The University of Michigan’s department of Women’s and Gender Studies hosted the event “Contextualizing Violence Against Asians and Asian Americans Within the History of U.S. Relational Racism” on Friday, co-sponsored by the LSA Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Over 460 people attended the Zoom webinar,which focused on recent anti-Asian and anti-Asian American violence.
The panelists engaged in the ongoing national conversation of how to combat the prejudice that motivates such acts of hate and aggression. The event necessarily addressed this violence in the context of relational race dynamics in United States history.
Moderated by Yi-Li Wu, University of Michigan associate professor of women’s and gender studies and history, the speaker panel included Anne Cheng, professor of english at Princeton University; Dylan Rodríguez, professor of media & cultural Studies at UC – Riverside and current American Studies Association president; Frances Wang, intermittent lecturer of American culture at the University of Michigan, journalist, activist, poet and artist; and Madeline Hsu, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Wu began by emphasizing the long historical record of racism toward Asians and Asian Americans by private citizens and the U.S. government alike that is so deeply ingrained in American culture and politics. This anti-Asian sentiment, she said, is simply heightened during times of stress, as observed by history and by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Wu noted how recognition of this prejudice and discrimination is severely underwhelmed by stereotypes like the model minority myth and the fetishization of Asian women. She thus defined the three-fold intent of the discussion: to recognize the interconnectedness of racist attitudes and bigotry, to analyze the complexity of anti-Asian racism specifically and to realize the importance of collective allyship between different ethnic groups.
Upon briefly introducing each of the distinguished panelists, Wu asked them to convey their opening remarks before moderating a more guided discussion that led into an audience Q&A session.
Hsu began by establishing her academic approach to instances of targeted violence from the context of migration studies. She described the unresolved conflict as one between migrating peoples who are driven by a range of aspirational motivations and the sovereignty of nation-states that is often imposed over the territoriality of borders. This sovereignty, she said, has been historically claimed by the United States by way of immigration laws.
“It’s very important to realize that Asians have been barred by immigration policies,” she stated.
According to Hsu, this kind of racialization of Asian Americans as foreigners manifested itself in targeted violence to physically expel this group. This is observed, she explained, by the anti-Asian sentiments of policies like the 1790 Nationality Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and reflected in instances like the Rocks Springs Massacre and the violent hostility of Tacoma and Seattle respectively. The Nationality Act was the first law to define who was eligible for citizenship in the United States, ultimately limiting the rights of Asian Americans as non-citizens, while the Exclusion Act directly restricted immigration from China and then led to further legislation against immigration from all Asian countries. Both these policies inflated anti-Asian sentiments among the working-class, leading to violent union riots in Rocksprings, Wyo., and outward animosity toward migrant workers in Washington.
Chung started by reflecting on her earliest disruptive experiences with the intense yet empty stares she’d received from grown white men in the United States and abroad, who had a different, more sexualized perception of her in their peculiar imagination.
“I will remember that look … that made me wish I was thousands of miles away,” she contemplated.
While her 14-year-old self was rightfully scared of the grown men’s unwelcoming gaze, Cheng explained that she is no longer surprised by such discomforting encounters with racism and misogyny.
By her own further scholarly disruption, she recounted the history of the Page Act of 1875 which, in its own words, prohibited the “importation” of Asian women for prostitution. In practice, it allowed California officials to determine which women could enter the country, institutionalizing the apparent sentiment that “Chinese women equal prostitutes,” Cheng said.
Cheng went on to explain how U.S. foreign policy and the presence of American soldiers abroad in the 20th century furthered these attitudes, as Asian women were relegated to the roles of the war bride and the sex worker.
She ended with a warning to the audience members saying, “We have to continue to be vigilant because history does repeat itself. All we have to do is look at World War II to know that U.S. foreign policy … profoundly influenced domestic policy and cultural attitudes.”
Successively, Rodríguez urgently encouraged attendees to challenge mainstream analysis of the recent Atlanta spa shooting as a single, isolated event.
“We cannot separate January 6 from March 26 from (May) 25, 2020,” he said, indicating an imperative link between the attempted Capitol insurrection, the current violence of anti-Asian racism and the day George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police. This linkage, Rodríguez claimed, stems from “a persistent and perpetual U.S. white nationalism that is militarized, generally normalized and is always violent.”
He thus encouraged an analysis of the totality of state power, viewing state violence against different ethnic groups “in complex relation (wherein) we can no longer reduce fields of violence to temporary solidarity… and periodic coalition.”
Lastly, Wang discussed the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, about which she is currently working on a book and digital arts archive. She set the scene by explaining the 1982 recession in Detroit due to an influx of Japanese cars which led to widespread of anti-Japanese sentiment. In June of the same year, 27-year-old Chin had a bachelor party before his upcoming wedding, and he got into a fight with two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Micheal Nitz. Nitz had recently lost his job at Chrysler, and he blamed Chin, simply because Chin was Asian. The two hunted Chin down and beat him with a baseball bat until he was unconscious.
“Instead of coming to his wedding, all of his guests came to his funeral,” Wang said soberly.
This instance, she continued, struck a broad realization among all Asian Americans — from the immigrant generation to restaurant workers to engineers and doctors — that perhaps their safety is nonexistent in the so-called Land of the Free. The Vincent Chin case catalyzed a sort of unification across Americans from all corners of Asia as well as with the Black Liberation Front, though Wang said this isn’t the only instance of multiracial solidarity. She concluded by emphasizing the power of multi-ethnic coalitions and the importance of coming together.
As Wu transitioned into questions for the panelists, she began by asking how to confront the harmful rhetoric used by many to deflect Asian American victims of prejudice, including statements like: “If you don’t want people to hate you, then the country from which your ancestors came should stop doing things to make the United States angry,” in reference to China’s economic success.
Hsu answered this by describing the fragile balance of economic, and thus political, power in the world that is constantly shifting. The U.S. is unable to cope with a global shift in economic power, she explained, and this stubborn nationalism manifests itself into cruel domestic impacts, directly affecting Asians and Asian Americans.
“What is lost when we talk about these (as) individual incidences of hate … what might we do to displace that framing?” Wu asked next. She explained that “there seems to be a binary in popular imagination that either something rises to a certain threshold of the racist incident or it doesn’t.” In other words, a catalyzing event must lead to a racist incident, or there is no racist incident.
Rodríguez condemned the framing of this binary, saying it interferes with a more complex analysis of racial violence. In his critique, he revealed deeper influences of the recent violence in Atlanta.
“(The shooter) is a product of history,” Rodríguez said. “He is the product of the state.”
Hsu followed up on Rodríguez’s point by explaining how requirement for proof of a perpetrator’s intent adds to the difficulty of their conviction, though the racial terrorism of their act is quite clear. According to Hsu, the Atlanta shooter may not have been consciously aware of his deep seated racism and misogyny.
Like in the case of this perpetrator, the problem with our law and institutions, she explained, lies in the very subliminal nature of its bigotry.
Cheng chimed in saying that the interlinked misogyny and racism of this act demonstrates how “these women died at the hands of a much larger historical paradigm around sexism, misogyny and racism.” It appears that layered bigotry, intertwined with history and plagued by institution, is first and foremost guilty in every instance of violence.
Wang spoke to the media’s role in perpetuating this binary as a result of the short attention span of the news cycle, and encouraged a more deliberate analysis of issues related to complex race relations. She emphasized how many media outlets must terminate their “knee-jerk reaction” of sensational headlines and quick demands for reform to incidents like the upsurge of attacks on Asian elders amid Lunar New Year in multi-racial communities like Oakland, Calif. For activists in Oakland, Wang explained, the solution of greater policing would harm the diverse community.
“(Oakland activists) said this is an inter-racial community … we are really fighting the (similar) problems of … (taking care) of basic needs for everybody,” Wang said.
Wu concluded the event by saying, “If you care about advancing social justice and racial equity, the first thing is to educate yourself … and pay attention.”
Cheng agreed with her, emphasizing the importance of understanding the entire “iceberg” of racial violence, referring to its greater historical context, rather than just the tip glorified by dissipating headlines in reactionary news cycles.
Hsu pointed out that part of that iceberg may be one’s own unintended ignorance, and thus encouraged active listening and unlearning.
The impactful dialogue of the panelists left me with an abundance of knowledge and much more to inquire about within the structures of my own collegiate institution and beyond. Their compelling perspectives and experiences sparked a sense of urgency in me that must endure inexorably in the fight for racial justice for our Asian American community and for all. I left the event with Rodríguez’s encouraging words ringing in my ear.
“This is one of those particular moments in time to (get involved) … We are on historical record.”
MiC Columnist Easheta Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.