Amidst the daily deluge of news articles about COVID-19 and the endless stream of first-person footage of racist scapegoating that populates my Instagram feed, what cuts through the clutter is silence.
This silence pervades my being. It has come to act as a barrier between my friendships. It has been the source of my rage directed at reporters and the news media for their piecemeal coverage of the harassment and violent attacks directed at individuals and families of East Asian descent. Over and over, I read brief accounts of violence and victimization. The scarcity of any thoughtful, intersectional analysis produced in response to the hate bewilders me. Where are the Op-Eds written by notable Asian American historians, philosophers and intellectuals that could offer new and timely insights? At this point, I’d even take a pithy PSA from a celebrity as a token of solidarity. I feel both angered and wearied by this silence.
In a six day period, 673 cases of COVID-19 related discrimination were reported on CAA/ A3PCON’s “Stop AAPI Hate” website. Notably, the highest percentage of attacks took place in “progressive” states like New York and California. Likewise, incidents of racist assaults, including two stabbings, have been documented by authorities in multicultural Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto. These are, of course, only the cases that have been reported. Imagine the incidents of racial harassment that are taking place around the world every minute and every day, undeclared and unpublished.
One the facts that the media does not like to address is that these offenses directed at East Asian people are often being perpetuated by other people of color. While white people may hold the keys to legislative power and wealth in North America and Europe, it’s the lack of solidarity amongst people of color – and their complicity with white supremacy—that keeps systemic racial injustice in place. With the perceived class privileges afforded to East Asians, we are rendered easy targets. Two years ago, after being swarmed by a group of African American teenage boys in New Orleans while in my car—and two days later, learning that the same event happened to the wife of a pastor who was then dragged out of her vehicle and killed—my Uber driver, an Iraqi émigré, advised: “People like you and I don’t exist here.”
Indeed, this invisibility is a paradox. It’s a kind of double negative which characterizes not only East Asians “in the West”, but also other communities of color operating at the nexus of immigration, labor issues and income inequality. Conversations about race in the United States are defined largely by the palpable legacy of African American slavery. Yet rarely are the struggles of other disenfranchised groups imbricated with this significant history and, in turn, connected to a broader system of racial oppression and the ongoing legacy of settler colonialism. Cultural appropriation plays an insidious role here, too. So often will people enjoy the food and cheap labor that Asian, Arab or Latinx communities provide, but rarely do matters of economic inequality, racial injustice or geopolitics that affect the cultures from which these culinary traditions arose become a concern for the liberal mainstream. While food can act as a powerful vehicle for dismantling boundaries, it can also reinforce colonial and imperialist mindsets when dislodged as commodities from their human—and thus political—contexts. Touting the pleasures of kimchi, harissa and Ottolenghi recipes does not shield you—regardless of your race—from complicity. Cultural consumption is the bedfellow of silence.
Silence is as much a survival tactic of assimilation for East Asians, as it is a means to betray our solidarity to other communities of color. Staying silent—and thus invisible—is a social cloak protecting one from the nakedness of one’s difference. I write as an East Asian woman guilty of this infraction. As a child of working class immigrants, I was told I should be grateful for the opportunity to attend schools populated by wealthy and middle-class white people. But being relegated an exception did not feel exceptional. Opening a magazine, I never saw an image of someone who looked like me. There was no one in the government who looked like me. I was hard pressed to identify any East Asian woman with a public voice.
Yet our silence renders us easy targets. It sends a message to those seeking to harm us: the consequences of your transgressions will be minimal at best. Police departments are reluctant to assign any infractions harming East Asian people as offenses motivated purposively—and not “randomly”—by hate. It signals to political parties and elected officials that they can conveniently infer blame onto you for their own colossal failure to provide responsible governance according to the values their nation claims to represent.
We are certainly not the first group to have experienced racist scapegoating. Indeed, history has demonstrated, time and again, that silence has never boded well for any marginalized group. It is the necessary ingredient for one to be rendered invisible. But let’s not confuse the dematerialization of our bodies and our voices—caused by a deep, internalized sense of hate and mistrust—with any belief that racist discrimination will, too, go away and be erased.
Silence is the enemy of solidarity. Silence is the friend of hate. It’s a lesson that was taught by the seminal poet Audre Lorde in 1977, and by generations even earlier, still: Your silence will not protect you.