Denying Anti-Asian American Bias: The Five Stages

For me, racism directed toward Asian Americans can be less troubling than the response when Asian Americans dare to say something about it. I mean both the egregious examples, the brutal hate crimes, and the casual cruelties of daily life, the slurs and slights. I am an optimist. I do not expect to come into contact with bigotry. But even more than that, I am surprised by the pushback from friends.

Here is my test case. I have had this experience (more than once, much less than daily), and I bet many other Asian Americans, however assimilated, also have.

You are looking for a parking space. Two drivers go for the same opening. There is nothing unusual about that. It's life in the big city -- for that matter, it's life in the suburbs too.

But then the stranger rolls down their window to shout something about Asian drivers, "go back to where you came from," or "you know that's not how we do it in our country." What was simply a dispute, not all that serious, escalates into a racial encounter, and not due to any action by the Asian American individual who is involved; the other person intends to turn it into their argument for how the nation is in decline

I concede freely that I might have made a mistake -- maybe I didn't see the other person signal that they were waiting. But I assert that there is no cause for the person who wishes to confront me to fixate of ethnicity, as if that explained who should have priority or why I am the one at fault.

Or the instance that is altogether unprovoked. A car pulls up alongside you, teenagers pull back their eyes into that slant look, chant, "Ching Chong," maybe throw garbage at the window, then shout about "Commies" as they speed off.

My point is what happens when you share these stories. We all do that. We have to process what happened. We need to "vent."

So we tell someone when we return to the office, a co-worker. "You won't believe what happened to me at lunch . . ."

The phenomenon is the "perpetual foreigner," the notion that someone Asian is not a "real American," irrespective of how many generations her family has been here, but owes loyalty to another sovereignty. We are tourists, guests, invaders, temporary inhabitants, who can, should, maybe must return elsewhere. That also is the rationale for dismissing our concerns. We lack the standing of equal citizens, and, besides, we are better off than we would be if we were back "home."

I have found there are five stages to the reaction.

The first is denial of the facts. "No, really? That doesn't happen, does it? Not here, not anymore."

The person who expresses this sentiment at least implies they agree it would be not quite appropriate for someone to call you "chink," "jap," or "gook." They are more comfortable suspecting your integrity than confronting contemporary bias. They are anxious to change the subject.

The second is denial of the pattern. "Well, that person is just ignorant. They don't represent this community. I am sure it will not happen again."

I am not sure this is much progress. That is especially so if the tone has that condescension of a metaphorical pat on the head. It suggests that there is a problem only if it is intentional and overwhelming, a vast infrastructure of racism. A person who "didn't mean to offend you" (not sure how that is possible, but, sure, let's give 'em the "benefit of the doubt") or a lone miscreant is not worth further consideration.

The third segues from challenging what you have said to wondering whether it is significant. "That's not about race, is it?"

The person who makes this move sets their standard at the indifferent end of sensitivity. They would excuse "Oriental" or "Chinaman" as colloquialisms, but even if such a term was uttered they refuse to recognize it as racial. Whatever it is, it shouldn't be upsetting.

The fourth commits the logical fallacy of asserting if an act is not among the worst than it is not wrong at all. "That isn't as bad as what blacks face, is it?"

In the aggregate, I do not doubt that Asian Americans are relatively privileged: measures such as housing segregation and employment disparities confirm Asian Americans are worse off than whites and better off than blacks. But a contest of suffering has no winners. In particular circumstances, an Asian American can be deprived an opportunity for a home or a job, as an African American would be. Telling that person that, in general, Asian Americans enjoy advantages is neither right nor persuasive.

The fifth brings us back to the beginning by ejecting me once again. "That's no different than how Chinese treat Americans, isn't it?"

I am supposed to be assuaged. It's all the same the world over. But the analogy is not apt. The comparison should be between how Europeans treat Americans of Asian descent and how Asians treat Americans of European descent, because the category of American is not, in principle, based on racial nationalism. The cycle is repeated. It is to render equivalent how Asian Americans are treated in America, their home, as other Americans are treated in Asia, where they in fact are foreigners.

It also assigns Asian Americans as apologists for people with whom they do not have a meaningful relationship. We are allied with Asia against our will.

If all this were only about hurt feelings, then it would be unseemly to aggrieved. On the "Maslow" hierarchy of needs, we reach self-actualization and the sense of belonging after safety and food and shelter. Yet more serious incidents are driven by the same impulses as "it's just a joke." Attacks on Asian Americans have that common characteristic: they are expressly revenge for Pearl Harbor or Vietnam, or resentment over the success of Japan Inc. and the rise of China. Likewise government discrimination: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was justified by the notion the Chinese were not Christian and by nature couldn't become Yankees; the Japanese American internment during World War II, the fear of treason; contemporary espionage prosecutions that lack probable cause, the paranoia about economic competition blended with military threat.

To be well adjusted, to cope effectively, I have trained myself. I have set my internal calibration to be sparing in calling out racial prejudice, and I've striven to catch it in myself and see how it affects others, especially African Americans.

In fulfillment of our ideals, I offer these thoughts for those who are sympathetic and open-minded. Perhaps other Asian Americans will be assured they are not alone.