A long history of racism
The recent rise in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes is not a recent development, and while it has shocked those unfamiliar with bigotry against Asian Americans, senior Michaela Seah said she was not surprised.
“I feel like I knew it was coming,” Seah said. “Asians have always been used as scapegoats for all sorts of things, and when COVID-19 started tension in America kept rising and never disappeared.”
Palo Alto City Council member Greg Tanaka said his father, who was 5 years old at the time, was one of the many sent to internment camps from California.
“It was pretty brutal,” Tanaka said. “There was no insulation, limited fuel, limited food. My grandfather never made it out, he died of tuberculosis. They don’t talk about that stuff.”
On the West Coast, where so many fought or lost family in the Pacific, anti-Japanese and anti-Asian discrimination was widespread, meaning getting an education or white-collar job was near impossible if you were Asian-American, forcing many to work in manual labor, Tanaka said.
“My dad said it was actually better in the camps because of the racism,” he said. “My dad dropped out of high school because of it. He lost his dad, his house, his family’s business and then his education.”
But in 1982, 40 years after the Japanese internment camps and surge in anti-Japanese sentiment, Vincent Chin — a Chinese-American — was beaten to death by two white auto workers in Michigan. Their motive? They thought he was Japanese and blamed him for the recession caused by the rise of the Japanese car industry.
It seems that regardless of the reason for the animosity, Asian Americans have been forced to pay for American hardship entirely unrelated to them for centuries.
Through the past year, it is apparent to Michaela that the current hardship facing Asian-Americans is the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, many Americans are unable to tell the difference between Asians and are unwilling to differentiate between people and a virus. Her sister Johannah agrees.
“I think the racism has always been bad,” she said. “It’s just now being exposed for what it is. I think COVID-19 has exacerbated xenophobia, sinophobia and hate against Asians, but this is not a new thing.”
Model Minority Myth lingers
After spending countless days and long nights studying for her math final, sophomore Sophie Yang was extremely pleased with her “A,” knowing her hard work had paid off. However, Yang said the underwhelming responses of her friends insinuated that her good score was expected solely because of her ethnicity. This, in large, is one of the negative consequences of the Model Minority Myth.
In 1966, the New York Times published an article titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” This article, widely regarded as one of the most influential pieces of writing about Asian Americans at the time, depicted all Japanese Americans as hardworking and determined — ultimately giving birth to the Model Minority Myth, according to Paly’s Asian American Student Union President Cody Hmelar.
Initially, this myth only referred to Japanese Americans, but as Americans failed to differentiate between the different types of Asians, the term quickly extended to characterize all Eastern Asians.
Despite the seemingly positive characterizations of Asians, the Model Minority Myth is damaging to individuals, Hmelar said.
“What happens is that the accomplishments and achievements made by the individual are stripped away and instead attributed to their ethnicity,” Hmelar said.
And sophomore Sophie Yang said she has experienced the negative consequences of the Model Minority Myth.
“If I do well on a test, people would be like, ‘That’s just because you’re Asian,’ but if I do poorly on a test people would say, ‘Oh, you’re just dumb,’” Yang said. “It made me feel like a lot of people have high expectations from me just because I’m Asian.”
Gunn sophomore Jasmine Fan said she has also experienced the negative consequences of the Model Minority Myth. However, she says one characterization has impacted her more profoundly than others.
“The ‘good-at-math’ stereotype really affected me a lot because math is just not my strong subject,” Fan said. “I feel like I began to internalize this and other stereotypes that the Model Minority Myth says, which lowered my self-confidence.”
However, not only does the Model Minority Myth impact Asian Americans, but it also places a wedge between Asians and other minority groups like Black Americans, according to Former United States Representative from California’s 15th and 17th District Mike Honda.
Honda said it is important to confront the anger and tensions presented by the Model Minority Myth.
“We all have different kinds of sources of rage but if we don’t challenge them, then we will start to be pitted against each other,” Honda said.
Microaggressions cause pain
Before moving to Palo Alto, Sarah, a freshman who agreed to share her experiences only if The Campanile didn’t use her full name, attended a predominantly white middle school, with two Asian American students in a class of 50.
“I remember we were learning about Ancient China and some boys made an inappropriate comment about what the Chinese people in the textbook were wearing,” Sarah said. “They were basically making fun of Chinese culture, and the whole class burst out laughing. Then, everyone looked at me, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just started laughing too. There were many instances like this where I didn’t have the guts to stand up for myself and instead just laughed along to racist comments and jokes.”
Sarah, a first-generation Vietnamese American, said this hurt her self-confidence and presented internal conflicts regarding her identity.
“I became super self-conscious about how I looked, what I wore and what food I brought to lunch,” Sarah said. “I even told my parents to stop chaperoning me on field trips because I didn’t want them to be the source of a racist joke. I tried to distance myself from my ethnicity as far as possible. To be honest, I didn’t like being Asian. I wanted to be white like my other friends.”
Michaela, a first-generation Chinese American, said she, like Sarah, vividly remembers the racism she has experienced from a young age.
“When I was in elementary school, there were a group of girls pulling their eyes back while saying, ‘Ching Chong’ and other racial slurs,” Michaela said. “When they saw me, they told me that they didn’t mean it in a racist way, so I just ran away.”
Michaela said she started to internalize this racism.
“There was a phase in my friend group where we, as Asians, would all make fun of our parents and people from our homeland for their accents and the way they dressed,” Michaela said. “We even joked among ourselves saying we were bad Asians because we got a certain grade. At the time, it was really funny, but looking back I realize it was hurtful and disrespectful.”
Hate crimes spike with pandemic
As the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring shut down businesses, closed schools and thrust society into an unprecedented world of masks and social distancing, it brought with it a surge in hate crimes targeting the Asian American community.
Such hate crimes include discrimination, verbal harassment, racial slurs and violent attacks. In San Francisco, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee died after being pushed to the ground on his morning walk. In Brooklyn, an 89-year-old Chinese woman was publicly slapped and set on fire by two people. In Atlanta, a series of mass shootings killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.
“I used to always wish my extended family lived in the United States so I could see them more,” junior Audrey Teo said. “But in light of recent events, I couldn’t be more glad that they aren’t here.”
In the case of Ratanapakdee, the San Francisco District Attorney described the attacker’s actions as a “temper tantrum.” With the Brooklyn woman, the assailants were just 13 years old. For the Atlanta shooter, officials blamed his actions on a “bad day.”
“It’s just so frustrating that these hate crimes are not being treated like hate crimes, that the people doing them are being defended and excused for what they did,” Teo said. “I think that’s the underlying problem: the unwillingness by the people in the government to make the connection between the victim and the crime and to actually address it and fix it.”
Tanaka said during the first three months of the pandemic, when reported incidents in California were at their highest, he experienced verbal harassment a number of times while biking in Palo Alto, most notably when a group of white men yelled at him and told him to go back to China and asked why he brought the virus here.
“I hadn’t felt like that since I was a kid,” Tanaka said. “I was actually scared.”
In addition to COVID-19, Honda blames the harsh anti-Asian rhetoric of the nation’s leaders, specifically former President Donald Trump, for the past year’s spike in hate crimes. Honda says Trump’s language in addressing the virus not only spread hate but also incited violence by deeming such hate acceptable.
“His personal behavior bleeds into public policy, public opinion and public behavior,” Honda said. “That gives other people permission to behave similarly.”
Trump’s initial reference to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” in March 2020 led to an increase in the usage of “#chinesevirus” on Twitter by 8,351% according to Yulin Hswan, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. The hashtag’s increase was followed by an immediate spike in reported anti-Asian hate crimes across the country.
However, even with Trump out of office, reports of anti-Asian incidents continue. In early February, a 61-year-old Filipino was slashed across the face with a box cutter on a New York subway. At the beginning of April, a woman in Los Gatos was shoved from behind and told to go back to China. In San Francisco, a Slap-an-Asian challenge targeting Asian-presenting individuals on public transportation is being investigated by police.
Teo said it has become obvious the problem is rooted beyond politics.
“It has never been clearer that change is needed than now,” Teo said. “I hope that we as a community can realize that and act on it, that we hold ourselves accountable and make real change.”
Long-term action needed
With reports of anti-Asian hate crimes reaching record highs, a new emphasis has been placed on combatting and recovering from such targeted and violent displays of racism.
Hmelar said the first step in battling anti-Asian sentiment is to address the issue in conversation, spreading awareness and being more aware of the meaning and effect behind our everyday language.
“The first thing that people can do is be more cognizant of what they’re saying and how what might seem like a joke to many actually may have historical meaning behind it,” Hmelar said. “Recognizing that words do have power and do have meaning is important.”
To address anti-Asian sentiment within the district, Hmelar said the AASU has hosted a number of events in the past month to discuss the issue and administered school-wide surveys to gather both first-hand experiences with anti-Asian racism and input on how to address it.
“We are surveying students, teachers, parents and community members to see what they have experienced and what resources they feel they could benefit from,” Hmelar said. “We want to find how people feel and then develop a school-wide and hopefully district-wide curriculum on how to treat racist behavior and microaggressions.”
Hmelar said this curriculum would be for teachers, specifically those of younger grades, to develop a standardized method of approaching racism at an early age. Hmelar said this curriculum is being curated by the AASU in conjunction with research professionals.
“The AASU is collaborating with Stanford graduate researchers who specialize in early childhood development, education in public school administrations, ethnic studies and positive psychology,” Hmelar said. “We want to make sure it is the best possible curriculum.”
Fan said she feels addressing anti-Asian sentiment in the classroom is important at the secondary level as well, believing that hosting discussions that force both students and teachers to reflect on the issue would play a crucial role in solving the problem.
“Schools can start by at least addressing (anti-Asian sentiment),” Fan said. “During BLM or the capitol riots, we stopped the entire class just to talk about them, but when there are anti-Asian American hate crimes, I don’t think anyone even mentioned it.”
Outside of the classroom, members of and advocates for the Asian American community have taken to the streets, with rallies occurring across the country and in Palo Alto. The widespread protests that ran from late March to early April marked the first time in history the Asian American community organized on a national level to advocate for change, something Teo said is a major step in the right direction.
“We’ve never had something like this on this scale,” Teo said. “Beyond the hate crimes, it helps break the model minority view of Asians which will have even greater effects in the long run.”
Still, Johannah says greater action is needed beyond protests to create lasting change.
“This isn’t just a one year thing, it’s a continual thing, and that has to be recognized,” Johannah said. “We need to hold other people accountable and recognize that we can’t be apathetic anymore, we can’t afford to be apathetic because people die over that.”
Tanaka said he too wants to see action taken beyond protests, including greater representation of Asian people in the government and voting populations. He said greater involvement in the government through voting would prevent instances like the San Francisco DA deciding not to press murder charges for the man who shoved and killed Ratanapakdee.
“The reason why the DA could say that is because Asians don’t vote,” Tanaka said. “We don’t get involved. We don’t run for office. And therefore, we’re like the rug — everyone steps all over us.”
To get more Asian Americans voting and involved, Tanaka said he has started the 8by8 challenge, the goal of which is to get eight people registered to vote in eight days to increase Asian representation within the government.
“It’s like an ice bucket challenge to get every Asian committed to vote so that we have a voice,” Tanaka said.
Ultimately, however people choose to stand against anti-Asian hate crimes — in the classroom, in the government or on the streets protesting — Johannah said the message is clear: do something.
“Solving racism isn’t an individual issue. It’s a systemic issue,” Johannah said. “It starts with people recognizing that we need to change the system. We need to make legislative action, and we need to continue.”