In March 2020, soon after Bay Area governments ordered pandemic-related lockdowns, a non-Asian woman gave up her spot in line outside the Millbrae Trader Joe’s to cough at then-Millbrae Councilman Wayne Lee, as he walked past. Three months later, an unknown person(s) threw a brick through a window at the home of San Mateo Councilwoman Amourence Lee. Wayne and Amourence are unrelated. In December, the rock that came through the home window of Foster City Vice Mayor Richa Awasthi just missed her husband’s head. Though investigations are continuing and no hate crime has been determined, how many rocks HAVE to be thrown through windows of Asian women before it becomes a misogynistic hate crime?
San Francisco authorities have charged a 19-year-old Daly City man in connection with the January 2021 fatal assault of 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee as the Thai grandfather walked near his home. On March 16, a non-Asian gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, including six Asian women. How many Asian women HAVE to be murdered before it becomes a misogynistic hate crime?
These are neither isolated attacks; nor random. In between, before and after the five described above, there are multiple thousands of incidents nationally: coughing, spitting, punching, slapping, public rants of “Go Back to China!” Asian seniors and women are afraid to step outside. Asian parents are keeping their children home from school. Asian Americans are quietly wondering, “Is this America 2021?” Meanwhile, their friends and family in Asia are cautioning, “This is America 2021!” Looking at the lights and glass of the Shops of Tanforan, it’s easy to forget the images from Manzanar, Tule Lake and Topaz, Utah.
It’s also easy to brush off anti-Asian violence as a New York or San Francisco or Oakland “thing” or somewhere else … not San Mateo County. The Peninsula is not like that; that’s not who we are. But poll officials in any community in any state and the response is identical: Racism is not tolerated in
Most Americans know that blackface, under any circumstances, is unacceptable. Most Americans also know not to stick on a big mustache and don a poncho and large, round hat to celebrate on May 5. Tomahawk chops, feathered-headdress Halloween costumes, the Washington Redskins, Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo — the misappropriation of Native American cultures is finally being seriously addressed.
Yet, anti-Asian tropes continue unabated.
In June 2020, the artist known as Cardi B allegedly used the word “Chinky” to describe almond-shaped eyes. During a February 2021 online class, Grant Union High School (Sacramento) teacher Nicole Burkett was recorded using her fingers to pull at the corners of her eyes.
“If their eyes went up, they’re Chinese,” Burkett allegedly said in the video. “If they’re down, they’re Japanese. If they’re just straight, you don’t know.”
Then there’s Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuckt, who allegedly used Asian stereotypes repeatedly and once described someone’s hairstyle as “something out of a kung-fu movie.”
These were a Hollywood celebrity, a California state-certified educator and a senior law-enforcement officer in a community where the Asian-Pacific Islander demographic exceeds 45% (2000 US Census)! These were three supposed role models, who got caught doing and saying what they allegedly did or said. How many others have not been called out?
Racism is learned. And the unlearning of anti-Asian racism is long overdue in this country, this state, in this county and city. The unlearning starts with spotlighting the problem, so it can be discussed and addressed, especially with children and youth. This is also an exercise in serious introspection for everyone, Asians and non-Asians alike. Who are we? What are we? What kind of image are we presenting to our children and grandchildren?
The San Mateo County Asian Pacific Islanders Caucus is working with elected officials, law enforcement and community leaders to create a grassroots dialogue to protect all communities of color. The caucus believes the Peninsula — at its core — is NOT that kind of place. However, genuine change can only originate from the hearts and minds and active voice of the people.
Words matter and leadership matters. The anti-Asian violence and the perceived tacit acceptance of such violence must end before the name “Atlanta” is replaced with one or more of the Peninsula’s 21 jurisdictions.
As Martin Luther King Jr., declared in 1967: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Bill Chiang, Juslyn Manalo and Wayne J. Lee are on the Board of Directors of the San Mateo County Asian Pacific Islanders Caucus. Lee is president. The caucus is a group of elected officials and community leaders working for equality and cultural awareness. Visit www.smcapi.org for more information.