History of Asian Stereotypes Sheds Light on Recent Violence

The recent surge in attacks on Asians in America, including the tragic killing of eight people — mostly Asian women — in Atlanta this week signals that we are in dangerous and alarming times. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the normalization of bigotry against Asians and are now experiencing and witnessing its tragic consequences. 

In our world of 24-hour news, social media, and shrinking attention spans, it may seem like this violence is new, and that Asians — seen as “model” minorities unaffected by racism (with “proximity to whiteness”) — are suddenly in its crosshairs. In my Asian American History class this semester, students are learning up close how these events represent a continuation of a long legacy of discrimination and stereotyping. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian immigrants were a uniquely alienated group in American life. Chinese — called “heathens,” “cheap labor,” and targets of vigilante violence — were barred from immigrating on the basis of race and nationality. In the 1910s and 1920s, the technically race-neutral category “aliens ineligible to citizenship” was deployed by state and federal legislators as a cudgel to further disfranchise Asians — Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, and eventually Filipinos — on the grounds that they were variously unassimilable, undesirable, and a threat to American society and values.

The image of the high-achieving, professional, and law-abiding Asian American “model minority” entered the mainstream consciousness during the early Cold War years, revolving in part around Japanese Americans’ impressive socioeconomic trajectory after the ordeal of wartime internment. There was an insidious side to this “positive” stereotype, as Asian Americans were extolled not just for their achievements but also for their political quiescence. The framework implicitly divided people of color by sorting “model minorities” from “bad minorities” and punishing Asian Americans who did not fit the mold. And perhaps most pernicious, it upheld the fallacy that systemic racism in America had been eradicated: for how else could a model minority arise?

In the 1950s and 1960s, another stereotype about Asians emerged out of U.S. military interventions in Korea and Vietnam: the “gook.” The gook was a nameless and faceless enemy, the foil to the heroic American solider. Or to quote General William Westmoreland about Vietnamese people in 1974, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. … Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.” This attitude allowed for and encouraged hatred. It explains why the casualty rates Asians suffered in U.S. military engagements far exceed those of Americans do not register as particularly notable or tragic. 

This brief history of ideas about Asians in America also tells us something about today’s social and cultural landscape and how we find ourselves in the present situation. They tell us something about why in 2021 a sheriff will instinctively identify with and extend his empathy to a white mass murderer of Asian victims. They also tell us something about why, as a student once told me a few years ago, it was acceptable at Oberlin to make fun of Asian people because there are rarely any consequences for doing so. What these ideas do not tell us is about the lives of Asians in America, the people who were attacked, and the histories they belong to. Atlanta, GA, is home to one of the fastest growing Asian American communities. The third most spoken language in the state of Georgia is Korean. The state’s transformation over the last few decades as a result of new immigration, as well as the internal migration from other states, partly helps to explain why – thanks to the efforts of Stacey Abrams – Asian Americans were such a pivotal vote in turning Georgia blue in 2020. 

In a powerful op-ed in The New York Times, Princeton professor Anne Anlin Cheng critiqued the current discourse of racial politics, saying “Racial justice is often couched in arcane, moralistic terms rather than understood as an ethical given in democratic participation.” Moreover, it can feel “crazily naïve to suggest that we ought to learn, value and want to know about all of our countrymen.” 

In these attention- and resource-scarce times, when it feels like everything is at stake all at once, simply learning, valuing, and wanting to know about one another does seem both a hopelessly naïve and insurmountably tall order. But this may also be our only way forward.