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The Asian American experience has long been characterized by invisibility. Activists have attempted to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence for decades, to no avail, but the past few weeks have focused the nation’s attention on the growing prevalence of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Yet the public reaction to anti-Asian racism illustrates an issue at the heart of what it means to be Asian American: Asian Americans are incredibly diverse, but other people implicitly group us together as a homogenous category in their messages of support.
A few phrases seem to seep into every statement made. For instance, a message from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, titled “Standing Against Anti-Asian Racism,” stated, “We stand in solidarity with the members of the AAPI community here at Harvard and across the nation.” I truly appreciate this message’s sentiment, and there is nothing uniquely frustrating about this memo alone. However, I have read that people are standing “with the members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community” in many places without ever understanding what the phrase means. There is a constant, ongoing debate over whether one cohesive AAPI community exists. Though there have been numerous attempts to define AAPI identity, no clear consensus has emerged. There are few clear similarities between my experiences and those of the victims in the recent Atlanta shootings, or between my experiences and those of most other members of the so-called “AAPI community” at all for that matter.
I am part of the “AAPI community” to the extent that when other people look at those victims, they see some resemblance to me. But if I am honest, I do not feel much of a connection to these names in the news, and I am not sure that perceived physical similarities necessarily constitute a distinct and definable shared identity. Well-intentioned emails like Dean Gay’s are most impactful in how they remind me of the strangeness of being Asian American — of being perceived as one piece of a larger community that may or may not exist.
Besides the cultural differences between different Asian countries, there are also differences between those who immigrated at different times. There is no one Asian American experience. Indeed, activists invented the term “Asian American” in the 1960s to unite disparate ethnic groups into a more powerful political force. I would never presume to speak for all Asian Americans; I don’t think it’s possible to speak for such a diverse set of people.
This is why I take issue with much of the generously distributed advice and shows of sympathy concerning anti-Asian hate crimes. Some of my friends appreciate awareness-raising posts on social media and think that it would have been inappropriate if, for example, Harvard had not firmly denounced hate crimes against Asian Americans. I know that many non-Asians feel that they are in an impossible position, where not posting on social media could be construed as ignorance or indifference but making a statement could be seen as performative.
However, just as there is no singular definition of “AAPI community,” there is no one correct answer that will allow anyone to rid themselves of the stain of American racism. It is easy to say that Harvard stands “in solidarity with the members of the AAPI community,” but it is much harder to determine what that entails. It is easy to follow the advice of impersonal articles or posts about how people should reach out to Asian friends, but it is much harder to acknowledge that while some will appreciate the gesture, not all Asian Americans deal with tragedy in the same way.
Ultimately, I am tired of being seen only as a hollow representative of a larger racial group and being used as such in the reactions to these hate crimes. My main source of unity with other Asian Americans is that I am instantly recognizable as an outsider who will never quite belong in white America. This otherness, perceptible in a millisecond, leaves Asians vulnerable to acts of racism. After all, prejudice comes out of ignorance and a tendency to flatten real people into stereotypes without nuance.
Oftentimes there is no hate behind these actions. When people presume my last name is “Kim” or “Wang” based on my appearance, they don’t mean any harm. I am also sure no one means to offend when they implicitly treat Asian Americans as one uniform coalition in the wake of these attacks. However, the desire for simplicity and neat categorization which motivates both of these phenomena can contribute to the same cycle of ignorance. Both are reminders of my otherness and of the fact that in many ways my Asian identity is defined in opposition to whiteness; so long as I do not fit in, I am presumed to be like all of the others who don’t fit in either.
I would like to believe that some formula to end racism exists and that we could prevent all of these hateful acts if only we could all say the right things. Unfortunately, nothing about the current rise in crimes against Asian Americans is simple. There is no one correct way to react and implying that one exists reveals a deep misunderstanding of the problem. Addressing the “AAPI community” might make for a more concise social media post, but I hope that raising awareness for Asian Americans does not come at the expense of recognizing us, first and foremost, as people.
Alexandra D. Min ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House.
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