On Tuesday alone, two elderly Asian women were attacked in incidents in the New York subway system: A 68-year-old woman was punched in the back of the head while waiting on a platform, and a 71-year-old said she was punched on the left side of her face by a fellow rider on the train.
On the same day, a 52-year-old Asian American woman was attacked in Queens. The injured woman’s son posted security camera footage of his mother being hit, then flung onto the sidewalk, resulting in a gash on her forehead requiring multiple stitches.
On Jan. 28, an 84-year-old Thai man, Vicha Ratanapakdee, was shoved while walking in his San Francisco neighborhood and died within days. Less than a week later, on Feb. 3, 61-year-old Noel Quintana was slashed across his face from ear to ear on his way to work on the subway, also in New York.
The attack on Ratanapakdee was caught on video, bringing attention to these attacks on Asian Americans, particularly the elderly.
These are just the most recent examples of overt violence against Asian Americans that have been reported since the coronavirus took hold in the United States. Asian Americans have increasingly been targeted since the start of the pandemic. Former president Donald Trump inaccurately called the coronavirus the “China virus,” blaming the country for the pandemic. The first known coronavirus outbreak was in Wuhan, China, but scientists are still trying to discover the virus’s origin.
Already on edge because of the pandemic, isolation and economic uncertainty, Asian Americans have also been juggling fears of discrimination and violence for themselves and their families for more than a year. There are the attacks that have gotten less attention, too — the slurs, the robbing and vandalizing of Asian restaurants and small businesses, along with the hurled accusations of blame for both the disease and the widespread stay-at-home orders.
“Within our own community, we’ve been talking about rising anti-Asian sentiment and the verbal and physical attacks happening around the U.S. for a while. But for anyone who wasn’t following Asian American news, it was hard to find coverage,” said Michelle Lee, editor in chief of Allure magazine.
Lee, who has a considerable social media following, has been drawing attention to the harassment.
“There’s been a long history of racism toward Asian Americans — this certainly didn’t start during the pandemic. But the recent anti-Asian rhetoric opened the door to more people acting on their racism. It was upsetting to many of us that it was so difficult to get others outside of our own circles to care,” she said. “We’re the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. — we’re your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers — yet we still feel invisible at times.”
For many, the escalation in verbal and physical attacks is reminiscent of the way Muslims, Arab Americans and South Asian Americans, or anyone who was identified as such — correctly or not — were treated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Convenience stores and businesses were attacked,” said Jafreen M. Uddin, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “Our community of elderly people and people just trying to live their lives are attacked in public because of how they look and what they might believe.”
The premise of Asians as the “model minority” also clouds — and compounds — how threats to the community are treated, she says.
The stereotype that Asians are successful academically and professionally is misleading and harmful, Lee says.
“Because of the model-minority myth, our issues are often not taken seriously. … Everyone can do their part to end the model-minority myth. The only purpose it serves is to divide us,” she said, adding that Asian Americans had the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group in New York City.
Tina Craig, the founder of fashion blog Bag Snob, also says dismantling the model-minority myth is important.
“The Asian American experience is intricate. Feeling at once invisible yet misrepresented and benefiting from our proximity to Whiteness is complex,” she said.
Unlike the virus, the racism Asian Americans are facing shows little sign of relenting.
From March to December, more than 2,800 incidents of verbal harassment, workplace discrimination, shunning, bullying of children and hate crimes were reported to Stop AAPI Hate. The group was formed on March 19 to document the uptick in violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander community.
In August, the New York Police Department created an Asian hate crime task force in response to the surge in crimes against people of Asian descent.
Despite how graphic these recent attacks have been, they’re hardly unique or new, leaders and activists say. One of the more insidious facets of anti-Asian racism is that it travels seemingly undetected.
In posts on Twitter, author Min Jin Lee said perceptions around Asian Americans add to the idea that they should remain silent when something happens to them.
Some of the women speaking out and working to end the hate-based behavior have suggested awareness, education and being thoughtful about the needs of not just Asians, but all marginalized communities.
“Words matter,” Uddin says. As the director of a literary and social change organization, she advocates for platforms for storytellers from diverse backgrounds. In everyday life, she says raising awareness about the racism being experienced is a key step. “That’s a powerful, active solidarity.”
Over the summer, there were several social media campaigns that critics panned for being merely performative. Uddin encouraged people not to be afraid of posting on social media.
“The burden of stopping something like this, it's not on one person, and one person shouldn't feel that way. But I think sharing and spreading awareness about what's happening, everybody can do that. It's an easy way to make a difference,” Uddin said.
Michelle Lee, the Allure editor, agreed but said posts themselves aren’t enough.
“It draws attention to our stories. But posting on social media is performative if there’s no other action or intent behind it, and when individuals or entities don’t walk the walk. We all saw plenty of people and companies this summer who felt like simply posting a black square would absolve them. And of course it doesn’t. If that’s the full extent of your anti-racism actions, that’s not going to cut it.”
The Asian American Feminist Collective, an advocacy organization, encourages people to connect locally via mutual aid groups, including groups like Compassion in Oakland and 46 Mott in New York City, which are organizing volunteer escorts or offering services for those who are unhoused or need food.