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This post was contributed a year ago, and languished due to my (Karen’s) disorganization. It predates the events in Atlanta and rising anti-Asian hate and violence of 2021. The author and I agreed to continue with posting it now.
by Jasmine Mote, Ph.D.
Jasmine Mote, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Psychology at Tufts University. A clinical psychologist by training, her research focuses on understanding and addressing the social and emotional difficulties of people with serious mental illness. You can follow her on Twitter: @jdymote
“Oh no, sounds like somebody has SARS,” my high school chemistry teacher laughed after I coughed during class. This was the mid-2000s, in rural Ohio, and I was the only person of East Asian descent in the room. I turned beet red. I laughed along with everyone else, not knowing how else to react. I have been thinking a lot about this incident after reading story after story of the increase of harassment, discrimination, and racially motivated violence against Asian Americans in the United States after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has been referred to as the “Chinese virus” from leaders in our government (seemingly in reference to the fact that the first case was in Wuhan, China). Pictures of East Asians in masks were plastered on nearly every newspaper that initially covered the pandemic, stoking fears that people who looked Chinese were diseased and at fault. Doctors are being stalked and asked, “Why are you killing us?” Families are being killed. While discrimination against people from East Asian countries is not new (in fact, it’s very old), it seems to be getting worse.
I have been lucky. So far, I have not personally experienced explicit harassment or discrimination during the pandemic. Regardless, I find myself staying vigilant. I have turned my video off during Zoom calls when I sneeze or cough, not wanting people to assume that I am sick. When I go for a walk or run outside with my mask on, I turn the volume on my headphones down if I go by a group of people, wanting to make sure that I can hear if they decide to yell at me. My (white) husband currently does all of the grocery shopping as a way for us to limit contact with too many people. One day, he came back and told me that a woman yelled at him for walking too close to her with his full shopping cart. He shrugged it off. He was able – he had the privilege – to give her the benefit of the doubt, because he knew that her anger had nothing to do with the way that he looks. I was immediately grateful that we had divided the errands this way.
Before writing this piece, I realized that I had not checked in with my Asian students or colleagues about how they were handling the pandemic and whether they had experienced any harassment. Maybe I was avoiding admitting to myself and others that this stuff was on my mind. Maybe I just thought it was too sensitive of a topic to bring up. Maybe I was ashamed to feel stress when I had not encountered anywhere close to the hostilities I was reading about. This is not the kind of person – the kind of faculty member – that I want to be. I want to prioritize understanding whether my students feel safe and supported. I know from personal experience that it’s exceedingly difficult to bring up these types of experiences if you’re not explicitly asked about them. So, I started asking. I also shared my own thoughts, experiences, and concerns. I heard about a woman being yelled to “Go home!” on the train. I heard about the exhaustion from being ready on a moment’s notice to call out anti-Asian sentiments whenever the conversation turned to China. I thanked others for sharing their experiences and, in turn, others thanked me. They thanked me even if they had nothing to share, even if they, like me, just wanted to acknowledge that this was taking a mental toll on them, too.
These conversations were also helpful to me. I felt comforted. Seen. I realized that writing this piece is my attempt to acknowledge to myself that the stress and anxiety I feel everyday does not exist in a vacuum. This is my attempt to show others as well as myself that we are not alone in these struggles.
Former democratic presidential nominee Andrew Yang wrote that now is the time for Asian Americans to “show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” As others have already effectively argued, this logic is flawed because it implies that we are somehow at fault for the harassment and discrimination we face. That, by simply existing, we are not “American enough,” and that there’s some magical thing we can do to prove our Americanness to those who do not see us in that light. This is false. There was nothing I could have done to stop some teenage boys from calling me a racial epithet and throwing food at me in a mall years before the pandemic. There is nothing my students can do to avoid getting dirty looks (or worse) in the grocery store or as they walk around their neighborhoods. It is not our fault. We did not cause the pandemic, and it’s not our responsibility to prove that to anyone. My face and the face of my Asian friends are, to some, the face of COVID-19, regardless of how American we feel or act.
What my high school self wanted, more than anything, was for someone in that classroom, someone that didn’t necessarily look like me, to not laugh at that joke. For a classmate to have asked me if that made me feel uncomfortable, or if I wanted to talk with them about how I felt. For another teacher to have let me know they thought the joke was inappropriate, and to have let my teacher know, too. As I continue in my career, I am dedicated to being that person for my friends, colleagues, and students. I am dedicated to being that person for myself.
The Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council is asking those who have witnessed or experienced micro-aggressions, bullying, harassment, hate speech, or violence against Asian Americans to submit a report to help their organization respond and prevent further incidents from occurring. You can submit an incident report here.