Comment: Anti-Asian hate no longer invisible, deniable

Often dismissed, even by Asian Americans, the racism they routinely face can no longer be ignored.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

After Dylan Adler was screamed at, chased and sucker-punched by a stranger on a New York street last year, he had almost convinced himself it was just bad luck. Nothing to do with the color of his skin.

“But I talked with other friends,” said Adler, 24, who checked in with his fellow Asian Americans about the attack, which happened at the very start of the global pandemic. “They had other incidents, too.”

That was also the start of an alarming increase in hate attacks against Asian Americans. There were about 3,800 recorded over the past year, from slurs on the street and stabbings to vandalism at Asian American-owned businesses. It went up 150 percent in 2020, according to research by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

In Columbia, Md., last month, three businesses were vandalized and ransacked on Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in Chinese culture. The criminals ignored the Cheesecake Factory and Chipotle nearby, but hit Urban Hot Pot, Kung Fu Tea and Bonchon. Police said they were investigating them as commercial burglaries, not hate crimes. The community felt differently.

“We are deeply saddened that during these difficult times our community is filled with such hatred and division,” wrote Alexis Chen, a family member of some of the store owners, on a GoFundMe to raise money for a group working to stop hate crimes. “As an Asian American establishment, the fact that these attacks came on Lunar New Year, such a celebrated time of year for us, is heartbreaking.”

The attacks have been escalating all year, as arguments over the pandemic were twisted into anti-Asian hatred, led by the chief flamethrower, former president Donald Trump, who joked, even as thousands were dying from the virus, that it was the “kung flu.”

Adler, who is an actor, comedian and musician, said part of why he didn’t at first register that the attack against him “was a hate crime” was because of how little he’s read about crimes against Asians.

It is an invisible hatred, largely ignored.

“It’s very hard, culturally, for many Asian Americans to self-advocate,” said Rumi Matsuyama, a hockey mom I know from my son’s team who lives in Hyattsville, Md.

Matsuyama was one of the parents who tirelessly advocated against hatred in the largely white hockey community after an incident involving a Black player. And I wrote about it, interviewing the Black players who had been taunted, howled at and called the n-word on the ice.

Another Asian American mom quietly thanked me for shining a light on any kind of hatred, one that her son consistently faced in years of playing, but never reported.

But none of us parents dwelled on the hatred that Asian American players faced.

At a game two years ago, I remember an all-white team on Maryland’s Eastern Shore told one of the Asian American players on my son’s team to “Go back to China.”

The boy didn’t tell his mom about it until days later, and the other kids, including my own, didn’t report this to the grown-ups at the game.

There were similar incidents at other rinks, with other teams. And they rarely garnered sanctions or outrage.

Adler said he was told at a young age that these types of insults weren’t about hatred.

“I almost gaslit myself into thinking it wasn’t racist,” he said. “White people have directly told me that racism against Asians doesn’t exist. I didn’t even register things that were racist as racism.”

He grew up in California, yet never heard in school about the nation’s shameful past when it came to Asian Americans.

“I learned about Japanese internment from my Japanese family members who were interned during World War II, not from my history teachers,” he said. “If that’s not white supremacy, I don’t know what is.”

Matsuyama said that she and some of her fellow Asian Americans aren’t vocal when it comes to themselves.

“It feels selfish,” she said, when there are more dire attacks against other groups.

But this week, six Asian women at Asian spas were slaughtered in Georgia by a shooter who saw the places as a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” according to authorities.

He didn’t go to the Pink Pony, the Blue Flame Club or the Stroker’s Lounge in Atlanta, strip joints that aren’t primarily Asian. He went to the ones where he could gun down middle-aged Asian women.

It may have been about sex or sexism, too. But the shooter made a very intentional decision about where his bull’s eye was going to be.

“While the details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said in a statement. “The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to address the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Lawmakers asked their colleagues to tone down the rhetoric that can fuel attacks.

The fixation on China, the punchlines about the “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu,” are emboldening bigots, they said.

“Your president and your party and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don’t have to do it by putting a bull’s eye on the back of Asian Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., said.

“Our community is bleeding,” Meng said. “We’ve been in pain and we’ve been screaming out for help.”

And the rest of America can no longer say we don’t hear them.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team. Follow her on Twitter @PetulaD.

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