As an Asian-American, I’m Tired of Being Racially Gaslit By My Peers
"Just as you ask us to hold our people accountable, we ask you to do the same."
Recently, I saw a post about anti-Asian hate crimes in which a commenter questioned if there was “a single oppressive American system that targeted East Asian Americans.” This Black commenter claimed that they would “rather be stereotyped for being good at math, than for liking watermelon and stealing,” and to remember that “when we address Black issues, they trickle up to the rest.” I think I have respectable self-restraint, but the crooked lilt of Vicha Ratanapakdee’s smile (who recently died after being the victim of a hate crime) reminded me too much of the subtle curve of my immigrant father’s smile and I couldn’t stop thinking about the two-year-old and six-year-old Burmese-Americans in Texas who were stabbed a Sam’s Club for looking Chinese, so I’m feeling a little raw.
In the comments of the post, I asked the commenter how trickle-up reform tackles how Asian-Americans are rebuffed for speaking about our experience. However, two more users proceeded to rebuff my comment; attacked me for the rampant anti-Blackness that occurs in the older Asian generations; informed me that Asians are “idle in the black struggle;” and decreed that I am of a lowly, ignorant, and performative character. All in all, it was an excellent example of racial gaslighting.
Technically speaking, gaslighting is a tactic that manipulates someone into second-guessing their reality and sanity.
In the case of racial gaslighting, victims are made to doubt the veracity and validity of their racist experiences. As an Asian-American woman, I’ve experienced quite a bit of this: I’m told not to complain when I experience microaggressions and outright racial harassment because “I could have it worse.” After all, Asian-Americans are seen as a minority group that doesn’t experience racism. But it’s not that we don’t experience racism; the racism we face takes a different form—and there’s nothing Asian-Americans have been better at doing than swallowing down our frustrations and downplaying our experience, for the sake of harmony and pleasantness. After all, we’ve had to do it from both sides of America’s race debate: white America and BIPOC America.
In Cathy Hong’s book, Minor Feelings, she writes that educating white people about race requires all your powers of persuasion because it’s not really about race. Rather, it’s a metaphysical debate on whether or not you actually exist, you actually feel pain, or why your reality could be different from theirs. And it’s even harder to prove you exist because the other person has all of Western history, politics, and culture on their side as proof that you don’t actually exist. Asian-American history and literature are nonexistent in American classrooms unless to talk about how white people acted as white saviors to colonized Asians. We’re ignored, until white Americans need to wield the good old Model Minority to keep BIPOC communities down by dangling the perception of our success in front of them, like a carrot.
At the same time, we’re alienated from BIPOC communities because of our proximity to white privilege.
Some of us face constant suspicions of being terrorists. Some of us endure generational trauma that comes with being immigrant refugees, fleeing from countries that the U.S. razed and then abandoned. Some of us have been dismissed for centuries by the U.S. system as “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history as shown,” until the U.S. decided to rebrand themselves in the 1960s (after all, where does Jim Crow get off on judging communism?). And while populations of us that enjoy higher incomes, which leads to better educational resources and we’re stereotyped as being capitalist America’s greatest success story, we also have the highest income disparity of all other minority groups. In the garment industry and service industry, we’re subject to third-world working conditions and subminimum wages.
And even though things are currently changing, we’ve been pretty nonexistent in politics, entertainment, and media. America is the land of freedom—freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness. But when we speak on our experiences of racism, America tells us about ourselves: You’re no better than white people. You had this coming. You don’t know what it’s like to experience racism.
An 89-year-old Asian grandmother certainly did experience racism when she was on fire on the street last year. An Asian-American woman also experienced racism when she was followed and told “no one’s going to pay attention to you, ‘cause you’re dumb, and you’re a stupid blue Asian-haired girl.'” And since the emergence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there has been a vacuous whisper of coverage and media attention to rising anti-Asian hate crimes, which only perpetuates the narrative of the Asian-American experience being unimportant and ignorable. And I am so sick of it. I am so sick of seeing our stories ignored over and over again, like we don’t matter, like we can just be dismissed.
So, if you’re sick of being racially gaslit or you’re struggling to identify when you’re being gaslit, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Racial gaslighting comments:
This is not the time to be talking about Asian-Americans…
This statement implies that there is an appropriate time to be talking about the Asian-American experience, which is not now. It also expects Asian-Americans to stay quiet and downplay their experience. This begs the questions: When will it be our time? How long should we wait for our turn to speak, as elders are killed and toddlers are attacked? The answer is: There is no time more appropriate to be addressing racism than in the moment it happens.
Well, Asians are racist, too!
This argument implies that mistreating Asians in general is defensible because there are some Asian individuals who are racist. But anyone can be racist, and it’s not fair to hold a single person accountable for an entire race. Asians are not monolithic.
It’s just a joke, it’s not that deep…
This statement asserts authority on the interpretation of a single reality being the only reality. But all people experience their truth differently, and no one has the right to diminish and dismiss your experience of it.
Are you saying that Asians have had it worse than Black/Latinx communities?
In this case, a strawman fallacy is being used to distort the experience of Asian-Americans to attack this inaccurate distortion. No one is saying that Asians have had it worse than Black/Latinx communities, we’re saying that we’re experiencing racism, too, and we should all be given the space and support to speak about it. It also employs the Oppression Olympics, likening marginalization as a competition to determine the relative weight of the overall oppression of individuals or groups, often by comparing race, gender, and socioeconomic status, in order to determine who is the most oppressed. The Oppression Olympics pits minorities against each other, instead of supporting each other in times of oppression.
But China does ____!
To imply that Asian-Americans are to be held accountable for whatever the People’s Republic of China does is a gross overgeneralization. Not all Asian-Americans are Chinese. And more to the point, Asian-Americans cannot be held accountable for the actions of a country that we are not citizens of. We’re Asian-Americans.
Maybe you’ve said something along these lines to someone. It’s understandable, since we’re all going to be learning about this stuff forever as our social culture continues to evolve. But below are some ways on how you can support the Asian-American community.
How to be an ally:
1. Stop playing the Oppression Olympics.
Pissing contests of racial pain are unproductive and further set minorities against each other. Ultimately, this leads to people defining themselves through an essentialist lens, and then encourages agreeing with the most marginalized person in the room. Stop comparing pain. Acknowledging the pain of the Asian-American experience does not mean that you have experienced less pain.
2. Be willing to listen.
These are complex conversations that might be happening for the first time. It’s understandable that the discussions will be uncomfortable. Keep an open mind and listen—don’t just hear the words we use. Listen to our stories, our pain, our confusion; engage with us with empathy and attention, so we know we aren’t alone and that we know our stories are important, too. Just as we’re instructed to hear what other racial experiences are like to be the best allies we can be, we need our stories to be heard and empathized with.
3. Accept feedback.
I know, it’s not easy to “be wrong,” but it’s not about being wrong—it’s just about learning and adjusting and tailoring your mental model of how best to approach being the best ally you can be for Asian-Americans. When you receive feedback, listen to them, and thank them for their feedback. If you understand why someone is offended or uncomfortable, validate their experience, say that you’re sorry, and do better. If you don’t understand why someone is offended or uncomfortable, validate their experience, share your intention, and then ask to better understand or for clarification.
4. Amplify our stories.
Now, more than ever, anti-Asian hate crimes need coverage. When mainstream media ignores our stories, Asian-American voices go unheard; this sends the message that when members of the Asian-American community are harassed, attacked, or killed, our grief and fears are ignorable and can be quietly swept under the rug. Vicha Ratanapakdee was killed on February 4th, and it took intense pressure and almost a week for mainstream media to cover his death. Using social media to amplify our voices and share our stories lets us know who cares about us and that we aren’t alone.
5. Hold your communities accountable.
Just as you ask us to hold our people accountable, we ask you to do the same. You don’t need to take on the punishment or answer for their crimes, but when you see a member of your community spreading anti-Asian sentiment, call them out on it. Anti-Asian sentiment has been prevalent since our history. Even as a child, my white classmates hurled racial microaggressions at me, such as “All Asians look the same.” “Go back to China.” “Speak English in America.” By allowing Asian-Americans to internalize these racial experiences instead of directly addressing them, the cycle of perpetuating the Asian-American experience of racism starts all over again.
I’m so tired. I’m so, so tired. I don’t want to be afraid of a stranger taking a knife to cut my face open when I go outside. I don’t want for my sister to go out and be called the “kung-flu.” I don’t want my immigrant parents to be shoved in front of an oncoming train. I don’t want Asian elders to be the victims of sadistic hate crimes. I don’t want Asian children to see these things happening in their community, to their people, and for them to stare at the news and wonder why no one cares when people hurt us. I want people to listen to us and to tell us that our stories matter. That the shape and color of pain may be different, but the taste is the same. We will stand by you, because we know that taste—so please, stand by us.