Defying the Invisibility and Misrepresentation of the Asian American Experience

It has been an extremely hard week for people of Asian descent living in the United States after eight people, including six Asian women, were murdered in the March 16 Atlanta spa shootings. We all know that the story of anti-Asian racism didn’t start on that day, though it seemed broader coverage was just beginning. Nearly 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans were reported in the U.S. over the past year (though of course, the actual number could be much higher). Our pain is fused with anger, fear, frustration and a profound disappointment that it took eight lives to finally push the implicit and explicit violence against Asian Americans into the spotlight of the national conversation. 

As I grieve over the loss of lives and find solace in the Asian community on campus, I can’t help but reflect on the actions of Tou Thao, the police officer who turned his back to Derek Chauvin, his partner, as Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds until he stopped breathing. Beyond the deluge of violence and tragedy, Thao’s inaction towards and complicity in horrid injustice serves as a sobering reminder of the need to dig deeper into what it means to be Asian in this country. 

Up until the escalation of anti-Asian sentiment amid the Covid-19 crisis, the prevailing narrative about Asian Americans was the model minority myth: the very convenient (and completely false) belief that all Asians have achieved success through some supposed American meritocracy. The elevation of Asian Americans to the position of model minority had less to do with their actual success than with the fact that they were more politically silent and ethnically assimilable than African Americans. While Asians were considered the non-threatening kind of person of color –– the desirable classmates and neighbors –– this false perception of universal success among Asian Americans was wielded by a fraction of white America in minimizing the role that racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial and ethnic minority groups, especially Black Americans. 

The model minority myth also deeply harms the Asian communities in another way: it silences our voices. Our unique stories are overridden by the myth of universal prosperity. The complexities of our lived experiences are reduced to an oversimplified delusion of meritocracy. Our desire for social change is dismissed as playing the “race card,” even when we are fighting for the right to walk in public without being harassed, assaulted or even shot. We remain invisible in most circumstances when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing without causing any “trouble” –– assimilating to a white-dominated society.

It is scary to think about what this kind of erasure and years of internalization of the myth would do to the Asian American psyche. It allows white people to avoid addressing racism and can drive the minority groups in this country further away from solidarity. It renders us silent and complicit as the model minority. Perhaps this does not fully explain Thao’s complicity in racial violence against a Black American, but it is at least a part of it. 

At the center of such misrepresentation of Asian Americans lies the dehumanization of Asian women. It is impossible to separate the horror that occurred on March 16 from the long history of the objectification and hypersexualization of Asian women. According to the police, the suspect in the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, considered the women inside the spas “sources of temptation.” The reduction of Asian women into sex objects can be traced back to the Page Act of 1875 which prohibited Chinese women from coming to the U.S. for “immoral purposes.” During the Vietnam War, women from Thailand and many other Asian countries were used for sex by U.S. soldiers at various “rest and recreation” spots. 

Such dehumanization of Asian women deepens the seeming expendability of their lives. It is not hard to draw connections between the hypersexualization of Asian women in movies and television and murderers like Long, who claims to have been motivated by “sexual addiction.” 

What hurts and maddens the most is the hesitation from authorities to label the shooting as a hate crime. The police officers in charge claim that the shooter was having a “bad day,” which reinforces the false narrative that Asian Americans are somehow invulnerable to racism and the refusal to hold white Americans responsible for their own racist actions. Even after the deaths of eight people –– dedicated mothers, striving immigrants and hard workers –– many still don’t acknowledge the racialized nature of the violence elicited on a people who bear a shameful history of being objectified and dehumanized. 

Reflecting on the incidents and history mentioned above –– whether they are hate crimes that involve bloodshed or the everyday microaggressions so many of us have to endure –– all are rooted in the continuing presence and evolution of American white supremacy. In a country whose aspiration towards equality lies in direct tension with its past and present of exploiting racial minorities (starting from the persecution of Indigenous people and the importation of African slaves), the March 16 shootings is just a continuing and terrifying chapter of the struggle of marginalized Americans against systemic oppression.

I am not writing this op-ed just to lament the deaths or unveil the past and present of anti-Asian racism. I am writing this to expose how entrenched the invisibility and misrepresentation of Asian Americans are in our society, even today. More importantly, I am addressing this to my fellow Amherst students, who (to a certain extent) are protected from many overt forms of racism outside of the Amherst bubble and have the power to defy racial injustice in our everyday lives. 

Challenge the model minority myth. Do research on the true experiences of minoritized peoples. Think before you speak. Tell your own stories and listen to others. Continue to pressure the administration to support Asian and Pacific American Studies. Be a conscious media consumer who can detect and reject the soft racism that has pervaded the coverage of Asians and Asian Americans. 

And most of all, I ask you to keep in mind that, despite a lack of news coverage, anti-Asian racism will not go away once we are rid of the pandemic. Call it out for what it is.