‘People Need to Listen to Us’: The Anguish of Asian Stereotypes

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Graphic edited by Laura Renfroe; photo courtesy Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Activists bring awareness to the prominent surge of Asian hate crimes in hopes of finally addressing deeply-rooted issues that Asian Americans are forced to endure in their lives.

Laura Renfroe, Staff Writer

Upon the whirlwind of COVID-19’s outbreak, deeply-stemmed Asian racism surged as people attempted to push the root of the virus’s problem onto the Asian community.

From March 2020 to February 2021, more than 3,795 acts of hate have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, including verbal and online harassments and physical assaults. Upon the Coronavirus outbreak, malicious shunnings contributed to a staggering 46% estimated increase in instances of discrimination. 

As the Asian American community fights to secure society’s attention, one recurring prejudicial pattern rises: xenophobia never truly dissipates; rather it revives itself from the harrowed American antiquities to adapt to new environments.

This deeply ingrained systematic discrimination against Asian Americans and other people of color illustrates the global impact of seemingly “harmless” stereotypes and microaggressions on mental health. Such “it’s just dark humor” remarks ultimately lead to overlooked mental health and discomfort. 

Working-class Asians faced unbridled anti-Asian harassments last spring as The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council received more than 1,843 reports of Asian hate over an eight-week period.

These ongoing hate crimes caused fear among the AAPI community as assailants ignored the actual problem at hand and associated Asians with not just contractors of the virus but actually being the virus.

“I don’t think the outbreak alone made that impact,” 2020 Mississippi High School Journalist of the Year Gina Nguyen told me when asked if she thought the virus had an effect on pre-existing stereotype growth. 

“It was also pushed further by the way many people in power like President Trump reacted to it by calling it the ‘Chinese virus.’ A lot of stereotypes surrounding Asian culture and cuisine in particular grew because the coronavirus is linked to bats and the wet markets in China,” Nguyen continued.

“I have a friend whose family owns a Chinese restaurant, and when they opened up again after, like many businesses and restaurants, temporarily closing for several months, they faced a lot of outright racism,” she shared. “People would call their restaurant to ‘order’ and instead actually just blurting ‘ching chong’ into the phone, laughing, and complaining about how dirty and disgusting they were. I wouldn’t even call it microaggressions at that point.”

“Even though I haven’t faced a lot of stereotypical comments or microaggressions, I’ve been extremely hyper aware of my surroundings and afraid for my own safety and my friends and family’s safety. Seeing all these hate crimes all on the news keeps me on edge and always thinking to myself, ‘Am I next?’ when I go out in public,” Nguyen went on.

Another anecdote from a person who wishes to remain anonymous reflected on an example of the stereotypes that plagued both America, Canada, and the world upon the initial Coronavirus outbreak.

“The Asian community where I grew up in–when the Coronavirus first hit here where I live (which is Toronto)– actually was the [community] that first started wearing masks and started preparing. I remember I had a friend [whose] mom started buying hundreds of masks because she was so paranoid; she was like ‘It’s going to hit us here in Canada.’ I remember she bought 8 months worth of instant noodles,” anonymous recalled.

“That kind of behavior was really sort of reflected in the Asian community, at least in my city. Because people were wearing masks, just honestly out of safety not because they were sick or anything, they would get side eyes and people would almost shift their body weight.”

Rising old strains of prejudice showcase the importance of education in times of activism. Learning to understand the damage of stereotypes and microaggressions becomes essential to touch up on important perspectives.

Whether it be pulling up one’s mask around Asians, participating in the “foxeye trend,” fetishizing Asians as “obedient,” or complaining about Asian food or language, such remarks and actions perpetuate the baleful notion that Asians are the “easiest to bully” due to stereotypical “Asian traits.”

“I do believe that Coronavirus has definitely given people the illusion of an excuse to be extra racist to the Asian/Asian American people and their culture. I say ‘the illusion of an excuse’ because as always there is no excuse for being ignorant,” Pelahatchie High School senior Faith Smith stated.

Despairingly, the chaos that came with COVID-19’s penetration gave people a false validity to further target Asians and mock them. 

“With certain commentary that has been made like calling the Coronavirus the ‘China flu’ or the ‘Chinese virus,’ or the ‘kung flu,’ these stereotypes of Asians being dangerous and a threat have definitely been reinforced. For the people who already held these prejudices, I think they’ve just almost been given a way to express it more vocally to shift the blame and show their anger through these stereotypes,” an anonymous student said.

“One personal experience that stands out in my mind in the past year happened at work last summer (I worked at a clothing retail store at the time). When I was checking a customer out, she started asking for my opinions on ‘all this coronavirus stuff.’ Questions like how I think the pandemic will play out, if vaccines are a good idea, if schools and universities should be opening up, etc. I try not to engage with customers on anything serious but she wasn’t letting off, so I did my best to just basically state the facts and remain neutral,” journalist Nguyen recalled. 

“This is mostly because, living in South Mississippi, I encounter lots of people who don’t take the pandemic as seriously as I do, and the last thing I wanted was to anger a customer. But the reason she was asking me was because I am Asian. Although I don’t think this stereotype that Asians are smart grew because of the pandemic, this is one of the only experiences I had. To be honest, I’m surprised I didn’t encounter or recognize more,” Nguyen concluded.

Another stereotype that alienates Asians is the portrayal of the “model minority” stereotype in which “all Asians are smart and make straight A’s.” This seemingly harmless expression downplays hard work and sets an unhealthy standard for the Asian community. 

“All my life, I’ve pushed myself beyond my limits in order to fit this image of a perfect student in every way,” Nguyen recalled. “I have very vivid memories from middle and high school of when my white classmates would score better than me on an assignment, they would say things like, ‘Oh my gosh, I did better than Gina?? I’m smarter than the Asians!’ And I kind of think comments like these are why I even downplay my own achievements. There’s this notion that it’s what is expected of us, so what is there to celebrate?”

“Asian achievements being downplayed is part of the model minority myth. People expect us to succeed, so that leads to us working a whole lot harder to gain some recognition,” Nguyen said.

The anonymous Canadian high-schooler shared similar experiences with these detrimental perceptions both personally and within her family.  

“My mom works in IT and she is a woman in STEM! She is pretty awesome. She’s been working in [STEM] for 20-25 years. She told me that, for her, it’s almost expected. Because she’s Asian, it’s expected for her to really perform at an extremely high level of competency and produce really high quality work, because there’s this stereotype that Asians are really good at everything, especially in sciences and in maths,” the high-schooler noted.

“You always hear ‘Oh my gosh! You’re Asian and you’re not good at math?’ I think that’s something I’ve heard often because I’m not very great at math,” she admitted.

“But in my mom’s workplace, this was something expected of her. Something that she submitted that was a very high quality of work, would just be normal. If somebody else in her department submitted something of the same level of work, who wasn’t a person of color, it would be taken as an exceptional piece of work. She has to work twice as hard for a promotion. She’s actually been passed over for promotions before just because she’s Asian,” anonymous stated. 

Asian stereotypes seem to be consistently glossed over in society as only trivial, but such ignorant reasoning ultimately disregards the major struggles within the AAPI community and isolates them. 

The recent xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans also bring about essential discussions to what meaningful advocacy should look like and how we should strive to unite and support our communities. 

Many people unfortunately wear activism as an accessory without ever making an effort to uplift and educate both themselves and their peers.   

“I have this personal fear of performance activism. I think that is something people should actively avoid,” anonymous said. “Don’t just retweet a thread on how you can help without looking at the thread itself just because you want to look like a better person. Read the thread, look at the charities and what they do [and] educate yourself.” 

“A preface for everything else is to keep educating yourself, even if you aren’t speaking out. At the bare minimum, educate yourself. Learn. Of course you can’t fully understand if you’re not Asian because you would not have experienced those [prejudices] firsthand. But educating yourself, knowing why these things are happening, and understanding why certain stereotypes are dangerous is so important in not only moving the conversation forward, but also being able to grow as individuals,” the student went on.

As the “Stop Asian Hate” movement surges to address the hate and horrendous discrimination against the Asian community, we as individuals must re-examine and reflect on our own preconceptions that could cause harm to those around us. On this journey to end racism, we must broaden the conversation to anyone who will listen to ultimately empower the welfare of all communities. 

“People need to listen to us. They need to be open to learning and better understanding our stories and cultures rather than giving into the stereotypes that have been portrayed by the media and by Hollywood thus far,” Nguyen told me.

“If individuals don’t have the resources to donate to organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the AAPI Women Lead, they can still do the research and get involved in other ways. One thing I’ve realized this past year is that not as many people even know about these issues as we think, so something as simple as sharing stories to your social media could make a difference. Although awareness alone isn’t enough, it’s a starting point that can lead to action and change,” the journalist encouraged. 

“Reflect on your own internalized racism, and find ways to break those microaggressions. Talk to your friends and family about these issues. Just speak up. Racism against Asians and Asian Americans is nothing new. This pandemic has only shed more light on it.”

The recent anti-Asian hate crimes only further prove how normalized racism has become and how crucial it is to empower Asian people and address prejudices in our communities and school districts. 

“I actually knew that these attacks and assaults against the Asian community were going on well before that they were reported. For me, the most saddening part was that nobody was speaking out about it. So seeing a lot of people who aren’t Asian speaking out about [the current violence] is really empowering,” the anonymous junior noted. “Finding that sense of allyship was really important in making us feel that we weren’t alone in these issues and that we were being more understood, and that more people were trying to understand us.”

Today’s attacks push us to proactively discuss such conversations on how to support Asian communities and to educate ourselves about just how deeply-rooted racism against Asians is. We must work together to share AAPI stories and listen before it costs more lives.