Stop sleeping on America’s anti-Asian past… and present

TW: This piece discusses racism and assault which may be triggering.

American policies and people have historically painted “American” to be synonymous with “white.” 

This cognitive shortcut has led us to shut out, enslave, and imprison those who don’t fit our Anglo-Saxon depiction of “Americanness” and who therefore “don’t belong” here. Yet, we still have so much to learn about our own history that we tend to forget just how many cultures we’ve conveniently shoved into America’s outgroup.

Subsequently, when discussing racial tensions in America, our heuristics often trigger views of a Black and white America, split down the middle by the Mason-Dixon line. Our minds flash to stark images of slavery, civil rights-era protests, and the police shootings that have shaped America’s racial conversations throughout –– forever, but especially –– the last 10 years.

We still have so much progress to make in avenues like reparations and equity for the Black community that we often don’t consider the detrimental rhetoric Americans crafted against Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim) after 9/11. Or the lasting psychological effects of a sitting president generalizing Mexican people as criminals, rapists, job-stealers who must be stopped by a physical barrier between “our” country and “theirs.”

We do the absolute least to remind ourselves of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese people from immigrating to America solely on the basis of race and lasted over 60 years. And the period during World War II when the American government forced Japanese Americans into prison camps just in case they were Japanese spies. (“No spies were ever found.”) 

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have increased 150% across 16 U.S. cities. With stay-at-home orders largely lifting across the country, these anti-Asian attacks seem to be growing more frequent, more blatant, and more violent by the day.

The sad truth is that anti-AAPI attacks in America aren’t going to stop until we address this country’s historical anti-Asian acts, laws, and biases. After decades of social movements fighting for suffrage, civil rights, gay liberation, we know these systems don’t untangle themselves, and we need to recognize that unlearning generationally ingrained bigotry takes a lot of listening, learning, and self-reflecting.

So we better start now.

‘It has always been there’

Chinese immigrants largely started moving to the U.S. in the 1850s, most of whom were seeking mining and railroad construction work –– “dangerous, low-wage jobs” –– in California and along the west coast. Americans’ anti-Chinese sentiments built up quickly thereafter.

By 1854, Supreme Court case People v. Hall determined that people of Asian descent couldn’t testify against white people in courts of law, essentially legalizing violence against Asian people in America.

In 1871, 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched after a white man was killed in the crossfire between rival Chinese groups. The men and boys were hanged “anywhere the rioters could find a beam to string a noose.” Their attackers faced no legal repercussions.

By 1882, out of fear that the .002% of the population who were Chinese immigrants were stealing Americans’ jobs and interfering with white “racial purity,” the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. The legislation, which was initially written to last 10 years, was eventually expanded to forbid Chinese immigrants who left the U.S. from coming back and in 1904 the act was extended indefinitely.

The Chinese Exclusion Act stayed in effect until December 1943, when America conveniently wanted Chinese aid during WWII. America barred the entry of Chinese people into the country for 61 years only to lighten restrictions allowing a meager 105 Chinese immigrants into the U.S. annually as part of a political ploy for allyship during war.

The catalyst for this not-so-well-intentioned end of a half-century-long racist condemnation occurred two years earlier in December 1941: the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The U.S. started rounding up Japanese families only two days after the bombing, regardless of whether the individuals were American citizens or immigrants, in fear of Japanese spies. (This rhetoric returns again in the ‘50s with the Cold War, the boom of McCarthyism, and fears of Chinese communist spies.) Although the government had already identified potential spies, the way West Coast Army General John DeWitt saw it, people of Japanese descent “are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not.”

By February 1942 FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the internment (read: imprisonment) of 110,000 Japanese Americans. The order was lifted two years later, but while Japanese Americans were imprisoned in America, Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) soldiers fought in the war as America’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

When the exclusion order was finally lifted in December 1944, many Japanese people left internment camps to find their homes raided or even repossessed due to their inability to pay taxes while imprisoned in the camps, a measure which is fucked up even based on typical racist American standards.

President Henry Ford “formally apologized” for the internment in… 1976 and Congress passed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act granting $20,000 to each of the nearly 60,000 survivors and their families. 

To be fair, this is more than Black Americans have ever received in reparations. And to be frank, reparations are almost always too little too late.

In 1982, Vincent Chin was attacked at a bar with a baseball bat and died several days later, all because two white men were mad about “losing their jobs to the Japanese.” Vincent Chin was a Chinese American. His attackers got probation and $3,000 fines.

Asian people and communities have faced racism and discrimination around every turn of American history. California Senator John F. Miller considered Chinese workers to be “machine-like…of obtuse nerve, but little affected by heat or cold, wiry, sinewy, with muscles of iron.” Japanese and Chinese Americans took their turns being falsely accused (and reprimanded) of espionage. Vietnemese people were targeted by the KKK for their independence in the shrimping field (again, not the most glamorous job, yet white people INSIST it was stolen from them). People perceived to be Muslim (mostly people of Asian descent) are constantly derided for the 9/11 attacks (which clearly neither represented the Muslim religion or any Western Asian ideals). 

White Americans like to think the negative effects of our racist past don’t exist simply because we don’t see them. We think anti-AAPI rhetoric isn’t dangerous, or that it simply doesn’t exist.

“But it’s there. It has always been there. Anti-Asian racism has been a stain on our nation’s history, even if we don’t always see it.”

Michael Lu, Dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health

‘We are treated like perpetual foreigners’

Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center for anti-AAPI discrimination, started “in response to the alarming escalation in xenophobia and bigotry resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic” on March 19, 2020. 

Barely two months into the pandemic, barely two weeks into lockdown in New York, xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had already increased so dramatically that the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University needed to launch a reporting website to track and address the outbreak of violence.

By the end of March 2020, anti-AAPI attacks had risen to 100 per day.

From as early as I can remember, people around me referred to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” or “the kung flu,” terms which were also frequently used by the piece of shit dirtbag who just got out of office. 

But even worse is that physical attacks of Asian people started even faster. 

The week of Feb. 14 a 16-year-old student was hospitalized in California after being physically attacked by his peers.

On Feb. 22 an elderly man was brutally attacked in San Francisco

On March 30 a family of three, including a two-year-old and a six-year-old, was stabbed in Texas.

Each of these attackers were solely and specifically motivated based on the perceived race of their victims.

Now, more than a year later, these attacks are finally getting national attention.

From March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 self-reported incidents of discrimination, a dramatic underrepresentation of the actual number of anti-AAPI attacks in America over the last year. 

These attacks range from mocking, slanting eyes, and refusing to serve Asian Americans at businesses to physical altercations and violent attacks. Over the last year, most of these attacks –– similarly to historical hatred of Asian communities –– occurred in California. 

Most attacks have gone unreported, or have been ignored. Of the reported cases, only a select few are classified as hate crimes for one reason or another.

Vicha Ratanapakdee died in February after being brutally body-checked to the ground during his morning walk in San Francisco. Vicha Ratanapakdee was an 84-year-old Thai man.

Three Asian people were attacked in broad daylight last week on San Francisco streets. These attacks are happening to everyone, but it’s especially disheartening to see our elders, harmlessly going about their days, only to be viciously or fatally assaulted.

Last week eight people were murdered in Atlanta spas, six of whom were women of Korean and Chinese descent. But this isn’t the only way anti-Asian racism shows its face in America. This is only the most recent.

“Anti-Asian racism comes in many forms. The fetishization and misogyny against Asian women. The desexualization of Asian men. We are made fun of for the way we look. The way we drive. What we eat. What we wear. How we speak. How we parent. We are treated like perpetual foreigners, no matter how many years or generations we have been in this country. A guest in our own home.”

Michael Lu, Dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health

‘Words of sympathy are great — but actions are necessary’

There are thousands of cases of discrimination, racism, and violent attacks toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the last year that I can’t include in this breakdown. 

Even the cases we do know of often don’t include victims’ names, or their names are spelled or abbreviated incorrectly, which only goes to show the lack of care and understanding white Americans have of Asian cultures (even at the most basic level of how names work). Many times, in efforts to illustrate the anti-Asian sentiments behind these attacks, victims are generalized as “Asians” even in instances where victims are the same race (like the Chinese-American family that was stabbed in Texas) or span multiple races (like the Korean and Chinese women killed in the Atlanta shootings).

Yet still, white people are (of course) making this about us. On a Stop AAPI Hate Instagram post about hate incidents, a string of comments asks:

“By WHO? Not white people. Why don’t you bother to mention WHO is attacking Asians most of the time? It’s not white people.”

While I normally would fight with this white man until I’m blue in the face, I’m going to give him (you? us?) this one. To all of the white people reading this: you want to make this about white people? 

Then fucking do it.

But making this about white people doesn’t mean you get to Karen out and play the victim. If you really want to make the attacks against AAPIs about you then get to stepping.

Step 1.

Address your biases.

We all know people who hold anti-Asian perspectives, who make shitty jokes at parties or infantilize Eastern Asian women. But the truth is, these racially driven feelings have likely snuck into our own sunconciouses, too (even if we don’t consider ourselves to be racist). 

A great place to start unwrapping your biases is by questioning why we use the term “Asian” when Asia is a continent comprised of 48 countries and the Pacific Islands include 25 nations, each of which have their own unique histories, cultures, and PEOPLE. 

Or, you could question your understanding of Asian stereotypes. White Americans coined Asian people as “model minorities” in order to use them as political pawns (i.e. ending the Chinese Exclusion Act to leverage China as an ally) ((i.e. changing Asian immigrant quota systems to impose restrictions on Latin American immigrants)).

Now we use this “model minority” stereotype to continue oppressing Asian people and ignoring their very real instances of discrimination in the workplace, education systems, and the country at large. White Americans see the term as a badge of honor, recognizing positive traits that we associate with “Asianness” when in reality calling someone a model minority is equivalent to saying: “You’re the best type of non-white person, why are you mad?”

Unlearning our biases means learning that Chinese and Korean people aren’t, in fact, from the same country, and that countries like Cambodia and Lebanon are, in fact, part of Asia, too.

Step 2.

Educate yourself

Step 2 goes hand-in-hand with Step 1, except this step includes actually learning new things.

This post is a great pace to start (hence, why I wrote it). But I only covered the most surface-level defining moments in America’s recent history, so check out the linked sources and scour the internets for more.

Educating yourself takes time. So does overthrowing racist systems. Both are totally worth it.

Step 3.


Listen to people’s experiences and believe them. 

This is the most important part of life in general, but when trying to understand centuries of pain, violence, and exclusion, it’s better to listen to survivors’ accounts than attackers’.

American history books simply will not cut it. Read op-eds and Q&As, listen to podcasts, and seek sources and historical accounts written by people of Asian descent.

Step 4.

Become a better person because of it

Move forward with a new understanding, a new passion for people who may not be the same as you, but who also are never all that different. 

Donate. Speak out. Care.

Don’t stay the same just because it’s easy. Stop ignoring other’s pain just because it’s easy.

We can’t change systemic biases without reflecting on our own. The reason these systems thrive is because the majority allows them to. When you familiarize yourself with other people’s experiences (and your own history) your world understanding will change. 

Let it.

“Regardless of the motive of the perpetrator, we very much feel like this is an attack on our community. Condolences are good. Words of sympathy are great — but actions are necessary.”

Representative Sam Park

With love,


Featured image by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Sources used & linked throughout the piece, haphazardly and in no particular order:

One thought on “Stop sleeping on America’s anti-Asian past… and present

  1. Great article Jack! Julie Bellomo’s daughter and a group of her friends were followed around a mall by security last week and it was because of the color of their skin! So sad!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: