I’ve remained silent in the wake of the increased reporting of violence and hatred against Asian American people. Elders being attacked in random acts of violence. What that means in our culture, no matter what Asian culture we draw our heritage from, elders are revered. They are cherished, so attacks against elders are particularly troublesome for Asian Americans. I had to let the rage subside before I could gather my thoughts.
The mainstream media claims that there has been a 120% increase in Anti-Asian Americanism. I and many other Asian Americans have pointed out, these acts against the Asian-Pacific Islander (API) community are not new. Acts against the API community are not always reported as Hate Crimes. Like crimes of violence against peoples of color, reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Not elevating Anti-Asian American crimes is a symptom of a larger problem—the API community is not regarded as full citizens, nor as a rightful minority group with a history of legitimate social grievances. Asian Americans are American, and this is an American problem.
In this country, Asian Americans are not American enough. We are not minority enough. Our history is not acknowledged or even taught enough. This is the reality that Asian Americans have lived with since we first became part of the American landscape in the 1830s. Anti-Asian Americanism finds its roots in the same doctrines which placed Indigenous people in the cross hairs of White colonial conquerors, and the enslavement of African people. The “free white people” doctrine of 1790 allowed only free Whites to become citizens. It quantified how to define “American” for hundreds of years to come that we still live under today.
In this country, Asian Americans are not American enough. We are not minority enough. Our history is not acknowledged or even taught enough.
In the 1830s, White conquerors colonized Hawaii and sugar plantations were created. Eventually, the US Marines invaded Hawaii, overthrew a sitting King and established Pearl Harbor as the naval base in which the US launched numerous operations against Asia, including the annexation of the Philippines. The proximity to Asia from Hawaii made it easier to import cheap labor from Japan and other Asian nations and the first mass importation of laborers from Asia began.
Since that time, there have been numerous laws and court decisions codifying the discriminatory acts against Asian Americans. Most of the early efforts against Asian Americans were designed to exclude us from gaining citizenship. The Page Act of 1875, under the guise of prohibiting the importation of forced labor from Asia, excluded certain Asian citizens from immigration, and excluded Asian women from immigrating, citing these female immigrants would engage in prostitution. This law was a deliberate effort of the US government to prevent the formation of the family unit, thereby reducing the potential for uprisings against unbearable conditions here, like how plantation owners in the South forced the separation of enslaved males from establishing the family unit for African Americans. And remember, this Act acknowledged that there was a practice of importation of forced labor of Asians in significant enough numbers that Congress debated and passed this law, all the while discriminating against immigration from specific Asian countries.
Asian American labor is what built the Western United States, including the Transcontinental Railroads, and the infrastructure for trade and shipping by land as well as by sea from the western ports. Yet we have been systematically prevented from becoming citizens.
Discrimination against Asian Americans have a long-standing tradition in this country. Following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the White ruling class replaced slavery with legal instruments of economic oppression, such as sharecropping against formerly enslaved African brothers and sisters, while turning to forced Asian labor with no legal restrictions so long as Asians remained non-citizens. Sundown Laws were written prohibiting Asian laborers from being in town after 5 p.m. and Asians were only allowed to live in designated encampments such as China Beach and China Camp in San Francisco.
Laws prohibiting property ownership were quickly passed and remained in place until the last such law was ruled unconstitutional in 1952. Laws prohibiting marriage between Asian Americans and Whites were passed in 1861 in Nevada and not repealed until 1967. In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese nationals were not White, therefore ineligible to become naturalized citizens because only “free white persons” were allowed. Even Southern plantation owners brought Chinese labor as a source of cheap labor after 1865. Here in California, it was the Asian- American (Filipino) farm workers that started the action against the farm owners of the Central Valley before Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta elevated the fight to a world-wide action.
The Pacific Coast Riots of 1907 inflicted savagery against Asian Americans up and down the West Coast from Los Angeles, San Francisco to Bellingham, Washington and into Vancouver, British Columbia. Executive Order 9066 robbed Americans of Japanese ancestry of property, freedom and life. In post WWII Japan, the United States told a war-torn nation that if they came to the United States to work the fields, after two years, they could get permanent visas. They worked under substandard living and working conditions for a substandard wage and when they completed their two years, they were deported.
The United States did not just happen to become a racist nation accidentally. From the beginning, it was always designed to be a White Christian nation. The decision was made at its inception that in order to form “a more perfect union,” it will exploit all non-White people to achieve it. It defined what that “perfect union” means by its laws. This country has developed exactly as it was designed to.
Anti-Asian Americanism has been normalized for nearly 200 years and violence against Asian Americans is as old as the first Asian immigrant who was forced to work to build the land, we call the United States. Suffice it to say, the Asian American community, other communities of color and our White allies must create coalitions and relationships. We can no longer be perceived to be silent, or not have a position in the struggle for equality in this country. All people of color have a stake in this fight, and until we unite against racism, we will not see change. Until systemic racism is understood for what it is, it will not change. We are just taking turns being the minority of the moment until the next set of oppression becomes in vogue and we will be forgotten again.
The Asian American experience is at a turning point in our nation. We have an opportunity to change the narrative about what an Asian American is once and for all. For the first time in our history, the President of the United States proclaimed that Anti-Asian Americanism is wrong in January of 2021. The media is covering criminal acts against API people. Americans who never thought about violence against the API community are becoming aware. Now that people are talking about it, we don’t stop pushing for change. We call out injustice against API people every time we witness it. People must be held accountable for using slurs against Asian Americans. We have to demand that the media stop repeating slurs leveled against API people. Bleep it out when on video/audio and use asterisks when in print. Using the term “N-word” changed public awareness in a significant way. The use or mention of Anti-Asian slurs needs to have the same reaction. If the slur is wrong when spoken by someone, then it is wrong when repeated by the media.
The fundamental understanding of an Asian American, is colored by a bias that Americans hold of what an American should look like. My last name is O’Sullivan. I look Japanese to people here. When people find out that my last name is O’Sullivan and my first name is Taro, it doesn’t compute. It is because people have a preconceived notion of what an O’Sullivan is supposed to look like, and it’s not me. Then, I am also asked where I’m from, realizing that they don’t mean what part of town I’m from, but what Asian country I came from.
There are only three reasons why I am an O’Sullivan and look as I do:
- My father must be White with an Irish surname
- I must be adopted
- I am a product of a bi-racial union either because colonialism, or because of immigration between countries creating a bi-racial child.
None of it is your business until and unless I decide to share that with you. Most people don’t ask every Smith if they are from the British Smythe or of German Smit ancestry. Why do you ask me?
I ask that you learn the history and contributions of Asian Americans. I ask that you understand how we are weaved into history of the United States with other minority groups whose blood and labor built this country. One day, I will not have to explain why I am an O’Sullivan. We are Americans.