Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, Delia Cai remembers kids coming up to her family and making squawking sounds at them to make fun of the Chinese language. It was among the many subtle but alienating microaggressions she experienced there. Several years ago, Cai, an Asian American writer, moved to New York City, where she expected those days to be long gone.
To her surprise, she continued to experience racist, off-the-cuff remarks and culturally insensitive jokes from dates and co-workers. At comedy shows, white comics would joke about their trips to Chinatown and the punchline would often involve their inability to understand the immigrants who lived there and imitating their languages, she said.
“I grew up in a pretty conservative part of town with a lot of mostly white people. And so I just thought, ‘Well, that's behind me. I live in New York. I live in Brooklyn. I don't have to ever deal with it again,’” Cai told NBC Asian America. “But it comes up. It still comes up, and it's always a weird little reminder of, I guess, I am still an outsider, no matter what.”
Tessa Samberg is of Chinese descent and grew up in the 1990s and early aughts in Sacramento, California, where she said she received similar treatment. She would hear racist comments about her appearance, she said, and remembers one boy from her youth likening her to a panda.
“I grew up in a pretty conservative part of town with a lot of mostly white people. And so I just thought, ‘Well, that's behind me. I live in New York,'" writer Delia Cai said. “It still comes up and it's always a weird little reminder of, I guess, I am still an outsider, no matter what.”
But amid the coronavirus pandemic, as the Asian American community confronts the racist stereotypes, catalyzing a generation’s activism and a heightened focus on the group, both Cai and Samberg say they’re seeing a slight shift in the way people identify not only overt racism, but casual, everyday racism as well. Celebrities like Jay Leno, who have long profited from jokes about Asian Americans, began to rethink past slights. Samberg said she had even received a surprising message on Instagram from the very boy who she once deemed the “most immature,” apologizing for some of his actions.
“We have actually had some conversations via Instagram, just about everything that's going on, and he's said, ‘If you ever need or want to talk about this stuff, let me know,” Samberg said.
Asian Americans have dealt with an undercurrent of racism for centuries, since Asian immigrants first arrived in the U.S. more than 150 years ago. But experts say the recent attention on anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic has led many to reflect on the everyday, quiet yet insidious forms of racism.
“It is violence — especially for a group that has been de-racialized and basically whitened,” Nadia Kim, professor of sociology and of Asian & Asian American studies at Loyola Marymount University, said.
Experts said that despite the amplified coverage of pandemic-related anti-Asian racism, it’s not a new issue. Kim said that in a country that sees race in largely a Black-and-white binary, the struggles of Asian Americans have long been discounted by those outside the community. And seen as a compliant “model minority,” Asian Americans have often been positioned in a way that makes white people feel their racism is exonerated.
“It is violence — especially for a group that has been de-racialized and basically whitened,” Nadia Kim, a professor of sociology and of Asian and Asian American studies, said.
Ellen Wu, a historian who wrote “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” previously explained that white liberals wielded the model minority stereotype in the 1960s in an effort to squash the rising Black civil rights movement and cherry-picked Asian American “success stories” as “proof” of meritocracy and equal opportunity for people of color.
“Much of America, including other people of color, really have internalized this notion that Asian Americans, especially like East and South Asian Americans, they're doing so well, so they kind of collapse class, socio-economic privilege, with the lack of racism,” Kim said of the “model minority myth.” “But it makes no sense because actually groups that interact the most with white America tend to report the highest rates of discrimination.”
Van C. Tran, a sociologist and an associate professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, also said that since Asian America has a heavily immigrant population, microaggressions against them are more accepted because they’re not seen as people who are relatable or “close to home.”
The longtime blindness to racism toward Asian Americans has put the community in a unique and difficult position as nonwhites, Kim said. “We’re basically gaslit by our own country,” she said. The failure from the culture at large to recognize Asian Americans as people of color who experience racism, and not as “honorary whites,” has made it more difficult for many to speak out in the past, she added.
Microaggressions against Asian Americans are more accepted because they’re not seen as people who are relatable or “close to home,” sociologist Van C. Tran said.
“A major part of identity struggle is actually validating that what we're experiencing, as what we feel like is casual racism is actually racism to begin with,” Kim said. “Once we experience that racism, because there's no space or language through which to really receive it and grasp it, we then question whether or not resisting it or raising our voices about it, or speaking about at work or in school, is even something that we should do. Is it worthwhile?”
What’s more, Tran said that because of significant language barriers, many Asian Americans have experienced difficulty even finding the words to voice injustices against them.
“Asian Americans, more so than Hispanics and African Americans, are predominantly foreign-born and therefore less likely to be fluent and proficient in the language, which makes it much more difficult to understand that they have been treated unfairly, but more importantly, to push back in an effective way,” Tran said. “That really perpetuated the situation because when something is deemed as acceptable, it is often because no one ... said, ‘This is not OK.’”
Such an environment can make being Asian American feel like a devastatingly isolating experience at times, experts noted. And, coupled with a resistance within the community in addressing mental health concerns, many experience serious consequences. There’s nothing “casual” about casual racism, Tran said.
“The nature of these interactions … made it much more likely that people will just bury these slights and these hurts and these negative feelings deep, deep within themselves,” Tran said.
Research shows that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15-34. When looking at women of all racial backgrounds 65 to 84, Asian Americans had the highest suicide rate. And while Asian Americans report fewer mental health conditions than their white counterparts, they are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.
“It's impossible to separate the casual racism we experience from those identity struggles, those mental health struggles, and from this constant feeling that you basically are a walking contradiction,” Kim said.
The recent reckoning with the more invisible forms of anti-Asian racism is in part a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, Kim said, since it forced Americans, who were largely quarantined at home, to contend with racism. Though the country has seen mass protests before in the 1960s, social media abetted the recent revolution and, Kim said, the heavily circulated images served as undeniable proof that racism against Asian Americans does, in fact, exist.
“We have all this political discourse on social media, which I also think has forced people to at least think about political issues or realize that they have to have an opinion,” she said.
Tran added that while previous generations had few options to resist second-class treatment, and often did not possess the language for it, it’s the younger ones who are most vocal on behalf of their parents and grandparents and propelling the conversation forward.
“This generation has a very strong political consciousness, but also a strong sense of civic activism among young Asian Americans, and that I think gives me tremendous hope for the future,” he said.
But Cai and Samberg both wonder how much has really changed. Cai said that as the country opens up and returns to some semblance of normalcy, it can be easy to forget about the discrimination the community encounters, particularly if the model minority myth remains the “most visible part of our people.”
“Americans are very quick to be like, ‘That's behind us now,’” she said. “And that's just the way that the country has always operated.”