“We Are Not Okay”: Reflecting on Recent Anti-Asian Violence

By Mary Chung March

For the past few weeks, the Asian North American community has been dealing with the heartbreak of incident after incident of anti-Asian hate crimes against Asian elderly people. Some friends have reached out and asked, “Are you okay?” Perhaps you’ve been asking your Asian North American friends too as you hear the news stories of 20 violent anti-Asian acts in recent weeks—and these are only the ones that have been recorded. If you have not, check in on your friends. Tell them you see them in pain and that you are with them.

Are we okay? My response is, “No, we are not okay.” The blow that has knocked over and killed our Asian elders for simply being Asian has knocked us over too. Again, it has taken our breath away and the false sense of safety that was never ours.

With the rise of anti-Asian racism during Covid-19, Asians of all ages have become more frequent targets of racism and hate crimes. From elementary-aged Asian children to our most honorable elderly, the reality of otherizing Asians has always been a part of life. Yet during Covid-19, the uptick of senseless violence toward Asians because of xenophobia and scapegoating has reached a tipping point. Even medical professionals are caring for patients who swear at them and spit in their faces. I know personally doctors who have experienced anti-Asian racism this year. My mother, as one of the few Asian NICU nurses in New Jersey and New York in the 1970s, has so many similar stories.

A year ago last February, news reports were pouring in of Asian children being attacked with knives, an elderly woman kicked in the face on public transportation for being Asian, Asians being spit upon, yelled at, and physically attacked. The accounts were happening regularly because of the heightened permission people felt to scapegoat anyone who resembled an Asian ethnicity, blaming them as the reason coronavirus had come to their city. For the past year, this kind of rampant racist behavior has been constant.

Two weeks ago, a video of an 84-year-old Asian man, Vicha Ratanapakdee, went viral as we watched in horror as an assailant ran to knock him over as Mr. Ratanapakdee was taking a walk. He died from his injuries. We saw another captured video of a 91-year-old Asian man walking in Oakland’s Chinatown, a place he belonged and felt at home, as another man came up behind him and shoved him violently to the ground.

We cannot unsee this image.

As I watched these videos, something in me broke. I need to be clear that it was not because I was surprised. Violence is not new to Asians. As an Asian American female, I have been on the receiving end of demeaning verbal and physical anti-Asian acts since I was a child, as have the many generations before me. However, when I watched the video of Vicha Ratanapakdee being senselessly attacked, I broke with newfound grief. When I saw the video, I saw my father. I saw my mother. And I felt helpless in the realization that I cannot protect them from the anti-Asian sentiment that is alive and well in 2021.

If you put yourself in our shoes, try to imagine you have just seen and learned of 20 violent (some fatal) acts in two weeks aimed at your ethnicity, your father and mother, your grandma and grandpa as they walk their daily route in their neighborhood. As you envision watching a video of someone shoving them from behind, what do you feel? What if this is your everyday reality in the world and there is no recourse? What do you do with the sinking realization that these assaults happen because of your ethnicity?

Sometimes when I share some of the racist incidents that have happened to me with others, they incredulously ask, “Did that really happen? That didn’t really happen.” And, “Perhaps they didn’t mean to hurt you?” My short answer is this: “Yes, it happened. I have no reason to make it up. I already deal with the shame of letting it happen to me, of having no recourse, and I relive the experience by telling you. But I have a question: If this is part of our everyday reality but it isn’t a part of yours, have you ever asked yourself why that is? What has allowed this to be my reality?”

As people of color, we are reminded, again and again, that we are expendable. We have no recourse. It feels like no one cares. We may be Americans, but Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners who will never look or be truly American. I am reminded again and again that we are the invisible minority, the silent doormat, the perpetual foreigners, the yellow peril, the model minority (which is not a compliment), and the embodiment of the Kungflu virus. We did not give ourselves these names.

“A conversation with our church, New City Covenant Church in Minneapolis, where we addressed the anti-Asian crimes in a segment called, “Beneath the Cross.”

The article “Why We Must Talk about the Asian-American Story, Too,” by Brando Simeo Starkey, recounts Michael Luo’s experience of being told, “Go back to China!” and provides some history explaining why we must talk about the Asian American story too. In 1899, the term “yellow peril” was coined by Jacques Novikow to capture and ingrain the belief that Asians were evil, dangerous, primitives, and demonized predators.

In the 1960s, Asians were re-named the model minority as a rhetorical tactic to diffuse cries for racial justice by the Black civil rights advocates and to silence other communities of color by pitting us against each other. This model minority image is a myth. Asians are not a monolith, and some Asians find the model minority stereotype oppressive. According to Pew Research, 20 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries with large differences in culture, language, and income. According to AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) research data, Southeast Asian poverty rates in the U.S. are higher than the U.S. average, some more than double the U.S. poverty rate.

Within this system, being labeled the “model minority” has made Asians Americans complicit with being part of the oppression of other communities of color. We lament and confess any contribution we have made to the oppression and pain of our mosaic brothers and sisters. We undeniably have work to do. We understand that it is hard to fight for someone else when that person is part of what causes you deep pain. Yet it is important to note that the Black community has stood in the gap and fought for Asian Americans despite the ways we have been pitted against each other. And Asian Americans have stood with and fought for justice in the civil rights movement as well. We also have a rich history of banding together.

In the Evangelical Covenant Church, the ethnic associations and the Mosaic Commission are trying to practice what we preach and be the body of Christ by living the solidarity we want to see. The road to healing is in the relationship, not otherizing one another when it gets hard. We choose not to believe these racial stereotypes, but instead choose to be onsite with one another, leaning into each other’s daily lives and pain. We practice the ministry of presence with one another. We commit to standing in the gap for one another. This is what a family does.

This needs to stop. We are not expendable. We are human.

The sixth P of the Six-Fold Test for Multiethnic Ministry reminds us that we are trying to live into “practiced solidarity” with our multiethnic family. There is enough space to stand for and with each other in our pain. Starkey ends his article writing, “Morality and wisdom dictate that we no longer discount the pain of our Asian American brothers and sisters.”

We Asians are easier targets because we are often silent in our experience of oppression. Anti-Asian hate has escalated with Covid and has given permission for people to weaponize their hate for us with the narrative of the “Chinese” virus and “we should all go back to our country because we don’t belong here”—even for Asian Americans such as Rev. Greg Yee, superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference, whose family has lived in the USA for five generations.

This needs to stop. We are not expendable. We are human. To our allies, we are calling out for your voices to respond to the wave of violence.

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Amanda Nguyen explained on MSNBC that an essential step for allies and the country as a whole is to break the silence surrounding the current rise in racism. “Silence erases our humanity,” Nguyen said. “There is a new Asian (North) American movement emerging and we are not going to be silent anymore. We are not your model minority. We are human and we deserve equal dignity, so stop killing us.”

Minari actor Steven Yeun said in a recent NYT Magazine article, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Recognizing the pain in our communities, the Covenant Asian Pastors Association (CAPA) held an emergency Zoom call for our Asian brothers and sisters last Thursday to create a space to process and respond. Many expressed their pain, anger, and deep hurt.

We were grateful to Dr. Russell Jeung, sociologist at San Francisco State University and one of the founders of Stop AAPI Hate, and Rev. Greg Yee, superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference, for leading our time together. And Rev. Brian Hui, a Bay Area pastor, shared a powerful statement (available here, art courtesy of Rev. Stephanie Ahn Mathis). We made the recording available on CAPA’s YouTube channel in hopes that it will help other Asians process their pain.

As a US citizen, I am repeatedly told and reminded that I am other, that I don’t belong here, that I am not welcomed—even though I have the same citizenship realities or rights as any other fellow American. Do I continue to take it? Do I continue to stay silent? How can I stay silent when I am navigating not only for myself, but for the generation above me who raised me and are now the target of hate crimes, and for the generation below me, my children, who will inherit what we have or have not done for them? There is much at stake here.

Someone asked me, “What do we do?”

There are so many things you can do. Here are just a few:

  • Learn the history and read books of Asians in America.
  • Watch YouTube videos or documentaries.
  • Get onsite and become friends with more Asians.
  • Sign petitions to stop AAPI Hate.

If that feels too overwhelming, just answering the following question is a start: “If your grandma or my grandpa was kicked in the face or as she or he walked the streets of their own neighborhood, if someone shoved them down—what would you do? What would you do to make sure that couldn’t happen again?” You would speak up, demand change, and show up for them as family does.

From our allies, we are asking for a public response to the wave of violence or even any response to let us know you see us and you recognize this is wrong. We are not expendable. We are human.

Last Friday was Lunar New Year and I called my parents to wish them a blessed New Year. Celebrating Lunar New Year is like celebrating Christmas in the US. It is a big deal. With my New Year’s greeting, I also told my parents to be careful when they go out and to always be aware of their surroundings. I suggested that perhaps they should stay home for a while and not go out in public. I told them that I loved them.

These are the conversations we are having with our families. What conversations are you having with yours?

Some resources that might help with your conversations:

Video resources :

Asian actors naming everyday racism on YouTube

Mary Chung March is the co-lead pastor of New City Covenant Church in Minneapolis and the chair of the Mosaic Commission of the Covenant Church.

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