Just like everything else, your identity can weather away.
Unlike the massive headlines we see on the news, I think most racism happens in a very under-the-radar kind of way. Over time, it’s not the racial slur or the hate crimes doing the most damage, although I am absolutely not suggesting they are unimportant. Rather, it’s the small comments, jokingly said insults, and overall societal pressures that erode the cultural identity away.
I remembered seething when my students mocked the Chinese language to my face. “Ching chong, bing bong!” The kids would taunt me. “What does that mean?”
“God, those chinks at the mall.” My boss jokes, laughing in casual conversation.
Walking down the street during my lunch break, talking on the phone. “Fuck you, you Chinese motherfucker!”
On August 22nd, 2021, video footage of a bus full of fans headed to a soccer match (football, for the rest of the world) surfaced. As they chanted, “let’s all do Kyogo,” they pulled their eyes back, referencing Japanese player Kyogo Furuhashi (Irvine, 2021).
These are the things we pay attention to. The racism that’s loud. The racism that makes the front page. The racism that everyone hears.
After years of examining myself, what has done the most damage to my identity and self-esteem as a Chinese American is the racism that’s quiet. The racism that you can’t feel right away. The racism nobody listens to.
Oxford Languages defines microaggressions as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”
I prefer not to use microaggressions to describe this “quiet racism” that perpetuates itself daily. The implications are that they’re somehow insignificant and a one-time thing, neither of which is true. The compounding nature of these subtly racist actions and comments culminate into something far more destructive.
Over the last year and a half, AAPI globally have experienced a surge in hate crimes and negative bias (Tessler et al., 2020). I used to joke about how if I were to cough on a plane, I’d get an empty flight, just for me.
Through the pandemic, I found myself staying at home, hoping nobody would throw acid at me or stab me on the streets. But when I did go out, I took every side-eyed glance as a menacing, “it’s your fault.”
People repeatedly debated whether or not to call COVID-19 the “China/Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus,” and former President Donald Trump’s usage of these terms in his tweets and speeches only made them explode in popularity. To describe the origin of the virus is one thing, but to put blame is another.
And I felt blamed.
Affirmative action told me, “I wasn’t good enough, especially for an Asian.”
People constantly asking me where I was from told me, “you don’t look like you’re from around here.”
The sad look people give me when I say I dropped out of college told me, “wow, this Asian is a failure.”
“Aren’t Asians supposed to be rich?”
As they are from an almost unconscious place in our heads, microaggressions are hard to call out. Such a “small” thing is difficult to magnify, especially when the perpetrator isn’t even aware of what they’re saying.
This makes it hard, if not impossible, to have constructive conversations around the elusiveness of quiet racism. “Wow, that was racist” to an oblivious person’s statement feels like an overreaction.
But first, for AAPI living in the United States, these widespread misconceptions of us, good and bad, must be dismantled. We aren’t just foreigners, we belong here. We are good enough, regardless of education. We are struggling. We aren’t responsible for COVID-19. We are good lovers. We deserve to be treated fairly.