By: Christina Lee
This year marked an exciting milestone for me: it was the first year that I was able to vote! Imagine my excitement upon finally exercising my right as an American citizen in a democratic process that I know I must not take for granted. So, I voted, and it was great. But why did I still feel uneasy about walking around in public several weeks afterward, right before the enforcement of California’s shelter-in-place order?
My uneasiness felt eerily familiar, like that first day of kindergarten when I looked around the classroom and noticed that no one else looked like me. Or that unforgettably awkward time in middle school when my teacher confused me for the only other Asian girl in the class.
Sure, these are not blatant experiences of extreme racism, but they’re the foundational roots of little things that give rise to larger issues. The ignorance, the discomfort, the establishment of “otherness” and foreignness.
So when former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote in his controversial op-ed for The Washington Post that he “felt self-conscious—even a bit ashamed—of being Asian” after receiving looks of distaste in public since the coronavirus outbreak, I felt that. We all did.
In fact, we were all on board when he spoke candidly about the country’s state of insecurity and fear following the pandemic. It’s not surprising that, in the words of Yang, “people are looking for someone to blame.” It’s human nature. It was bound to happen.
And then, things start to go downhill from there.
Yang writes in an almost humorously unnecessary and flippant manner: I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. (Thank you for your insight, Yang!) Still, here’s the best part: But saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” won’t work.
I’m afraid that even Yang himself doesn’t realize what he is implying.
If we start to adopt an attitude of believing that “not being racist can’t stop racism,” it is only symbolic of our giving up. If we truly begin to submit to the meek way of thinking that we must find other ways around combatting racism besides speaking up against it, it simply distracts us from our main goal and the glaring issue: saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” should, in fact, work.
Yang tells me, my family, my friends, and the rest of the Asians in America to start showing some love for Uncle Sam to battle racism. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he writes. “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red-white-and-blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.”
Maybe the Asian Americans making headlines for becoming victims of coronavirus-related hate crimes—being stabbed, being spat on, being cursed out—should have been wearing red, white, and blue. They should have known better!
Let’s be honest: if my wardrobe was the key to solving racism, I would have changed it years ago. Yang thinks sporting patriotic colors is the solution, so how will he explain the fact that people will inevitably notice my gold skin, monolid eyes, and dark hair?
Yang then suggests in an example of “patriotism” and poor taste that Japanese Americans during World War II “volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans,” dismissing the hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans who couldn’t do so because they were busy being held in internment camps under a xenophobic government that justified their racism out of “military necessity.” In other words, they were trying to protect the other Americans from an “enemy,” the enemy being Japanese Americans. Or like today, the “enemy” is us.
In essence, Yang argues that we must forgo our Asian heritage because it is something shameful, dangerous, and suggesting of malintent in times of crises. He claims that we must try to blend in, that we must try to prove something that doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be proven, that we, Asian Americans, are the problem.
With a current president referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” our social and political atmosphere scares me. I’m afraid that we are not progressing as a society, that we are embodying the echoes of a scarred past, that Asian Americans and fellow minorities are giving in. I’m scared because the first Asian American political figure I’ve ever seen doesn’t quite understand the problem. Or perhaps he’s doing just that—giving in.
Let’s not let our fear make judgments for us. Let’s not give up our identity and roots to make others feel more comfortable with their ignorance. Let’s not allow ourselves to think that we are the problem, that we must accommodate. Fear is a powerful thing, but what’s even more powerful is that we can control it.