People Interact

Blog about people-centered design by Lisa Chow and Sandra Sajonas.

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Anti-Asian Racism is Nothing New

I gave a 5-minute talk as part of a SLA virtual roundtable on social justice yesterday. Below you’ll find a list of resources that both informed and inspired my talk as well as a transcript of my talk (edited for clarity and for inclusion of images and links).

I’m gonna start off with a story.

I went to the doctor in February and was given a mask at the front desk. At the end of my visit, my doctor said to me “You heard about what happened a few days ago, right? When you leave the office, please take off your mask so you don’t bring attention to yourself.”

My doctor was referring to the recent incident where a woman wearing a mask was attacked by a man at the Grand St subway station in Chinatown who called her “diseased”.

Even before COVID-19, many Asians would wear masks to protect themselves from things like the freezing cold weather in winter and pollen that seems to be everywhere in spring.

When the SARS epidemic hit East Asia in 2002/2003, it led to a massive adoption of face masks as personal anti-viral protection. Since then, masks have been widely used by many Asians as both a health/medical strategy and civic duty.

So when COVID-19 hit, there was no question. Definitely mask up.

In January, people here in the US were mailing masks to family and friends in East Asia. Shortly after, quickly switching gears as the virus was made its way to the US, family and friends in East Asia were mailing masks to people in the US.

At the same time, knowing and understanding the importance of masks, local Asian American business owners and non-profit groups donated thousands of masks to a few hospitals in Queens.

In the US, many people are still adapting to mask wearing. It has been about 10 weeks since Americans were advised to wear them. Prior to that, wearing a mask when healthy has become discouraged to the point of being socially unacceptable.

Prior to COVID-19, it was a social stigma to wear a mask and during this coronavirus pandemic, at the least at the start of it, it seemed like it was dangerous to wear a mask if you’re Asian.

It is understandable that masks are seen differently depending on your cultural backgrounds and habits, but it is critical that mask wearing behavior is understood and people shouldn’t be targeted because they’re wearing a mask.

Of course, unfortunately, we know that it’s not just simply wearing a mask that makes you a target.

In March, the FBI released a statement saying “Hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease…endangering Asian American communities”.

And it did.

There have been numerous reports of anti-Asian incidents. And those are just the ones that are reported. Family and friends have been sharing their experiences and stories as well.

Unfortunately Asian discrimination is nothing new.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was an immigration law passed in 1882 that prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first immigration law that excluded an entire group based on ethnicity. It also excluded Chinese immigrants from eligibility for US citizenship.

Uncle Sam kicks out the Chinaman” is an 1886 poster ad that refers to both the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and to the “George Dee Magic Washer,” which the machine’s manufacturers hoped would displace Chinese laundry operators. | Wiki Commons

Before Brown v. Board of Education, there was Tape v Hurley (1885), a landmark court case in the California Supreme Court in which the Court found the exclusion of a Chinese American student from public school based on their ancestry unlawful. When Joseph and Mary Tape tried to enroll their oldest daughter, Mamie at an all-white school in September 1884, Principal Hurley refused to admit her, referring to the existing school board policy against admitting Chinese children. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of their daughter against both Hurley and the San Francisco Board of Ed, and they won. However, local school board policy still kept Chinese children from attending the city’s white schools.

File:Tape family.jpg

Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank & Mary Tape circa 1884–85 | Wiki Commons

Citizenship right by birth in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) was a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court ruling. Wong Kim Ark, who was born in San Francisco in 1873, had been denied re-entry to the US after a trip abroad, under the Chinese Exclusion Act. He challenged the government’s refusal to recognize his citizenship, and the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, holding that the citizenship language in the Fourteenth Amendment covered the circumstances of his birth (born citizen) and could not be affected by an act of Congress.

An 1894 notarized statement by witnesses attesting to the identity of Wong Kim Ark. A photograph of Wong is affixed to the statement. Department of Justice. Immigration and Naturalization Service. San Francisco District Office. | Wiki Commons

During World War II, it was the policy of the U.S. government that Japanese Americans would be relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps. About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of who lived on the Pacific Coast, were scattered across the country.

Japanese Americans in front of poster with internment orders. | Wiki Commons

And now present day –

  • Coronavirus is being called the Chinese virus along with comments like “These people eat strange things.” Mad cow disease affected those that ate infected beef, yet no one calls it the British virus.
  • Wuhan had 76-days of very strict quarantine and when their reopening was announced in the news, an influential coworker made a remark “Oh great, we’re gonna have another wave.” Are we saying Wuhan should be locked down til the end of time?
  • Many Asians are getting verbally and physically assaulted and harassed during this pandemic. It’s stressful enough with COVID-19, now Asians have to worry about being targeted as well.

Nothing has really changed.

A good friend and I were talking about this stuff and she said she was protesting racism and discrimination in college and now 40 years later, she’s seeing and fighting the same issues.

So what can we do? A few takeaways –

  • Be more culturally aware, culturally competent, and culturally sensitive.
    This includes becoming more aware of your own culture and biases.
  • Advocate and push for more diverse collections and resources.
    There is a lack of diversity in our library collections. While working on making databases remotely accessible during this pandemic, we noticed that when searching the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Asian American” does not exist, even though the term is from the 1970’s so it is not a new term.
  • Learn your history, not just the textbook version.
    Renee Tajima-Peña, the lead producer of the 5-part PBS series Asian Americans (just aired last month) shares the importance of learning your racial history with a story from 6th grade. When she was giving a presentation to her class about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, her teacher called her a liar, questioned her account of her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, and said “Well, they fabricated the whole thing. This could never happen in America.” As a 6th grader, she was thinking “I was so mad. I just knew at that point that this history really matters because my teacher’s trying to shut me up about it.”
Asian Americans – CAAM Home

Asian Americans – PBS Series | Center for Asian American Media

And lastly, speaking of mad.

W. Kamau Bell, an American stand-up comic and television host, recently wrote a essay telling everyone he’s got enough room and energy to be mad at a lot of things and those things don’t conflict with each other. The point of the article was to counter the criticism that he got on social media for defending Asian Americans against coronavirus-related racism when there was so much racism against Blacks. He said: “Being against racism means being against racism. And it means being against racism when it isn’t convenient, or easy, or fun, or even when the person you are trying to help doesn’t consider you one of their people, or one of their allies, or doesn’t even see you at all.”

Racism is still racism even if racism against Asians isn’t making the front page.


Our masked future – Wearing a mask all the time affects how we interact with each other. But how?

Coronavirus and Racism in America, with W. Kamau Bell

PBS ‘Asian Americans’ Producer On Why Learning Racial History Matters More Than Ever 

Black lives matter. Thoughts and wishes from one small business.  

Me and Bruce Lee would like to have a word with you. Being against racism means being against racism. 

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