Anti-Asian Hate and Violence Cannot Be Ignored
By Sharyl Kato, Co-Chair, Wisconsin Organization for Asian Americans
The horrific atrocity of eight individuals murdered in Atlanta, last week, amplifies many triggers for me, on many different levels, personal,
professional, social and political. This tragedy and so many others, occurring over the past year, highlights the racism our country has
held for centuries, against Asian Americans. Feelings of fear and dread rise for me, now, from my childhood and throughout adulthood,
having observed and experienced harassment.
Many Americans are confused about how to view, or think about Asian Americans, that is, if they view them at all. There are many
commonalities in racism towards varying groups of color, but there are also differences. Racism towards Asian Americans has a
different “slant.. During the war, a fear of Asian Americans as threats to physical safety, as depicted in comic books, as the “sneaky,”
“mysterious,” “sadistic,” “yellow peril.” Asian Americans are viewed as financial threats, academic, or as business competitors.
Assumptions about Asian Americans as foreigners, or since our skin color is not dark enough, have higher income, or education, deem
us as not qualifying as a “legitimate” protected minority.
Atrocities have occurred throughout our recent history, with Chinese immigrants lynched in the 1800’s. There was a camp where Chinese
immigrants lived who laid railroad tracks right in Madison on West Washington Ave. One can imagine how many immigrants died during
those days due to accidents and lack of health care. Or an incident with a Hmong family murdered in Milwaukee because they spoke with
an accent. I recall, in Madison, a World War II veteran had a rifle on a tripod aimed at a Japanese couple living across the street from him.
At times I see racist violence as a parallel to behaviors of offenders of domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual assault, where power
and control, taking one’s own hate, pain, anger and emptiness, and externalized, towards others, towards more vulnerable and helpless
targets, such as the recent older individuals, women, or child victims. I also see the extremes of lack of human attachment, caring and
trust resulting in individuals, feeling like objects and if that occurs, then others are seen as objects by them, as well.
My mother’s family, living in California, with little notice, was ordered to leave their homes, leaving everything but what they could fit in a
suitcase, then transported by trains, to the Santa Anita horse stables to be “processed” by soldiers with rifles and bayonets, leaving
120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were legal Americans, to be sent to 10 incarceration camps, surrounded with barbed
wire and armed guard towers, tags with numbers on their backs and searched, including children, in remote areas of the country.
Ironically, my father and uncles served in the U.S. armed services, while this country, their country, incarcerated their families. After three
years, my family was released.
My grandparents had been separated from each other, as my grandfather was sent to another internment camp for community leaders.
They returned to their home in California to find their possessions, stored with neighbors, were gone. After three years, my parents and
aunts were released, with tickets to Chicago, where they were told jobs were available. My grandparents later joined them.
Post-war times, for my family, were especially difficult, financially and psychologically, as was so for extended family and Japanese
American friends. There were Japanese American churches and neighborhoods, in Chicago, that helped develop Japanese American
“settlement communities.” There were large apartment buildings occupied by predominantly Japanese American families. At five years
old, I experienced an enraged adult male screaming, yelling and swearing at me, my brother and mother in a grocery store, all about us
being “god damn Japs.” This was when I realized we were different and not fully belonging. It was especially painful, every Dec. 7, the
date of the Pearl Harbor attack with constant bullying and harassment walking home from school.
In college, harassment continued, from students as well as from faculty. Students slanting their eyes, or name calling, “Susie Wong,
Yoko Ono, chink bitch” and worse. Asian students were harassed during the Iran hostage or 911 attack crisis period; a faculty member at
UW-Madison told the class I was in that “the yellow race is taking over” as there were two other Asian students in the class plus me.
While a sub teacher in a middle school outside of Madison, I walked into the teacher’s lounge and a teacher shouted, “Don’t forget Pearl
Harbor.” I interviewed for a job at a high school outside of Madison and the principal of the school interviewing me stated he “heard that
Oriental women made good wives.” I recall the anger and dirty looks from those during the American auto industry crisis, with bumper
stickers reminding us to Buy American, Remember Pearl Harbor.
More recently, I am appalled by the attack on Asian Americans where the focus of the violence is directed toward the eyes of the victims. In
Midland, Texas, a father and his two young children were stabbed and their eyes slashed, or a grandmothers eyes punched. And why is
that so triggering for the assailants? I also find it ironic that a film, Minari, about a Korean American family, starring Korean Americans
and directed and produced in America, was classified by the Oscars as a foreign film.
Although these experiences, whether micro aggressions, vicious assaults, as well as cultural histories of trauma, damage one’s cultural
identity, many experiences counter these negative experiences and foster resilience. Unconditional love from my parents, extended family
and broader reference group, fostered the ability to trust and attach and develop a strong identity and ability to empathize. A great
“inoculation” that minimizes more serious negative impacts, in order to, define who we are and not be defined by others. Early
experiences living in inner city diverse areas and early integrated school years, helped me experience the good, bad and in between of
individuals vs labelling of a certain racial/ethnic group.
Progress seems to be a long road ahead, and I include myself, right now, but there is an opportunity for connecting with others, raising
awareness, understanding another’s story and counter harmful hate. The enemy to justice is the defensiveness of those who cannot
lower their guard to look at themselves and see the harm they cause to others. The solutions come from all of us to continue to speak
out, and speak up, change racist actions, not lose our compassion and direct our rage to changing policies and practices, when
unspeakable inequities occur.
“One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin, or the
shape of our eyes, or our gender, instead of the unique identities and character of each of us, as complex human beings.” — Franklin
Thomas, African American businessman and philanthropist, president and CEO of the Ford Foundation 1979-1996.