On Anti-Asian Hate

Food for Thought

With my glasses that turn dark in the sun and the mask that covers half of my face, I figured nobody could tell I’m Asian. According to the poll I conducted, 80% said I still look Asian. That number went up to 90% with my big camera around my neck. As we walked back from Williamsburg, I realized that I could tell who is Asian even when I’m looking at them from behind. I guess I’m not as safe as I thought I was.

I think all this media attention about anti-Asian hate will increase the violence and harassment. If someone is racist enough to attack Asians, would they watch the news and think, “Oh, I didn’t know it’s wrong to hate Asians. I’m going to stop now.” There lies my issue with today’s protests; they no longer function in the way they used to.

The disability rights movement was an effective use of protest and civil disobedience because it called attention to the issues that most people did not think about, and it had clear demands like the legislation of a specific law.

Most protests today may look similar but are structurally different. They have no clear demands. And, even if you disagree, you know our society condemns racism, which is why racists watching the protest on TV aren’t going to change their minds.

Today, a protest is your opportunity to broadcast your identity. It’s very much like fashion brands, which is why protest as a theme work well to promote fashion brands.

Unfortunately, this is also why these protests can compound the problem. Seeing strong reactions only embolden racists because they can see that they are succeeding and that they are not powerless after all.

Furthermore, when politicians like Joe Biden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak out against Asian hate, those who hate them will consider harassing Asians even if the idea has never occurred to them before. It’s very much like the Republican anti-maskers who would do anything to infuriate Democrats. The latter turning masks into a political symbol created another opportunity for the former to annoy Democrats and differentiate themselves.

These assertions of identities are not protests. They do not lead to solutions but to further divisions, petty contests to prove superiority. Protests strengthen in-group unity but, at the same time, strengthen inter-group division.

The word “unite” can be used for two different things that have nothing in common structurally. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy, many New Yorkers united to help the people whose homes were destroyed. Two people working independently towards the same goal is less effective than both working together. 1+1 becomes greater than 2.

A good example of it is again the disability rights movement. The goal was to make the city accessible to people with disabilities. Uniting, instead of working independently, created a great synergetic effect.

In contrast, the political division between left and right, as well as racial divisions, are never going to go away in the same way, tall and short, and beautiful and ugly as aspects of our identities are never going to disappear. Even if some strange disease were to kill all the tall people, we would recalibrate our expectations of “tall.” 5′10″ might then be “really tall.”

In other words, identities are always in contrast to the other. It’s what you deem as the other that allows you to form a group identity. Your in-group is structurally dependent on the out-group. For you to be a liberal, someone has to be a conservative. Likewise, someone will always be a racist as we continue to recalibrate what constitutes a racist. Today, you don’t need to go around killing black people to be a racist. Tomorrow, some subtle use of language we don’t recognize today would be a telltale sign of a racist.

The division between Germans and Jews leading up to WWII certainly united the Germans, but so did Jews. The unity of each in-group strengthens the inter-group division. The stronger you identify yourself with your group, the stronger your sense of “the other” will be.

This sense of the word “unity” has nothing to do with the first example of synergetic unity. The point of the disability rights movement wasn’t to strengthen their identities as disabled, nor to assert supremacy over what they saw as “the other.” They just wanted the city to be accessible. Uniting works very well for that type of practical objective.

The incidents of anti-Asian hate in New York City that I’ve personally heard from others were committed mostly by blacks. The two social media videos of Asians being harassed were also by blacks. In one of them, a white man intervened to defend the Asian woman.

Why does this happen? Because these black people are not identifying themselves as blacks when they harass Asians. Their in-group is American, and their out-group (the other) is Chinese. In this sense, it’s inaccurate to call them “black” as they are acting as stupid Americans. It’s still racism because they are racially identifying their targets, but it’s structurally different from the common discourse of racism between white and people of color. 

Just as it is wrong to pit Asians and blacks, it is also wrong to pit white people against the rest in this anti-Asian hate. Doing so will unnecessarily antagonize many white people and create more problems because it is ideed unjust to see white people as the victimizing group.

Like the anti-Japanese sentiment in the 80s where many Chinese people were harassed (and even killed), at the root of it, what is feeding the current situation is national identity, not race, but ignorant people are using race as a proxy for national identity. Misdirected attempts to unite will only sow more division.

The American composer, John Cage, who was fond of Zen Buddhism, once said, “...I think that protests about these things, contrary to what has been said, will give it the kind of life that a fire is given when you fan it, and that it would be best to ignore it, put your attention elsewhere, take actions of another kind of positive nature, rather than to continue to give life to the negative by negating it.”

This is exactly what Asians have done historically; “Take actions of another kind of positive nature,” like studying and working hard. I think it is one of the keys to our success. Being “silent” is seen negatively, but it’s quite powerful if you can direct your energy elsewhere. After all, big dogs do not bark.

China, with 1.4 billion people whose average IQ is higher than that of whites, is on track to become the most powerful nation in the world, at least economically. This will eventually make Asians the most powerful race. Many Asians are worrying about the powerlessness of the Asian community now, but I’m worried about the abuse of power that is likely to become rampant in the future. I’m afraid that Asians may turn out to be more racist than whites. Would Asians be as self-critical as white people? I cannot confidently say yes.