Courts Must Decide What We Already Know: Racism and Stigma Cause Harm

For Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women to fight to end the stigma of racism, the court asks us to first prove that these cause harm. People of color often have to confront systems built by white people who do not value our pain the same as their own. This is especially true when it comes to racism itself.

At a recent joint convening of the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Anna Julia Cooper Center of Wake Forest University on advancing equity for women and girls of color, organizer extraordinaire Melissa Harris-Perry referenced a social psychology research study which shows that, starting at the age of seven, white children begin to believe Black children feel less pain than white children when confronted with the exact same scenarios (bumping their head or getting a hand caught in a door.) This stunning finding establishes what psychologists have known for much longer about how white adults also diminish the pain of people of color and shows us how early on this perception is embedded.

On Dec. 9th, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) and the Maricopa County Branch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (MC-NAACP) are putting the very same issue before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in our fight against a racist anti-abortion ban. The first court to consider our case found that the stigma that results from this racist law did not "injure" us enough to give us "standing" in court. In other words, that court didn't understand that racism hurts.

In 2011, the Arizona Legislature enacted HB 2443, the deceptively named "Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011" (PRENDA), which purportedly fights against racism and sexism by banning so-called race-selective and sex-selective abortions. These laws stem from racist stereotypes that Asian Americans do not value women and girls. There is not a shred of evidence that this is happening in Arizona and a recent national study from the University of Chicago School of Law shows that Asian Americans are actually giving birth to more girls than white Americans. Prenatal nondiscrimination laws are wolves in sheep's clothing designed by anti-abortion activists to chip away at abortion rights while trying to appear anti-racist and anti-sexist. Too bad their disguises don't fit them very well.

Moreover, the hearings for HB 2443 revealed the blatant racism of its proponents. When asked to present data that sex-selective abortions were occurring in Arizona, Rep. Rick Murphy replied, "We know that people from those countries and from those cultures are moving and immigrating in some reasonable numbers to the United States and to Arizona. And so with that in mind, why in good conscience would we want to wait until the problem does develop and bad things are happening and then react when we can be proactive and try to prevent the problem from happening in the first place?"

People from those countries and from those cultures, may appear like small and gentle digs but every AAPI woman can attest to knowing exactly when our breath catches, where that knot in our stomachs begins, and how our jaws clench each and every time those words are directed at us by someone who has power over us.

AAPI women and girls have endured over a century of being miscast, stereotyped, and stigmatized. Being fingered as the reason for these bans exploits Asian Americans and in doing so continues the legacy of discrimination Asian Americans have experienced for many generations in the United States. The country's first anti-immigrant laws, the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act, targeted Chinese immigrants. In fact, the Page Act was specifically directed toward Chinese women, who were stereotyped as prostitutes who had to be kept out lest they sully American culture and undermine American values. Similarly, in the WWII era, stereotypes of Japanese as dangerous resulted in the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. In more recent times, stereotypes of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asian Americans as terrorists have led to rampant racial profiling and unjustified detention.

In defending the existence of race-selective abortions, Sidney Hay from Defending America's Future testified in favor of HB 2443 by saying "When asked, 'What is the leading cause of death in the American Black community?' the most common answer given by average Americans is heart disease. The correct answer is abortion." Through this rationale, the anti-abortion movement diminishes actual, health inequities, patronizingly erases every single reason why we should trust Black women to make their own abortion decisions and casts Black women as the perpetrators of their own Black genocide.

The claims against AAPI and Black communities used in the legislative hearings for PRENDA are only made possible because of deep seated structural racism that trains white seven year-olds to think that their Black friends feel less pain than they do. This pervasive, structural racism so thoroughly permeated your thinking since you were seven years old to make it plausible for you to think you are being anti-racist while you are being racist; and to be so paternalistic as to think you know better what someone else in a different situation ought to feel and should do. It's time to start believing women of color.

Racism hurts. Stigma hurts. AAPI women, Black women, and all women of color know it and we can prove it. Now we just need the courts to believe us. Follow along with us on December 9th at #racismhurts as our attorney from the ACLU argues our case and join in on the discussion.

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