For Me, Racism Has Always Felt Like a Battle of Invisibility

Alice Tan, Lead Reporter

Anthea Yur leads protesters in chants during the “Asian Solidarity March” rally against anti-Asian hate in response to recent anti-Asian crime on March 18, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a loss of innocence that comes after a racial awakening, one moment of surreal epiphany when you realize you are not white. After four years of U.S. high school, I lament that I might never escape the twinge of inferiority that plagues me when walking into a new room. Anti-Asian racism has always been a battle of otherness, invisibility, and a false narrative of the model minority. 

Tracing back to the arrival of the first “coolie” in California, the collective identity of Asian immigrants has always been blemished by a sense of otherness, isolated as a race of perpetual foreigners. Labels reeking of ugly legacy were thrust upon Chinese migrant workers in the late 19th century, reducing them into “chinks” and sparking the “yellow peril.” When faced with the prospect that those workers might settle and become a significant portion of the U.S. population, white Americans passed a series of laws that barred Chinese, soon all Asian people, from immigration and citizenship. The Chinese men, with the queue hairstyle and pidgin accent, were deemed an “unassimilable” race, living in confined areas to practice their alien lifestyle, dirty, diseased, and demented.

The rationale behind these laws– that Asians were undesirable immigrants who posed a demographic threat – created the otherness that still lurks in the shadows of American society, ready to leap out and incite hatred when the time comes. 

To be a foreigner in the U.S. is to grow up within the narrative of otherness, wrestling with the shame that lingers around you and the desire to conceal yourself. You hate your accent, your bland Asian features, your lack of cultural fluidity, and despise moments when your tongue stutters incorrigible noises, as if the flawless porcelain has cracked to reveal the ugly Chinese that was underneath all along. You desperately yearn to blend in with the crowd, yet hide so quickly away from those who look similar, as if your individuality drowns by the minute when standing next to another Asian. 

Weary of being overlooked or underestimated, I often think my self-hatred manifests in the form of academic competitiveness, clinging to the grades that can never alleviate an existential frustration. If the stereotype is the quiet, pliant China girl in a corner, then let me be outspoken, let me be eloquent, and please, let me be the smartest kid in the room. The irrational fear runs wild that if I am anything short of perfection, I will remain unseen, all the while yearning for witticisms with a zealousness that verges on sadism and vengeance. 

The strange reality of Asian identity is that it finds no place between the dichotomy of Black versus White. Anti-Asian racism exists in purgatory, voicing grievances deemed a distraction from the more important issues, never finding its place when the conversations about race center around Black identities. 

Yet the narrative of Asian immigrants taps into another grim and violent racial history. The pandemic has brought visibility to the racism that has always plagued the country, harking back to two centuries worth of harassment and demonization – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment camps, the Vietnamese shrimpers whose boats the KKK set on fire. The 19th-century anti-Chinese backlashes were a tale filled with white demonstrators who decried the incomers as a “Chinese plague.” Los Angeles lynch mobs sought revenge for a civilian caught in crossfire by murdering eighteen innocent Chinese men in 1871, and Rock Springs vigilantes protested against foreign miners by burning down 79 Chinatown homes in 1885. “China virus,” “kung flu:” President Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric in the present day only lays bare the long legacy of hatred, unleashing new waves of harassment and hate crimes that have chronically existed on the periphery. 

Does it have to take the 84-year-old grandpa shoved to death in broad daylight for others to see those crimes that have been there for so long? When the blood spilled and dried in Atlanta’s massage parlor on March 16th, six Asian mothers, wives, grandmas wouldn’t return home that night.

The story of Asian Americans was never a fairytale of success and a model minority. During the construction of the transcontinental railroad, when masses of cheap Chinese laborers were imported as a replacement for Black slaves, it was those yellow bodies that suffered the heat of exhaustion and were buried under the mud and the landslide. The perpetual cycle of xenophobia, riots, and job insecurity sparked the racial violence that left Chinese men dangling on nooses in 1871, and now leaves Asian grandmothers beaten on the street. Behind the dream narratives of doctors, engineers, and scientists are the millions of cleaners, nannies, and cashiers living in the crowded streets of Chinatown and earning minimum wage. The glory of American prosperity was always built upon the exploitation of poor bodies. 

The myth of model-minority only silenced intergenerational traumas that run deep in Asian families after years of Western colonialism, civil wars, and foreign invasions, the reason that brought a lot of people to the U.S. in the first place, and the reason why so many Asians remained poor. 

I have to look to an imagined past to make sense of a Western and Chinese identity, too often wondering how some marginalized voices will be forever left unheard. In her collection of personal essays, Minor Feelings, the Korean-American author Cathy Park Hong creates the imagined figure of a Chinese girl who is the first immigrant to arrive at the California shore; it is an image that has since roamed free in my head. A frightened young girl who speaks no English, abducted from thousands of miles away to be locked in a brothel, lending her body to strangers until she is disease-ridden and left perishing on the street, forgotten, unknown. The sordid narrative is not far from reality, when 61% of the 3,536 Chinese women in California were listed as prostitutes according to the 1870 census manuscripts. Most of those women were lured, abducted, or sold by impoverished families to a land far away from home, living short lives from physical abuses or venereal diseases. 

So I lie awake wondering whether I would be that girl if I were born a few generations ago. Little China girl, what if I sing your song of pain, anger, and sorrow? Because I know the sore exasperation that stems from being chronically invisible, the scream that goes unheard, the tears that drop unseen. Underneath the impassivity of those unchiseled Asian features, can we let that history go? 

Alice Tan ‘21 adapted this personal essay for the Chandlery.