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Prejudice against Asian Americans is real and it’s ugly

And it’s been going on long before the Atlanta shootings

People gather at a candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, Calif., on March 23 to mourn the victims of the Atlanta mass shootings, which included six women of Asian descent.
People gather at a candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, Calif., on March 23 to mourn the victims of the Atlanta mass shootings, which included six women of Asian descent. ((Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images))

Got a green card bucko? 

When you finally go back to your country …  

I do not consider myself a xenophobe; as a matter of fact, I was engaged to an Asian girl for three and a half years … 

Those lines are from just three of dozens of emails I received in 2003 after starting a new job as a reporter who covered immigrants and refugees. These people reacted to stories I wrote, but they attacked me personally because of my foreign-sounding name. I remember thinking at the time: I should save these emails. I can show them to people who ask: People don’t really say those things to you, do they?

I wish I could have saved some of the misogynist, racist and occasionally threatening 1 a.m. voicemails I received, too, in those days before the newsroom phones had caller ID. 

These are a few examples of the words that have been hurled at me, and they’re the mild ones. Have I ever been assaulted? Thankfully, no. But I would be happy to describe verbal assaults that have scared me and left me feeling at risk as a child, teen, adult and parent. And the list of microaggressions I have endured, along with my family and Asian American friends, especially the women, is longer than a CVS receipt. 

Every time it happens, society tells us we’re overreacting.  

This is why I get so angry when police departments question whether what is so obviously a hate crime against Asians is racially motivated.  

And this is why, when several friends and loved ones reached out to me following the Atlanta shootings, I started unloading on them: What happened within the last few weeks, or within the last year, is not new. This has gone on my entire life. Any Asian will tell you the same.

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I felt guilty — and surprised — by my initial reaction to people who called. My response probably baffled them. I sounded angry, and I definitely was. Because why was it necessary for eight people, six of them Asian women, to die for people to finally realize what Asian people have had to choke down for years? The anguish heard in my voice also came from exasperation. It’s decades of frustration over being ignored, disrespected and marginalized, feelings that have been tamped down but are now starting to surface. It’s my inability to explain in a few sentences the complexity and the variety of the Asian experience in this country, which is so beautiful and meaningful but also full of unpardonable moments that would embarrass, anger and shame most Americans.  

I moved to the United States when I was 14 months old. My parents and I were naturalized six years later, about the first time I remember people hurling insults at us just because of the way we looked, or because of my parents’ heavily accented English.  

Sometimes people think they flatter with their insults. I don’t know a single Asian woman who hasn’t rolled her eyes at the memories of men who told us they love Asian women, or that Asian women are so beautiful and exotic, as if these were compliments. 

People also have told me they don’t see me as Korean or as Asian — they just see me as Eun. I understand the intent, but that erases my experience, which includes being reminded that people mistake me for a foreigner all the time. Or that some think they have the right to use racist descriptions to portray me. It’s bad enough that Asian children growing up in the U.S. today still get teased about the shape of their eyes, or how flat their face is, or about their funny name. But kids don’t know better.

Grown-ups are supposed to, but a lot of adults are idiots. 

Once, after finishing an interview with a lawyer, the man asked me in the typical roundabout way familiar to all Asians “Where are you really from.” After telling him I’m Korean, he looked surprised. “But I thought Koreans looked like this,” he said, as he pulled up the corners of his eyes.  

He then did it again. He tugged his eyes and went: “So, really? Not all Korean eyes look like this?”

I was in my mid-30s when this happened. He was in his 50s.  

To be honest, many people don’t care to distinguish someone who’s Korean from someone Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese. We’re all the same to these folks. We’re all from somewhere else, even if many of us have lived in this country for generations. 

Right now, I fear for my elderly parents, and I can’t stand the fact that I advise them, especially my mother, against running errands alone. I also fear for my sisters. They all live in urban areas, but even in New York City, a diverse metropolitan area, dangerous racists abound, especially in confined spaces like subway cars. 

When I first heard about the Atlanta spa shootings, a familiar pang of dread and fear gripped me. Perhaps most Americans didn’t realize the potentially deadly stakes of anti-Asian sentiment and violence, but I understood long before March 16 that the way I look could cost me my life. (How? Please take some time to learn about Vincent Chin.) 

A dear, wise friend and mentor called me recently to express concern. After she heard my initial reaction, she laughed because, as a Black woman, she received similar calls and texts after the death of George Floyd and the early Black Lives Matter protests last year. Here she was, she noted, making the same call to me that others made to her! But, she said, she gave all those people who called her some grace.  

I’ve thought a lot about that. Her words have provided me with some peace and calm. Grace. That’s what I need to find and what I hope to share.  

So what can you do if you want to help me and others? First, educate yourself and examine your life. Learn about the mistreatment of Asians and Asian Americans in U.S. history — it runs deep. Also, take a good look at your circle of friends and what you read. Do you have a good way to tap people and ideas that differ from how you identify and what you feel comfortable with? Have you examined stereotypes you hold about people of other races?  

Then, be an ally and speak out! Not just for Asians who are hurting, but for other groups in pain. This is not a contest about which racial group has it worst. We all should be fighting for a world full of grace. Donate to causes, if you have the means. Or read about organizations that are helping to stop the hate. There are many articles you can find through a simple search for “how to help Asians.” Take bystander intervention training and learn about strategies that can help guide decisions about when and how to help people you witness being harassed.  

Do something meaningful. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, there’s probably a reason.

Eun Kyung Kim is CQ Roll Call’s demographics and immigration policy editor.

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