Anti-Asian Hate: Through the Lens of Past, Present, and Presentiment
Updated: Sep 2
Picture credits : Mint
The West, particularly the United States, has always been considered as a land of opportunities, mainly because of the economic opportunities, political autonomy, and religious freedom it appears to offer. It has also been regarded as a mixed bag of various cultures and ethnicities.
The popularization of the phrase 'American Dream' further reinforced the idea of America being a land of opportunities, where everyone has equal opportunity according to their abilities and achievements.
While America may boast of many great things, it's untold history of brutal racism, legal internment, exclusion and discriminatory behavior towards minorities is not one of them. An analysis of America's history shows that Anti-Asian sentiments have persisted in the country in the form of immigration quotas, exclusionary acts, hate speeches and more. Historically and up until recent times, mainstream media has often overlooked hate crimes against Asians because of which the issues concerning them have been largely ignored . The history of dehumanizing Asian-Americans is a long and gruesome one.
Asians empires were great powers in the past. India was regarded as a "Golden Bird'' once because of its flourishing industries of textiles and precious stones. India's share in world trade in 1500 was 24.6%, second only to China, which also is an Asian nation. In 1820 Asia accounted for two-thirds of the world's population and more than one half of global income. The ensuing decline of Asia was attributed to its integration with a world economy shaped by colonialism and driven by imperialism, which reduced Asia to the poorest continent in the world by the 1960s.
In the half century since then, Asia has witnessed a profound transformation in terms of the economic progress of its nation and living conditions of its people. By 2016, it accounted for 30% of world income, 40% of world's manufacturing, and one third of the manufacturing and over one third of world trade, while it's income per capita converged towards world average.
The Chinese Immigration
The inhumane treatment towards Chinese goes way back to the middle and late 19th century, when the Chinese first settled in the United States. Before the American Civil War, it's economy was fuelled by labour of enslaved Africans. But after slavery was banned, America was in desperate need for new sources of labour. By 1870,Chinese were an important part of the workforce of California.
The Chinese immigrated to the United States in the 1850s to escape the economic chaos in their home country and to try their luck at the California gold rush. When the gold rush ended, Chinese Americans were considered to be cheap labour. The Chinese often faced racial slurs from the white population and were labelled as "only slightly superior to African Americans". Asian Americans, particularly the Chinese Americans, were considered a threat to their nation by the whites of the United States. They were called as yellow peril : unclean and unfit for citizenship in America and were seen as an existential danger to the Americans.
The Chinese were treated with malice and paid less than their white counterparts. The Chinatowns served as temporary refuges for the people from their harsh lives. There were frequent instances of struggle between the white population of the city and the people in the Chinatowns. The natives accused the Chinese of taking up the jobs meant for them. Later in 1871, an angry mob of about 500 Americans tortured and hanged 19 Chinese residents, including a young 15 year old. This was the Chinese Massacre of 1871. This instance culminated into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,which was the first federal law to single out a particular group on the basis of their race or caste. This law banned the immigration of Chinese to the United States.
The Exclusion Act barred labourers but allowed Chinese students, teachers, travelers, merchants, and diplomats to apply for admission. In essence, Chinese immigrants became the first illegal and undocumented immigrants in US history.
The Chinese were not the only sufferers of American hate. Indophobia was a widespread reality in the USA. Indian immigration to the US started in the 19th century but the number increased significantly towards the mid 20th century. Indians in America who came looking for jobs were greeted with hostility and discrimination. They were discriminated against and were referred to as 'Hindu' even though most of them were Sikhs. Indians were blamed by white men for 'stealing' their jobs. This ultimately led to the Bellingham Riots of 1907. About 125 Indians fled the country the very next day, 6 were hospitalized and were in critical condition, and around 400 Indians were placed in protective custody.
India was regarded as the "Golden Bird" in the past, but imperial colonialism reduced it to a country afflicted with poverty, malnutrition, disease, cultural upheaval, economic exploration, and political disadvantages.
Japanese in America
Japanese Americans were also at the receiving end of American hate in the wake of the Pearl Harbour cataclysm. The then President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, issued an order, under which about 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps. Around 62 percent of these people were second or third generation Americans and had nothing to do with Japan.
Similarly, American officials in the Philippines, which in the early and middle 20th century was an American colony, calumniated the Filipinos for their supposedly unclean and uncivilized bodies. They justified the US colonial rule in the Philippines by pointing to the medical and political unruliness of the Filipinos. The United States has relaxed its strict immigration policies only in the last 50 years or so. The 1965 immigration law led to a huge influx of immigrants from Asia, as federal countries placed emphasis on skilled labour.
In popular imagination, Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough; disjointed from African Americans despite a shared experience of colourism, ignored by white men unless being used to keep the blacks subserviated. They are the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world, the maths crunching middle managers who keep the corporate wheel greased but who never get promoted since they don't have the right face for leadership.
Racism and Fetishization of Asian Women
From her girlhood, the Asian American woman grows up to be a fetish object for the white population. Afong Moy was the first recognized Chinese female immigrant to the United States in 1835. She was the first impression of an Asian woman for white Americans, and
Her existence was reduced to curiosity over the ‘exotic East’. In the 1800s, anti-Chinese racism painted Chinese people as nefarious. By the 1850s, it was widely believed that all Chinese women in the United States were prostitutes. Then came the Page Law of 1875 that technically aimed to ban immigration for prostitution, but effectively banned Chinese women in general. They were seen as culpable until proven otherwise, which was nearly impossible.
Racist sexual depictions of Asian women on screen are seen in mostly limited roles for actresses as submissive "China Dolls", prostitutes, " Geisha Girls", or the "Dragon Lady", whose sensuality is tied to her deadliness. For Asian women, racism and sexual objectification still go hand in hand. It is these very racist stereotypes that are fetishized, among the patriarchal white men who want to feel powerful. The racist view of Asian women tells them that she will never challenge his authority.
Asian Hate in Contemporary era
Ex- President Donald Trump in his speech last year referred to Coronavirus as the 'Chinese virus' and the 'kung flu'. Trump's provocative magniloquence around coronavirus and the belief that it emerged from China led to an upsurge in racist attitudes towards Asian Americans. Between March 2020 and March 2021, more than 6000 cases of crimes against the Asian community were reported, of which about 65% were reported by women. Hate crimes are also very cumbersome to prove. The victim needs to substantiate that the crime was done on racial basis.
The first notable instance of hate crime against Asians in the pandemic era came on January 28,2021, when an elderly Thai man was killed in San Francisco, California.. This instance led to the start of the Stop Asian Hate campaign which is the collective name given to several rallies that were organized against the Anti-Asian sentiments in the United States. The movement became more prominent after the infamous Atlanata shooting in which 8 people were killed, 6 of whom were Asians.
President Joe Biden in May 2021, signed a bill to stop Asian hate. The legislation aims to make reporting of such crimes easier at the local and the state level by amplifying public outreach and ensuring that reporting is available in multiple languages. This legislation may prove be an important step in ensuring that Asian Americans are able to live a life of pride and dignity in America.
A slow and steady effort is being placed on learning and understanding Asian American history and activism is increasing by the day. All Americans should understand and be aware of the challenging experiences and exhausting history that comes with identifying as an Asian American.
Uttkarsh is a 2nd Year student in BA Programme (History+Political Science) with an interest in history, mythology and Indian Politics. He is just trying his luck in anything and everything.