by Annie Prafcke
20 May 2021
Recently, C.S. Hagen wrote an article for The Forum about anti-Asian hate in Fargo-Moorhead, amidst the horrific Atlanta shooting, in which six of the eight victims were Asian women. In an interview for the piece, I shared incidents of racially-motivated harassment I experienced in Fargo as a Chinese-American woman.
After the article was published, I received sympathetic messages lamenting my hardship and commending me for “overcoming bullying.” While well-intentioned, I fear that many people are missing the point. Experiencing racially-motivated discrimination is not a personal story of growth. It is a reflection of deep-set societal problems.
Anti-Asian violence is a national crisis and it is fueled by our country’s long history of white supremacy. Since the arrival of the first Chinese railroad workers and goldminers, Asians have faced discrimination in the US. These laborers were often harassed, beaten, and killed, scapegoated for low wages and poor working conditions in the West. This eventually led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese immigration until its 1943 repeal.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, the US held around 120,000 Japanese people in internment camps between 1942 and 1945. Most were American citizens. In these camps, Japanese people experienced violence and harassment. Some were even shot for getting too close to the perimeter.
As recently as 1982, two white men in Detroit, Michigan beat Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man, with a baseball bat. Four days after the incident, Chin died from his injuries. His murderers were only sentenced to three years probation and fined $3,000, with no jail time.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, violence towards Asians has spiked. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino released a report on the number of hate crimes reported in major US cities. The study shows a 149% overall increase in hate crimes directed at Asian Americans in the US from 2019 to 2020.
Anti-Asian discrimination is now cloaked under the illusion that we are “model minorities” - supposedly academically and economically successful due to our “cultural values.” This myth places Asian Americans above other minorities in the racial hierarchy (but still below whites, of course). It ignores the fact that not all racial groups have experienced discrimination in the same ways. Asians, for example, were never subjected to Jim Crow segregation or slavery. It also homogenizes a diverse group of people.
Yet, it is easy to forget how violence towards Asians, police brutality against Black people, hostility towards Central American migrants at the US-Mexican border, etc. are all iterations of the same problem – the notion that white people are superior and anyone who threatens their position of power should be put in their place.
In that interview with The Forum, I mention that the boys who asked me if I ate bats appear to be of multiple races to say that racism is pervasive. It infiltrates all our minds, even those of the victims. As an Asian woman who grew up in the US, I harbor my own biases. And growing up, there were times when I believed it was in my genes to be studious and keep my head down.
These “bullies” are not just a bunch of exceptionally rotten kids wreaking havoc. They learned this behavior as Americans. Perhaps they were mimicking former President Trump after he referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” or the “Kung Flu.” Maybe they learned it from the way Asian characters are portrayed on TV shows such as The Office. Or perhaps they picked it up from their history books.
After that article was published, a woman stopped me in the grocery store. Her greeting was, “Where are you from?” I said I was from Fargo to avoid having to confide in a complete stranger that I was adopted from an orphanage in China. Yet, she continued to press me, annoyed, as if I was the one being rude. “No dear, I mean, where are you from overseas?” She insisted, apparently assuming I was too stupid to understand her intent. “I have a granddaughter from Thailand who looks just like you,” she added. When I finally confessed my foreignness, she smiled and complimented me on my pretty hair.
This woman is no bully. But she reflects the problematic view of Asians that runs through the veins of Americans - we all look alike; we will never truly be considered Fargonians or Moorheadans or Americans; we will always be foreigners.
Racism has no silver bullet solution because the problem is no easy target. Unfortunately, I do not believe merely calling out people who say racist things or more heavily policing a neighborhood for hate crimes will end racism.
I do not have the answers, but I do think that creating sustainable change will involve a multi-angled approach. We must ensure that policy is fair and just. We must hold political leaders who blame ethnic groups for complex social problems accountable. We must be less tolerant of dehumanizing portrayals of people of color. But perhaps most importantly, we will have to work together to stand up for the rights and civil treatment of all disenfranchised groups.
While I do not believe the racist behavior of my “neighborhood bullies” should be overlooked, blaming them for the sins of this country is a heavy weight to place on a bunch of twelve-year-olds on bikes. Perhaps if they didn’t constantly witness hatred and fear towards people who do not look like them, they would be able to see a soul behind the slanted eyes.
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