As a Korean national studying in the US, I’ve seen how racism in America affects Asians around the globe

Stop Asian Hate Women
Protesters hold signs saying “Stop Asian Hate” after the Atlanta shooting.

  • 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.

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Trump and Biden’s anti-China foreign policy is fueling violence against Asian-Americans

Atlanta shooting vigil
Demonstrators at a vigil for the Atlanta shooting victims, in New York City, March 19, 2021.

  • The recent killing of six Asian-American women highlights the link between domestic and foreign policies.
  • Many officials have condemned the attacks, but they need to acknowledge that over-the-top language about China fuels fear and anxiety that spurs violence against Asian-Americans.
  • Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

“Our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit,” President Biden declared in Atlanta last Friday. “We have to speak out. We have to act.”

While President Biden’s condemnation of the murder of eight people in Georgia, including six Asian-American women, is welcome, it misses the mark in an important way.

Both the speech and the statement issued by the White House failed to acknowledge that Washington’s over-the-top language about China is fueling an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, which boomerangs in the form of violence against Asian-Americans. If there was any doubt that American foreign policy is domestic policy, these shootings should quell them.

To see how toxic the American discourse on China has become, one only needs to look at what transpired in Anchorage last week and the ongoing congressional debate on the annual Pentagon bill. The vitriol that was exchanged by American and Chinese officials in Alaska was unprecedented for its harsh and undiplomatic tenor, and will likely make cooperation on critical areas such as pandemics and climate change that much more difficult.

But when seen in the context of bipartisan efforts in government over the past five years to label China as a threat to America and the US-led world order, the debacle in Anchorage is not that surprising.

The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy mentions China 33 times, more than twice as many as the Obama administration’s version did. Similarly, the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance repeatedly singles out China as a direct threat to national security.

Neither document mentions how the US government would advance legitimate national security interests without creating an environment of hatred against Asian-Americans, similar to how the Muslim American community faced retributive violence after 9/11.

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US and Chinese officials at their first meeting under the Biden administration, in Anchorage, Alaska.

In Congress, members regularly use China to show that they are tough on national security without any regard for how their out-of-control language could shape American perceptions of Asians.

For example, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) tweeted that “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States” in response to the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus’ call to cut the Defense budget and channel resources to under-resourced areas such as global health. Such overt China bashing makes it nearly impossible to have a rational debate about areas of cooperation between the world’s two largest economies.

The truth is that what happened in Georgia is the latest manifestation of hatred borne out of racially charged language deployed by a growing number of public officials on both sides of the aisle to cast blame on China, and indirectly, all East Asians and Asian-Americans.

Rep. Wittman, the top House recipient of campaign contributions from arms manufacturers and military contractors, offers perhaps one of the egregious examples of stoking fear and anxiety in order to advance a military-centered US foreign policy toward China. But he is hardly alone.

Rather, Rep. Wittman is a part of an ecosystem that reinforces and normalizes such extreme views. And by not addressing this vicious cycle, government leaders are distracting the public from addressing the cause, rather than the symptoms, of violence against Americans of Asian descent.

The tragic incident in Georgia is only one of nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes against Asian-Americans since terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” have become commonplace in Washington.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes targeting Asians rose by nearly 150% in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020, when China was routinely blamed by presidential and congressional candidates for America’s ailments.

Given the barrage of anti-China language in government and media, why would anyone be surprised that Asian-Americans have become collateral damage?

coronavirus racism asian americans
Members of the Asian-American Commission hold a press conference outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to condemn racism toward the Asian-American community over of coronavirus, March 12, 2020.

One person from Milpitas, California described experiencing verbal assault this way: “I was shopping when a man started making faces at me. When I asked him what was wrong, he said ‘We delisted your companies, we shipped back your international students, when do you ship out?”

The message is clear: Anyone who looks Chinese is suspect and should be expelled from this country.

Another person in College Park, Maryland reported the use of xenophobic language in the classroom: “One of my professors was talking about the public health response to COVID-19 during a virtual lecture and explicitly called it the “China Virus.” “We’ve got to be very careful about that country, and what they’d do to us,'” he told the class.

This, despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s warnings against stigmatizing people of Asian descent for COVID-19. The World Health Organization has also warned against naming diseases to certain populations or nationalities as far back as 2015.

Asian-American discrimination has a long history, dating back to 1871 when 17 Chinese immigrant men were lynched by a mob in Los Angeles. But the current situation is particularly explosive due to the hypersensitive domestic environment in which Americans are looking for someone to blame for the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic.

In response to the shooting in Georgia, President Biden has called on members of Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Grace Meng, as a way to expedite government response to hate crimes.

This is a welcome move but falls woefully short of what is needed given the magnitude of the problem at hand. A more holistic, self-reflective strategy that connects the dots between foreign policy and domestic policy is urgently needed.

There must be more discussions among national-security experts with domestic-policy experts about the scope of the challenge at hand.

Even if the Hirono-Meng bill passed the House and got enough Republican senators’ votes to pass in the Senate (a high bar), it would not address the underlying motivations for these hate crimes. Members of Congress who deploy zero-sum language on China to justify a bloated Pentagon budget must be called out and held responsible for the secondary order impact that their rhetoric is having on Asian-Americans.

Asian community protests Atlanta shooting
Demonstrators at at Rally Against Hate to end discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, New York City, March 21, 2021.

The current situation has grave national-security implications for the federal government as well.

The stigmatization of Asian-Americans in government and exacerbating concerns of dual loyalty will only make it harder for patriotic Asian-Americans to serve in government. Such discriminatory efforts could also lead to poor foreign-policy decisions, as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Biden administration’s interim National Security Strategic Guidance recognizes that the United States confronts a wide range of challenges, from a global pandemic to a deepening climate emergency. But it also assumes the worst about China’s intentions, which will make constructive engagement between two of the world’s largest economies difficult.

The Quincy Institute presents an alternative approach to thinking about China and East Asia, one that emphasizes stability and regional cooperation, and diplomacy over military dominance. In other words, there are other ways to manage US-China relations without marching into war.

Thirty-nine years ago, at the height of the auto trade war with Japan, a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. The people who killed him thought he was Japanese. Rather than paying lip service to Asian-Americans while perpetuating grossly oversimplified narratives about China, President Biden and the Congress should stop demonizing China. They must stop using China fear tactics to justify more military spending.

As Rep. Marilyn Strickland stated on the House floor, “Words matter. Leadership matters.” It is time for American policymakers on national security and domestic civil liberties to work hand-in-hand to create policies that actually help Americans rather than pit them against one another.

Jessica J. Lee is a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute.

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VP Harris tells the GOP to ‘stop pushing the false choice’ that ‘everybody’s trying to come after your guns’ after series of mass shootings

kamala harris
Vice President Kamala Harris

  • Harris told the GOP to “stop pushing the false choice” that “everybody’s trying to come after your guns.”
  • “It has to be possible that people agree that these slaughters have to stop,” she said.
  • Most GOP lawmakers have rejected any calls to strengthen gun-control measures since the shootings.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Vice President Kamala Harris told Republican leaders on Wednesday to stop spreading the “false choice” that “everybody’s trying to come after your guns.”

In an interview with “CBS This Morning” days after a mass shooting in a Boulder, Colorado grocery store that killed 10 people, Harris said that “it has to be possible that people agree that these slaughters have to stop.”

“And this is, again, reject the false choice of – and stop pushing it for sure – stop pushing the false choice that this means everybody’s trying to come after your guns,” she continued. “That is not what we’re talking about.”

The Boulder massacre came just a week after a spree shooting in three Atlanta-area massage parlors that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. It is also the sixth mass shooting to happen within a 40-mile radius of Colorado Springs since 1999.

In the wake of the Atlanta and Boulder shootings, Democratic lawmakers and gun-control advocates have renewed their calls for stricter regulations around purchasing firearms.

The House of Representatives also recently passed two bills that would close loopholes in the background-check system and make gun transfers between people without licenses illegal. One of the measures was supported by eight House Republicans.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday called on the Senate to pass the two House bills and emphasized the toll gun violence has taken on the US.

“While the flag was still flying half-staff” for the victims of the Georgia shootings, “another American city has been scarred by gun violence and resulting trauma,” he said.

“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” he said when addressing the Boulder shooting. “I got that done when I was a senator. It passed, it was the law for the longest time, and it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again.”

The US far outstrips any other country in gun ownership, with an estimated 393 million firearms – more than the country’s population. Second in ownership rates is war-torn Yemen, according to a recent global study.

But Republicans, many of whom enjoy strong support from the National Rifle Association and the pro-gun lobby, have sharply pushed back on efforts to strengthen gun-control measures.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence Tuesday that Democrats were engaging in “ridiculous theater” and using mass shootings to take people’s guns away.

“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Cruz said. “What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens because that’s their political objective.”

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, meanwhile, compared gun violence to drunk driving and gun owners to being Muslim.

“We have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people. We ought to try to combat that too,” he said at the judiciary committee hearing. “The answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers. The answer is to concentrate on the problem.”

He continued: “When a Muslim jihadist blows up a school full of school children, we are often told not to condemn all of the actions of those of the Muslim faith because of the actions of a few. And I agree with that. So why doesn’t the same rule apply to the 100 million-plus gun owners in America who are exercising their constitutional right?”

It wasn’t the first time Kennedy made the comparison.

After the 2017 Las Vegas massacre in which a gunman opened fire on a music festival, killing 59 people and injuring more than 500, Kennedy told TIME Magazine, “When an Islamic terrorist blows up a school with kids in it, we are told not to judge all Muslims by the acts of a few. And I agree with that. So why do we want to judge all 80 million gun owners in America because of the acts of one perverted idiot? I don’t know what else to call him.”

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