I call it Asian Target Anxiety Syndrome — ATAS for short. It’s real and it’s rampant. The worry that, as an Asian person, you will be targeted for verbal or other attacks, makes one rethink daily routines. Even watching what to say and how to act in public as not to draw attention. It’s a new reason to stay at home. And I admit to experiencing acute symptoms.
What has been a spate of reported attacks on Asian Americans in recent months, from incidents of verbal harassment to injury and murder, has emerged as a full-blown crisis. While the origins of such bigotry may be tied to seeking a scapegoat for the pandemic in a highly charged xenophobic hothouse nationwide, America is now at a precipice, just as we were a year ago when COVID-19 cases skyrocketed. The chatter alone is my sign that ATAS cases are exploding exponentially. This week’s horrific gunning down of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at spas in the Atlanta area send a collective chill of fear and helplessness down the spine of Asian American communities.
Groups like Stop AAPI Hate have vehemently denounced the violence, as have allies from several quarters. President Joe Biden, in his speech last week on the one-year anniversary of the shutdown, condemned hate and discrimination targeted at Asian Americans, wherein reported hate crimes had been rising before the Atlanta shootings. Rallying in and around the community through awareness and education is an appropriate response. But Asian Americans also need to focus on admitting openly that we are scared and suffering, and to seek urgent care for ourselves. Not as individuals relying on our own tactical wits to survive, or as monoethnic enclaves within our communities, but as a truly united Pan-Asian front. That means emotional support and deep caring for one another regardless of socioeconomic status or country of origin.
This may not come as easily as one might think. In a white-dominated society, Asian Americans have long had to live up to its model minority myth (stereotype) of achieving socioeconomic success fueled by “good at math” academic achievement. But that narrative also erases our diversity and our working-class communities. It’s not just blood, sweat, and tears that have driven us, but the false promise of assimilation as well — trying to blend in, as not to be the nail that gets hammered down. This double-edged sword translates into an alienating pressure to be nonconfrontational, hiding our emotions even when we are at the receiving end of prejudice or bias. And hate crimes remind us that we never truly “blend in.”
The activism of a younger generation speaking out gives me hope. Even after 30 years, I myself cannot shake off — and for the first time am publicly sharing the sting of — being called a “gook” as I walked through the Staten Island Terminal. I realize many others have faced much worse, but a microaggression is still just that, an aggression.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. There are over 20 million of us, comprised of over 20 distinct ancestries from across East, Southeast, and South Asia. We are oftentimes clustered into one monolithic entity, our diversity blunted. But we need to embrace that diversity, and reject the prejudices within our communities.
Having grown up across Asia, I witnessed firsthand the pejorative attitudes Asian peoples can have toward another, depending on where they come from, ethnic minority status within their country, and class. No one is immune. These stem from a long history of conflict and culture clashes that have travelled over the Pacific Ocean, or taken unique forms in the U.S. As a Filipino American, I have been guilty of expressing relief whenever an Asian who has committed a crime is identified as anyone but, so I don’t have to worry about more stereotypes attaching to Filipinos specifically.
But leaning into our internal divisions is not the path forward. A few weeks back, a colleague brought together Asian American marketing professionals from various sectors in an open forum to hear from one another. In this diverse group, some participants were in tears, overwhelmed by their own visibility among others who inherently understand the challenges they face. We need more such forums now and often.
This time, more than ever, calls for us all to set aside our differences and come together in open dialogue — to speak out against racist hate, and also to soothe our shared pain, to protect one another.
Jobert E. Abueva is a writer and resident of New Hope.