factor is an exhausting routine all people of color bear. 

Only when the most egregious acts of violence occurred, did I realize that my racial identity really could be a dangerous burden. Or it always was, and I never fully recognized that until the Bay Area’s seemingly tolerant bubble was penetrated, and Vicha Ratanapakdee was murdered on Market Street. Then Ngoc Pham, Xiao Zhen Xie and Danny Yu Chang were attacked, left bloodied and battered. I had tried to evade racism, until it was blatantly and brutally displayed on the streets.

The day after the murders in Georgia, non-Asian friends reached out to me, asking what they could do. I didn’t have an answer for them.

When I discussed this with my Korean-American friend, he shared how he had scrolled through our peers’ Instagram accounts, seeing who posted something along the lines of “I stand in solidarity with Asian-Americans.” He was angry. Were they going to do more beyond sharing visible, yet shallow, statements?

“Isn’t it better that they’re saying something rather than nothing at all?” I asked. 

“Yeah, I’d be angry either way,” he responded.

I understood his outrage. We were angry at the performative actions. We were angry that only when people died did the general public start to pay attention. We were angry at the people who remained silent. We were angry this was happening at Asians, Blacks, Muslims, Hispanics.  

I’ve been reconciling how I feel now compared to last year after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were killed. And I feel the same way. Horrified. Helpless. Disheartened that we continue to suffer and feel nothing has changed. This is not to equate the adversities of all people of color, but to say that all racially-motivated violence and prejudice are senseless and tragic, at the very least.

Last summer, I wrote an article on implicit biases, pleading that we all hold ourselves accountable to combat racism. The same goes here.

I empathize with the impulse to not do so. I do. The world feels heavier, we’re exhausted, we desperately want that post-racial society so we ignore the prevalent racism. I’ve done that myself, at the risk of complying with hatred towards people of my own race.

So, how can we stand in solidarity with people of any marginalized racial group? It will require years of long, grueling work, reckoning with our day-to-day actions, even when we feel we do not have the power or capacity to do so.

Yet, if we sincerely want that post-racial society, we need to bear the work like our own lives are endangered.

Because for countless people, their lives are endangered. Remember that when you’re tired, cynical and tempted to give in. I know I will. I need to.