I was ignorant about the racism faced by those who . . . look like me?

I am female, Asian American, and Vietnamese-born. Yet in a year marked by an increase in racially motivated hate crimes, I found myself being much more outspoken in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder than that of the shooting that took the lives of six women of Asian descent. This observation came with guilt, and it also came with the eventual realization that I am much more educated about anti-Black racism than about the bigotry towards my own race. That is the single most eye-opening revelation the pandemic has brought me.

Khanh Dao, Editor-in-Chief

The first few years after my immigration to the US at age nine, I didn’t include myself in discussions about racism, in part because I hadn’t yet identified as American. I was still struggling through my own immigrant identity crisis, so it was difficult to be angered when my peers saw me as a foreigner. The word racism conjured in my young mind images of slavery and Jim Crow, not those of the Yellow Peril and Pearl Harbor.

When I reached middle school, “Your English is very good” became less flattering and more alienating, as it forced me to question whether my peers still saw me as an outsider despite my own perception of being somewhat integrated into American culture. The more Americanized I felt, the easier it was to recognize the subtle prejudice directed at me because of my race.

But it was confusing. For one, I fit perfectly into the “smart Asian kid” stereotype: I was nice, quiet, and a known overachiever in my classes. Oh, and I played violin. My younger, naive self accepted the stereotype simply because I found some truth in it, and consequently I became partially blinded to the discrimination that Asian Americans (and Pacific Islanders, known collectively as AAPI) still face. 

While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was subconsciously subscribing to the model minority myth, which holds that Asian Americans are achieving more across academic, economic, and cultural domains than other minority groups. I thought then that being perceived as hardworking and successful is far from the worst of racial myths (think Black protestors wearing masks that say “not dangerous”), but I know now that the danger of the model minority myth lies in its benign persistence.

The myth diverts attention away from the 12% of Asian Americans who are living below the federal poverty level—or an even higher percentage if we take into account undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, because the model minority myth perpetuates the idea that Asian Americans champion the American dream of upward mobility, it also diverts attention from the reality of xenophobia that still exists for Americans of Asian descent.

You see, learning about racism through secondary sources is entirely different from discovering it through firsthand experience, and my knowledge of anti-Asian racism mostly comes from the former. I understand my privilege in saying that—privilege in living in a racially diverse area where any racism I experienced has never been more than a microaggression. There is also privilege in the fact that my parents never felt the need to discuss these topics with me and that I never felt concerned for my physical safety solely because of my race.

That is, until now.

Frankly, when I first came across reports of rapidly increasing numbers of violent, xenophobic attacks against AAPI individuals (a large portion of which are women and elders), I merely felt a vague connection to the victims. Of course, I was deeply disturbed that their faces resembled those of my loved ones, yet a part of me couldn’t help but feel that these events were tragedies that are always happening “somewhere else.”

The anti-Asian racism I knew consisted of others misunderstanding our cultural heritage, perpetuating harmful misperceptions, and underrepresenting us across various fields. Shoving our elderly in the streets because their ethnicity signals “coronavirus carrier” to an ignorant passerby? That’s shocking. 

But when I think of my grandparents—who sought refuge from war for their children in this country, whose strong wills now live in the fragile frames of ninety-year-olds—and imagine their faces on yet another social media post about a violent racist attack, the threat immediately becomes tangible. Their neighborhood can very well be that  “somewhere else” for another uninformed netizen.

I suppose it’s my luck—my lack of exposure to such racist incidents—that led me to deny the full extent of anti-Asian hate. I failed to recognize that my personal history with discriminination is not representative of the experiences of the larger AAPI community, experiences which I am just beginning to come to terms with.

Learning to self-educate has made me not only more aware of our societal issues, but also more cognizant of my own capacity to make earnest efforts to broaden my perspective for my community’s sake and for mine. I think that’s what people mean when they say education is empowering. Seriously, try it.


Sources: Harvard Law, Open Society Foundations