I used to view tragedy like an electric shock– sudden, sharp, and excruciating in the moment– but a pain that dulls with time. A shock becomes a sting, and a sting becomes the whisper of a sensation that exists only in memory.
If only it were so simple.
At 5 p.m. on March 16th, Aaron Robert Long entered Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, Atlanta, armed with a 9 mm gun. He left four bodies in his wake as he made his way to Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, where he killed another four. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
Since March 16th, the news has acted as a revolving carousel of statistics serving to paint the picture of this tragedy as sudden, sharp, excruciating– as a shock. Every broadcast asserts that the 145% uptick in Anti-Asian hate crimes, the waves of verbal harassment, violence, paranoia and anger in this country are all an unprecedented product of the COVID-19 pandemic. And they’re partially correct. Their assessments of the enormity of the crisis, the unspeakability of the crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, and our leaders’ rhetoric as fuel to the flames are all sufficient. But they’ve gotten one detail completely wrong.
COVID-19 did not create the Anti-Asian sentiment sweeping this country– it amplified it– and all it takes is a skim through any American history book to understand why.
Since arriving in this country, AAPIs have been the victims of unrestrained hatred, violence, and prejudice from the government and people. In 1854, the Supreme Court of California ruled in People v Hall that people of Asian descent could not testify in court. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S for ten years, and rendered all individuals of Chinese descent already living in the U.S. ineligible for citizenship. The proliferating stereotypes of Chinese individuals as plague carriers and job stealers– substantiated exclusively by political rhetoric and policy– bred widespread hate and violence against the Chinese community and Asians as a whole. Despite the hundreds of Asian lives claimed by angry white mobs, the verdict of People v Hall ensured that the victims couldn’t testify against their assailants. For over half a century Chinese-Americans saw their freedoms of speech, liberty, and dignity under assault by the very country that held the promise of a better life. Things took a turn for the worse with the outbreak of World War II. The bombing of Pearl Harbor unleashed an onslaught of fury, paranoia, and hatred against individuals of Japanese descent that propelled one of the greatest executive and humanitarian failures in American history. On February 19th 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the mass incarceration and detention of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans in designated “military zones”– today, recognized as concentration camps. Whole families were forced to leave behind their homes, their livelihoods, and live in unspeakable conditions without access to healthcare. In the Supreme Court ruling of Korematsu v U.S., the judicial branch legitimized Executive Order 9066, reasoning that the “security” of the general U.S. population was more important than upholding the civil rights of Japanese people. It took 44 years for the government to recognize the injustice, and pay reparations to victims.
But no sum can heal the emotional trauma of being forcibly extracted from your home, of watching loved ones die of disease as the government refuses you healthcare. No amount of money can stifle the anguish of switching on the news and realizing that in spite of all that the Asian-American community has endured in the last two centuries, they are still perceived as the villains in this country.
The Atlanta shooting tragedy was not a shock. It was one of the millions of ripples undulating about the foundations of prejudice and fear that form America. For two hundred years, the AAPI community has felt those ripples in every corner of their lives. The rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans with COVID-19 isn’t a symptom of the pandemic– it’s a symptom of a historic racism and hate, manifested in a subtle undercurrent of the “forever foreign” attitude that continues to divide American society.
That divide isn’t exclusive to AAPIs.
My entire life, teachers and classmates have struggled immensely to pronounce my name. I’ve gotten every permutation of incorrect pronunciations, from Ka-mahl, to Ko-mail, to Kameel, and so many more. In elementary school, I spared no energy in correcting, critiquing, enunciating over and over again until they finally got it right, but as I grew older, I started to give up– and in light of all that’s happened since March 16th, I ask myself why.
The same reason why I stopped packing Indian lunches, and inviting friends to my house. The same reason I hid my accent, along with every other part of myself that didn’t seem to belong.
Because why would a child stand up for a name that was purposely mispronounced for “kicks?” Why would a child who grew up ridiculed for the way she spoke, the smell of her food, the stereotypes assigned to her skin explain a culture that no one wished to understand?
Why would any child attempt to stand up for themselves if they know deep down that no one will stand with them?
I am not a member of the AAPI community, and I can not speak to that experience. I can, however, speak to the experience of what it means to look different in this country. To eat differently. To live and breathe and believe differently. To feel as though in the fight to be heard, recognized, and accepted, you are alone. It’s the toxic passivity fortified by that “aloneness” that allows for the continued misrepresentation and ostracization of Asian-Americans, of all “foreigners” in America.
When I think about what happened in Atlanta, I think about the misperceptions that have come to construct our identities as perpetual outsiders. I ponder the silence where it all begins– the innocent “joke” becomes the misperception becomes the stereotype becomes the belief. The unassuming child becomes the uncontested bully becomes the adult that needs a scapegoat to blame when life gets hard. The adult that picks up a gun and kills eight innocent strangers.
When I think about what happened in Atlanta, I remember the lives of Delaina Ashley Yuan, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, Hyung Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue. They deserved better. We have to do better.
For so long we’ve ignored the mispronunciations and microaggressions, too weary to fight the cold, uphill battle of defense and explanation alone. But the recent events in Atlanta have paved the way for a paradigm shift. They’ve shown that the AAPI community is done turning the other cheek, and they have the support of millions of people behind them who understand the grave injustice has been done to minorities across America. The discriminatory legislation has been undone, the executive failures have been recognized, and at long last the time has come to recognize and dismantle the historical precedents that drive the hate we grapple with today.
It is time for not only those outside the AAPI community, but for us all to break our silence. We have to teach ourselves, our youth to stand with everyone, not just those that look like them. We have to recognize and teach the historical foundations of existing stereotypes, so as to make evident their inaccuracy and baselessness. We have to foster a culture that promotes speaking up– against an elementary schooler’s jeer at a peers’ “smelly” lunch, or a streetside slur launched at an innocent passerby. Then and only then can we create a society founded on mutual respect, awareness, and appreciation for people of all backgrounds. Where nobody ever feels alone.
The Atlanta shooting tragedy was not a shock– but if we seize this moment, we can morph the ripples of prejudice into waves of acceptance and change, crashing on the shores of a newer, better America.