By Monica Chan (V)
“You shouldn’t go outside without pepper spray,” my dad tells me over lunch.
“Nothing is going to happen,” I say.
“Just be careful.”
I sigh, grab the small canister of Halt! that sits on my desk, and exit the house for my quarantine walk. I feel safe, because I know my new neighbors across the street are Asian-American, and so is the other house five doors down. There is a new house being built on the next street over and the new family stood outside their house admiring the construction, and I smile at them. However, the owners of that new house are not as kind, and throw me one of the nastiest looks I think I have ever seen.
I feel the can shift around in my jacket pocket.
I then see a mother walking with her children and a dog, and then one of the other neighbors steps out of her house with her dog, joins the mother and her children, and gives them each a hug. I laugh internally, thinking that they are breaking social distancing rules, but just as they noticed me they moved to the other side of the street. I tried not to notice the occasional glance back from the two adults.
I don’t take that route anymore when I walk by myself. An overreaction? Maybe. I don’t think they’re going to hurt me. I just don’t want to have to go through that again. The shame, the feeling that I need to somehow cover my face. These thoughts have become my new norm.
I have always believed in activism and utilizing our freedom of speech to speak up about topics which are important. While I have been lucky enough to be able to avoid the violent discrimination resulting from the coronavirus toward Asian-Americans, I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the hate crimes that have happened to members of my community, as well as the wider Asian community worldwide. There was the stabbing of a Burmese family in a Sam’s Club; a gun drawn at a Korean university student who had confronted someone for posting coronavirus pamphlets on his dorm room door; man killed as a result of suspected foul play from his neighbor; people beat up in Philadelphia and New York City for not wearing a mask; and the ones who got beat up for wearing one. Unfortunately, these instances only name a few examples.
Comments online about these hate crimes are dominated by people saying things like, “Wow, now you know how all the other minorities feel,” or my personal favorite, “You’re mad now that you got your honorary white person card revoked huh?”
This comment struck me. I think I always subconsciously felt it, but I feel like Asian-Americans aren’t always treated as people of color (POC) in this country. Rather, I view that we are treated as people of color when it is advantageous for a certain view, and viewed as beneficiaries of white privilege at other times. It’s why the system of affirmative action in universities goes against us, but also the same reason we are encouraged to “stand together as minorities” when other groups have their own activist movements. It’s also why politicians use us as a “model minority” for other minorities when those politicians cannot provide adequate support for broken systems.
A large part of this sometimes-POC sometimes-white-privilege dynamic stems from a certain Asian-American community wide unwillingness to “make trouble.” For instance, one of my Asian-American friends encountered a situation where a racist comment was made, and when I encouraged her to speak up, she said her parents didn’t want her to make trouble. This problem with being afraid of conflict is something I’ve heard countless times. It’s why a lot of the hate crimes that are happening now aren’t being reported on by major news media networks like CNN, MSNBC, or FOX. I feel like most of the country mistakes Asian-Americans’ unwillingness to bring about conflict with us not encountering any.
As a leader of the Asian Student Union, this time has brought many questions to me from other members of the community. “What should we do?” and “How do we stay safe?” are all things that younger students, and friends outside Pingry have asked me. I don’t have the answers, and part of me feels like I should as someone who is vocal about Asian-American topics. These aren’t questions I’ve had to ask myself until now. I started the ASU with my friends to enact dialogue and some shift in thought, even if it was just among members of our small Pingry community. I wanted to encourage my peers to recognize and stand up for discrimination, but most importantly to find the courage to stand up for themselves regardless of their identifiers. I never could have expected that the greatest test of my activism would come now. Suddenly, as if overnight, the sphere of these discussions have left the little safe haven that I have helped create in Room 310 at a small private school in Basking Ridge. They feel much more real now, which is scary at the same time as it is empowering. That call to action we’ve been waiting for, that spark that we’ve been hoping will ignite, finally came. It’s time for us to enact the change we wanted to see in our own communities.
I’ve faced a lot of criticism from those around me, those who think I’m being too vocal about the situation at hand, those who think my words aren’t constructive action against the crimes being committed. I’ve even been told that the racism that we are seeing as a result of the coronavirus is justified due to the horrible actions the Chinese government is taking against Africans in China. However, groups pointing fingers at each other is the thing that is least constructive. Racism is racism, no matter which group is committing it, and it should be condemned, not based on the political climate in which it takes place, but for the morals that we as a society have been trying to progress.