Q: Since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic began, we have seen, and continue to see, anti-Asian racism and violence across the country. What do you think are the unlearned lessons of Asian American history in the US that violence against Asians and Asian Americans persist?
Kathy and Julia: Two deep-rooted historical stereotypes are key to understanding today’s violence against Asians and Asian Americans: the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype and the Yellow Peril stereotype. These stereotypes represent two distinct ideas about Asians, but they reinforce and are inseparable from each other. Since the time of Chinese Exclusion in the 1800s, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans generally have been seen as outsiders, regardless of where they were born or what languages they may speak. This exclusion from American national identity, reinforced in law and in popular perception, gives rise to the related stereotype of the “Yellow Peril,” where Asians are seen as a foreign threat and invading force. For example, justifications for Chinese Exclusion and later other exclusionary laws against other Asian immigrants play upon the fear of an “Asiatic invasion.”
These stereotypes have played out to devastating and fatal effects throughout history. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, public officials’ presumptions of Chinese immorality and lack of hygiene led to scapegoating of the Chinese during a series of disease outbreaks in San Francisco. The Chinese were blamed as the source of contagion without evidence and faced involuntary confinement and fumigation of their supposedly dirty homes. Hospitals also refused to treat Chinese patients.. During World War II, Japanese Americans were accused of treachery and sabotage, again without evidence, and corralled into incarceration camps without trial or any other kind of due process. More recently, Vincent Chin was murdered in the 1980s as a symbol of Japanese competition with the United States, and Muslim Americans were terrorized and killed following 9/11.
We’re already seeing the harmful effects of these stereotypes on Asian Americans during COVID. A recent report done showed that of 1,000 Asian American youths interviewed, 25% of them have experienced racialized bullying connected to COVID. We have seen many instances of violence, including some horrific acts of cruelty, levied against Asian Americans. Rhetoric about the “Chinese virus,” coupled with repeated refrains of “go back to X country” and even conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, play on existing powerful narratives about Asian communities.
It all boils down to race and belonging. Who is American, and who is not? Those who are not have been repeatedly scapegoated and targeted. Unfortunately, in times of crises, many people still fall back on these old stereotypes and place blame on Asians and Asian Americans, who have to deal with both virulent racism and a pandemic.
Q: We have seen an increased interest from educators to learn about and practice anti-racist and trauma-informed frameworks in education spaces. What do you hope educators will gain from doing this restorative dialogue activity with students, and what do you hope educators will continue to practice once the activity ends?
Sarah: Broadly, we hope that this activity will provide a foundation for future social justice conversations and action. By doing the exercise, educators may be able to gain deeper insight into how their students are thinking about and experiencing these issues, which can inform future classroom choices. It’s also a chance for educators to make clear that anti-Asian racism is not acceptable, in a way that encourages students to consider what their roles are in these issues.
After the activity, we hope that educators will continue to think about how to thoughtfully “let go” in conversations and shift power to students, even when it is uncomfortable or scary. Ideally, educators can use this as a jumping-off point to continue tackling difficult topics in order to create safer spaces for students, and begin to normalize student discussions about power in and out of the classroom. In addition, we hope that educators continue to underscore to students that we all have the ability to act in socially just ways every day.
Click here to download the Immigrant History Initiative’s Restorative Justice Dialogue resource.