by Kamna Shastri
Since the beginning of the year, Asian Americans have come increasingly under violent attack. Elders have been assaulted in Chinatowns across the country from Oakland to San Francisco to New York City. In late February, Inglemoor High School Japanese teacher Noriko Nasu and her boyfriend were walking through Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (C-ID) and were attacked without provocation. Nasu was knocked unconscious, and her boyfriend required eight stitches. Asian American community members in Seattle had already been experiencing racial slurs and aggression at increased rates since COVID-19 began in 2020. Then, last week, a 21-year-old white man murdered 8 people at massage parlors 30 miles apart in Atlanta. Six of the victims were Asian women. The businesses were Asian owned.
Stop AAPI Hate has reported 3,800 instances of hate over the past year. Women constituted more than half of the targets. Washington state ranks third after California and New York for states with the highest incidents reported. The rise in hate crimes and racially motivated incidents has been attributed to the previous administration’s characterization of COVID-19 as the “Kung Flu” or “China Virus.” But the truth is we have been here before many times. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Bellingham riots. Japanese Incarceration. The murder of Vincent Chinn, the backlash on Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans after 9/11 — and all the unreported instances in between, Asian Americans have been attacked, called racist slurs, spat on, murdered, etc.
When it is convenient for white supremacy, Asian Americans are touted as the ideal, successful minority group or “model minorities,” to put down other People of Color and erase the vast array of experiences among diverse groups of color. But when a crisis comes, or when the political climate shifts, Asian Americans are othered once again in national discourse. White supremacy then characterizes Asian Americans as invading immigrants or “forever foreigners,” and uses them as scapegoats. For example, Asian Americans were called disease-carrying aliens so much so in the past that they were even labeled the “yellow peril” in the late nineteenth century.
After a year of the previous administration placing blame on Asians — particularly on Chinese — for COVID-19, the pandemic is now ebbing and giving rise to fallout. The year 2021 has seen a litany of significantly more violent and life-threatening attacks on people of Asian descent around the country. The overall message from Seattle’s Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations is to stand in solidarity with one another and refuse the divisive rhetoric of interracial blame games. Community organizations want to make sure that Asian American elders, women — generally everyone — are safe from this rise in racist hate.
The Black Lives Matter movement has added a much needed layer to how Asian American communities, activists, and youth want to handle and hold perpetrators of anti-Asian violence accountable. As illustrated in this letter sent to President Biden from the Asian Law Caucus, Asian American and Pacific Islander community organizations want solutions that center transformative community collaboration rather than turning to law enforcement, increased policing, and the systemic racism of our carceral system which disproportionately targets and takes the lives of Black people.
Safety in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District
Seattle’s Chinatown-International District is not only the home of local businesses, it is also one of the few affordable safe havens left for low-income immigrants, many of whom are elders. During the pandemic, InterIm Community Development Association and other neighborhood advocacy organizations have been supporting residents and elders by getting them groceries and medical care, as well as doing weekly wellness checks and surveys to find out what else they might need. But there is an ongoing visceral fear for and among businesses and residents. Elders, who have been vulnerable targets in recent hate crimes, are afraid to go out for walks and grocery trips.
“How much more can one neighborhood take?” asked Pradeepta Upadhyay, InterIm CDA executive director. Ethnic neighborhoods like the C-ID have undergone centuries worth of disinvestment, she reminded. Redlining, for example, is the very reason Chinatowns exist and the beginning of this legacy. “With all the things we’ve been struggling around these past few years — the issue around homelessness, the issue around lack of public safety, increase in crime, and then now to have to protect the community against hate crimes. It’s raising more fear for the community and … as advocates for the community, it is a little unnerving to say what are we supposed to do?”
InterIm is currently focusing on wellness checks and community engagement so that elders can identify a hate crime and have the resources to stay safe and reach out for help. However, “identifying [an incident] as a hate crime is such a massive struggle,” said Upadhyay. Many elders in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community (and immigrants and refugees more broadly) who fled countries due to religious and political conflict have learned to endure strife out of necessity and may not feel safe speaking up. That makes it hard to collect data and assess the very real racial threats affecting the community. For instance, while Stop AAPI Hate has been collecting reports of incidents for over a year, the organization always adds a caveat that, due to under-reporting, their reports only capture a fraction of incidents that have happened.
As a South Asian who worked for a South Asian advocacy organization in California during 9/11, Upadhyay is reminded of the backlash against Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans that followed. Media coverage was sorely lacking when Sikh men in the U.S. were blamed, assaulted, and even murdered in the wake of the tragic 2001 incident. Yet many people in the South Asian Muslim community Upadhyay worked with stayed silent, harboring worry and fear of being targeted amidst the anger and grief that followed the attack on the World Trade Center. “I was in LA at the time and the only community that reached out to me was the Japanese community because they had gone through internment,” she said. “There wasn’t anyone else.”
Hate is the common antagonism across racial lines, and breaking down the false barriers is where Upadhyay urges organizations and individuals to focus. “That’s where I see as the safety net, to be able to break these barriers and silos and come together as People of Color that are hurting because of the racism we see and not only protect our own.”
Community Solutions Across Racial and Ethnic Lines
Despite the continued struggle of confronting racial violence, 20 years later, Upadhyay said she does see a vastly larger scale and encouraging response to hate today, inspired by BLM, that works to center cross-community collaboration and solidarity. “I think what the Black Lives Matter movement did is it broke barriers and silos to say a threat against any Person of Color is a threat against all,” she said.
There are actually countless other examples of such solidarity throughout history. In the 1960s, for instance, Asian Americans began a political movement to stand in solidarity with Civil Rights activists. In parallel, they created a Yellow Power movement of their own that brought about the term “Asian American” and pushed for anti-imperialist and anti-war ideologies. The movement has inspired generations of Asian American activists since.
The recent spate of hate crimes and anti-Asian rhetoric occurring alongside the Black Lives Matter movement’s urgent call for justice have reignited Asian American activists with a spirit mirroring the 1960s movement. Upadhyay said it’s vital that nonprofits and community-centered organizations reach beyond the specific ethnic groups they serve to be more intersectional and inclusive. “How do we help not just the API community, but all immigrant and refugee communities who are still fearful and living under threat with the rising white supremacist movement that we are seeing?”
Michael Byun, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service has also noticed this shifting mentality in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. “One thing that is really positive,” Byun said about the conversations that have been happening, “is that our community has really understood how to center anti-Black racism with this discussion and a deeper understanding of the systemic and structural aspects of anti-Asian violence, one that focuses on community-centered approaches.” An important part of that discussion, he added, includes increasing support for victims, providing culturally relevant mental health support and services.
Byun pointed to already existing grassroots and mutual aid models for community response. The CID Coalition, for example, has a night walk group of volunteers who patrol the neighborhood to lend a friendly, physical presence and create a sense of safety. Rainier Beach Action Coalition has a corner greeters program spearheaded by youth that could be replicated in other neighborhoods.
Byun noted how necessary it is to examine history and current events for examples that can inspire organic collaboration across groups. “It’s about really encouraging our community to think expansively and creativity around community solutions.” He pointed to creating events like neighborhood barbeques to actually get to know the people with whom you share space. Those relationships, built in casual situations, nourish tight-knit connections that can be an important safeguard against violence.
Name It and Learn: The Long View
Communal and cultural healing, built across Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Pacific Islander communities, will not happen overnight. It will require thoughtfulness and patience. For that, Byun said, our hope lies in the investments we make in our youth and in education. Within the AAPI community there is still a need to engage across generations to understand how families are impacted by and internalize racism. “The generational work requires a lot of multi-generational conversations, really focusing on leading with empathy to develop understanding so we can get to a better place,” said Byun.
Reuben Deleon is lecturer at the University of Washington’s Department of American Ethnic Studies with a focus on education and Asian American studies. He is familiar with the struggles of engaging elders in frank conversations around race and justice and says it’s important to honor that they are still navigating their own journeys of survival. “We are the next iteration of trying to survive in this place, and we learn from them, even if we don’t agree with them,” he said. “We learn from what they taught us, and we expand there. We push the boundary of what they gave us.”
Deleon, who grew up in White Center, is a firm believer in the power of ethnic studies to critically challenge and transform our racist system. He is passionate about instilling students with agency and power. Learning local history and examining how race, immigration, and inequity have played out in the places we live is key to feeling empowered to act for change. “For some, [ethnic studies] is a form of healing. For others it’s the ‘aha’ moment of this is why it happens!” Deleon explained.
Ethnic studies is a very transformative way to answer the big questions that are coming out of our times, helping students understand why law enforcement officers target Black men, why hate crimes against Asian Americans go under-reported, and why a country that opens its doors to immigrants for labor will turn on them within a moment’s notice. Ethnic studies also offers countless examples of solidarity in the face of divisive messages.
Attacks against Asian Americans like the one in Atlanta and others are not done by some “lone wolf” perpetrator, Deleon emphasized. “These attacks are part of a very contentious history that Asian immigrants have with the city of Seattle and the nation as a whole.” The people who commit such crimes are products of a toxic system. The polluting racist ideologies that exist in the socio-political system seep into our own thinking if left unchecked.
Education is a constant process. Deleon says the onus is on each of us to be curious, critical, humble, and vulnerable enough to learn as well as ask ourselves hard questions about our own, often painful histories and generational trauma. Digging into the past, learning about centuries of racism and colonization but also about examples of solidarity, empowered community action, and the experiences of our elders, gives us a template for transformation that we can customize for our current world.
“Living with trauma is such a difficult thing to do. Working towards healing from that trauma, processing and understanding that trauma, is one of the most liberating things that can happen for folks,” said Deleon. “I think right now Seattle as well as the rest of the nation is on a rotating palette of trauma, and those are going to be much more difficult conversations that’ll happen over generations.”
When we call out the system for being oppressive, racist, and regressive, Deleon said, we begin to hammer away at its power inequities. We need to know the histories of how anti-Blackness and white supremacy have played out on our local soil to rectify injustice. “Putting that into context of what is happening now helps people understand what they can do about it and the power they possess in doing so.”
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.
Featured image from the Massage Parlor Outreach Project Vigil for the Atlanta shooting victims. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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