Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, racism against Asian American Pacific Islanders has spiked, as many people fell prey to false and hateful rhetoric and blamed those of Asian descent for the outbreak and spread of the virus. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that in 2020 anti-Asian hate crimes increased 149%, even as overall hate crimes dropped 7% due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Videos of unprovoked, vicious attacks on Asian American Pacific Islanders have gone viral—in many cases, the attackers are never charged of a hate crime. In March, a man went on a shooting spree at three different massage spas in the Atlanta area, killing eight people—six of whom were Asian women—in what many are deeming a racist act of domestic terrorism.
One of multiple organizations in Utah working to support local Asian American Pacific Islander communities, especially during the current period of heightened attacks, is OCA Asian Pacific Islander American Advocates Utah, the local chapter of the national civil rights and advocacy organization. They provide social, political and economic support to more than 150,000 AAPI Utahns, with recent efforts focused on increasing voter registration and turnout, census outreach and COVID-19 testing.
According to OCA Utah, racist sentiments have risen as national rhetoric blaming Asian-Americans is used to shift blame from the U.S.’s own failures in preparing for the pandemic. OCA says these attitudes add to both deliberate and unintentional misunderstandings surrounding the AAPI community.
Utah is no exception to this trend. Emilio Manuel Camu, member of OCA Utah’s Board of Directors, noted that community members have had racial slurs yelled at them, been spit on, had rocks thrown at their cars and AAPI businesses and residences have received threatening letters telling them “to get out and go back home.”
This uptick of racial bias has particularly affected Asian American Pacific Islander women, who, according to Camu, are far more likely than men to be the target of racist attacks. In the past year, the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate recorded that out of 3,338 incidents reported to their center, 68% of respondents identified as female.
“Our organization surmises that this is heavily influenced by how U.S. media, TV and movies have largely portrayed Asian women as docile, submissive and sexual beings,” says Camu in an email to Salt Lake Magazine. “But, the fact of the matter is that Asian women are people with their own complex lives and stories.”
Discrimination against Asian-Americans has inspired protests, media coverage and national attention in the last several months. However, is this recent wave of anti-Asian hate truly a spike, or is the public simply taking more notice of it now?
Racism against Asians and Asian-Americans is, unfortunately, nothing new in the United States. The first wave of Asian immigration to the U.S. began in the 1850s, primarily on the West Coast during the height of the Gold Rush. Then in 1882, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively banned immigration from China, and was only repealed in 1943 after China became a U.S. ally in World War II. In 1941, Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, including one in Delta, Utah.
Today, the model-minority myth—an idea, built on stereotypes, that Asian American Pacific Islanders are more academically, economically and culturally successful than other minority groups—has been so deeply ingrained in our system that many people don’t realize what they are saying would be considered offensive. The belief that “all Asians are good at math and grow up to be doctors” can be extremely damaging to AAPI youth, who are pressured to fit inside this box. They suffer verbal slights and microaggressions from strangers, classmates, teachers and even friends who don’t understand the racial implications of their words.
Many of my friends who are part of the AAPI and BIPOC communities have expressed that when they were younger, they felt they had to suppress their culture and heritage to be accepted by peers, often seeking to “Americanize” themselves.
“The need to assimilate, integrate and ‘fit-in’ is part of many Asian Americans’ narrative if they grew up in the U.S. It’s part of the perpetual foreigner stereotype that is assigned to people of Asian descent who live in the U.S., that we’re never seen as people who belong—even though in Utah our communities have been here for the past 150 years,” Camu says.
But, why should any ethnicity feel the need to “Americanize” themselves in a country built on immigration and opportunity for all? Is the American Dream contingent on immigrants becoming “Americanized?”
The answer is no.
Asian American Pacific Islander entrepreneurs and business owners are integral parts of society. By introducing their traditions and history into Utah’s culture and economy, they diversify all aspects of life for the better. Utah is home to thriving AAPI-owned businesses that help provide a wide variety of culturally specific foods, clothing, products and services.
Especially right now, during a time of heightened animosity toward the Asian American Pacific Islander community, it is vital for us all to listen to their experiences, support them and stand up when we see someone acting out of racial bias. It is up to non-minority communities to educate ourselves about minority experiences and struggles because, while we may never be able to completely rid the country of racism, it doesn’t mean we can’t do everything in our collective power to empower minority communities.
“Listen to the AAPI community leaders and organizations, work with us, donate to our organizations, join our membership lists, volunteer for our events, learn about our history,” Camu says.