Free Press columnist Becca Shaw Glaser
Free Press columnist Becca Shaw Glaser
“Neither Black nor white, Asians are simultaneously stereotyped as model minorities and perpetual foreigners, and thus used as a wedge between Black and white people. But with overt attacks apparently on the rise across the country, Americans of Asian descent are demanding attention to the racism they face.” — Morgan Ome, “Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different,” The Atlantic, March 17, 2021

At home, my family taught me that racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry were wrong, and that I should intervene when I saw bullying, harassment and mockery around me. But the culture I was surrounded with when I entered Rockport Elementary School in the ’80s was thoroughly infested with racism, classism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, fatphobia, ableism and cruelty in general. These mostly came couched as “jokes” or direct insults, from kids, teachers and administrators alike. Was I, a 6-year-old, supposed to take all that on myself?

I do have early memories of intervening, speaking up on behalf of various groups and individuals; there is my heroic memory of kicking a kid in the balls because he turned down another student’s hearing aid. But I also look back and cringe. I am pretty sure that I had “fun” bonding with other White children where we would pull down the sides of our eyes and speak as if using an Asian language. Maybe I didn’t know it was harmful and racist; it was so common, a way to connect with other kids. One could say this was just “innocent” children playing, and, sure, kids explore and experiment. But, ultimately, nothing is innocent. The raw material of children’s play comes directly from the bigger world. The books we were reading as kids — such as the Dr. Seuss books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises recently decided to stop publishing due to their perpetuation of racism (including racist depictions of Asian people) — the movies we saw, and the things the teachers and administrators participated in were teaching us cultural beliefs and values.

Anti-Asian racism goes way back in this country, both political and personal. It was first applied to federal immigration law under the Page Act of 1875, which barred women from China from coming to the U.S.; in 1882, the U.S. barred men from China (with few exceptions) from immigrating; banning children of Asian descent from going to White schools; imprisoning Japanese-Americans en masse in concentration camps during WWII, which sometimes included tearing children from parents; sustained propaganda against Asian countries and Asian people, all of which helped make the wars against Asian countries (and people) more palatable; the unforgivable nuclear bombing of Japan. In the last few years anti-Asian sentiment and violence have grown under Trump’s urging, becoming significantly worse during the pandemic thanks in part to Trump’s anti-Asian slurs and lies related to the virus.

After the horrific recent mass murder of Asian-American women in Atlanta, many of my friends and acquaintances of Asian descent are laying bare the racism and harassment they’ve experienced. Before this, I truly did not know how common and how deep anti-Asian racism still is. Mandy-Ruiwen Zheng, who I know from Syracuse University, was moved by today’s climate to write, “I have lived in the U.S. for almost seven years and I have been stalked, assaulted, and spit on by strangers on the street. I remember how much anger I had and how long I held the anger after a truck driver asked me to eat trash on the road while passing me walking on the roadside six years ago.” Where she lives now, in the Midwest, she is “getting used to people staring at me at stores.”

Unfortunately, I think most, if not all, racialized people in midcoast Maine become acclimated to being stared at, if not worse.

Mandy-Ruiwen also wrote, “Like a lot of Asian people, I am very quiet, diplomatic, respectful, and non-confrontational. If those characteristics become the reason we are being silenced, ignored, discriminated against, or even killed, I would rather change those things of me. Friends, if you happen to witness some violence or racist comments targeting Asian people, please say or do something.”

We, especially White people, need to work harder to create a world where no one is stared at, harassed, yelled at, made fun of, or faces systemic discrimination because of their heritage. Learning is one part of the puzzle. PBS.org currently has an “Asian Americans” documentary series streaming for free. Though predictable PBS snore-core, I recommend it. Also check out Vignesh Ramachandran’s “What you can do to fight violence and racism against Asian Americans” and a March 22 interview on Democracy Now! with Viet Thanh Nguyen. The stories and the “jokes” our racist culture has taught us must be untangled and then firmly, finally, thrown out.