- The Atlanta shooting showed the world that racism in America is no longer an exclusively American issue.
- The term “Asian American” is rooted in the solidarity movements of the 1960s.
- That history should propel us towards a sense of transnational Asian solidarity.
- Jimin Kang is a writer and student at Princeton University originally from South Korea and Hong Kong.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Before I came to the United States for college, I had never considered myself a person of color. Nor did I think of myself as generically “Asian.” I was a South Korean who’d grown up in Hong Kong – belonging to two places where, as far as skin color went, I had always been part of the racial majority.
Four years after my arrival, there isn’t a day where I don’t think about the color of my skin. And recent events have made me warier than usual. After six Asian women – four of them of Korean heritage – were murdered in Atlanta by a gunman purported to have a sex addiction, millions of Asian Americans in the United States were furious and aggrieved by how anti-Asian violence has been underplayed for years, despite the longstanding pressure points of colonial history, reductive stereotyping, and most recently the coronavirus pandemic.
It isn’t just Asian Americans who are grieving, nor just Americans. The fact of the matter is that racism in America is no longer an exclusively American issue, particularly for those who are not white.
For the global Asian community, the Atlanta shooting has been the wake-up call to a reality that Black and Latino people have known for years: that national identity is irrelevant when it comes to racial trauma. The compartmentalization of identity across national lines no longer serves us, because, as the randomness of identity-based violence shows us time and time again, those who suffer from it could be any of us.
Identifying as Asian American
As an Asian person currently living in America, I’ve often reflected on the distinctions between Asian Americans and “Asian Asians” in this country – the latter category for Asian people who, despite not being US citizens, feel a strong affinity to the US for reasons ranging from work and education to family and love. The distinction is often subtle, even arbitrary: there are Asians who are American but spend most of their lives living abroad, and Asians who aren’t American but spend most of their lives in America. Beyond the legal matter of citizenship, using the “American” suffix can be, in many cases, a matter of self-identification.
Historically, the usage of the term “Asian American” was a way for people of different ethnicities to signal solidarity across national lines. Before the term was first coined in 1968 by two students at the University of California Berkeley – who were inspired by the Black Power Movement to encourage unity in the fight for racial justice – most Americans of Asian descent would refer to themselves by their nationalities.
In other words, to be Asian American has always been more than an identity – to wear the label was initially an attempt to “express an idea,” Daryl Maeda, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told NBC News. “And that idea is that as Asian Americans, we have to work together to fight for social justice and equality, not only for ourselves, but for all of the people around us.”
In the decades since, the term Asian American has become part of the mainstream American lexicon. But it may be worthwhile to return to thinking about it not as an inherited identity, but rather an idea whose lessons are applicable even to those outside the country.
America’s racism affects all of us
In the last four years, I’ve had to redefine my experience of Asianness as an international student temporarily based in the United States, where the inevitable process of becoming a person of color has been alternately illuminating and difficult. I remember how, during my freshman year, I’d inadvertently begun attributing my racial identity to unexplainable feelings of apprehension or self-doubt.
One day, when I felt small and out of place in a seminar, I realized I was the only non-white person in the room. At parties, I’d wonder if no one was noticing me because I was Asian and thus, according to Hollywood conventions, less attractive. But on other occasions, I’d reflexively wonder if any sign of romantic interest from another person was directly related to my Asianness. Instances like these would occur repeatedly over the three years that followed, even in a college where close to a third of students identify as Asian, in a town where Asians make up the second largest ethnic group.
My parents, who have never spent more than two weeks in the United States, have had to learn these painful lessons from Seoul, South Korea. When the coronavirus pandemic first began, my dad would warn me against walking around alone, afraid I’d be harassed. For months, my mom has implored me to switch up my running routes in case I become an easy target for a stranger’s fit of race-based rage. These narratives of violence are very real to them, although neither of them has ever considered themself a person of color; to them these words are unfamiliar lingo, imported by a daughter far from home.
More than ever before, news of America’s racial tensions is available in their language, on the websites they visit, and in the news they follow. The constant availability of international news, in tandem with the harsh spotlight shone on America since the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidency, has meant that America’s issues have become personal to them, too.
For the record, South Korea is one of the most racially homogenous places in the world. And yet, I find it astonishing that increasingly, more and more people there know what it means to be a person of color. South Koreans understand that, in the United States, you might be considered Chinese or Japanese in addition to being Korean. It’s become unsettlingly common for broad generalizations to replace specific national identities, leading us to understand that the ways in which we self-identify – especially in a foreign country – will not always protect us.
When I learned about the shootings, the first people on my mind were an Atlanta-based Korean couple I’d met in Seoul last summer, who’d told me how much they loved their city and its vibrant Korean American community. Any of the women who’d been shot could’ve been their parents or in-laws, I thought. It could’ve been them. And then I realized that, had I gone to school in Atlanta, it could’ve been me; had my parents migrated to the United States like Koreans have done in large numbers since 1960, it could’ve been them, too.
The past few weeks have been unimaginably painful for Asian Americans across the world who know the United States as their constant and permanent home. It is a pain that I, as a foreign national, can’t claim to know with the same intensity. But the burden of dismantling racial violence does not fall on American shoulders alone.
To learn of the shootings in Atlanta is to remind ourselves that the duty to care is not restricted to our inherited identities. To say the victims’ names – Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue; Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng – is to know that grief can be felt in many places, in many languages. This tragedy is personal to all of us, wherever and whoever we are.