Anti-Asian racism: Fighting back with film and social media

 Writers Yuan (left) and Toy (right) pose with Boba Guys CEO Andrew Chau (middle) at an anti-Asian racism rally at San Francisco City Hall. PHOTO COURTESY OF VICTOR YUAN AND KAYLA TOY

Victor Yuan is a senior media studies major. 

Kayla Toy is a senior mathematics major.

When COVID-19 struck, widespread racism and attacks on Asians skyrocketed. There were more than 2,800 reported Asian hate crimes between Mar. and Dec. 2020, according to journalist Jennifer Chen. Since the start of the pandemic, hate crimes against Asians have gone up a terrifying 1,900% in New York City alone. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Asian Americans have been murdered, beatened, pushed, set on fire, stabbed, and burned by acid. These hate crimes have even reached our city: Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee was killed in San Francisco this January. Ratanapakdee’s family believed the murder was racially motivated. In addition, Asian businesses have been both vandalized and hurt economically as a result of COVID-19-related bias, with roughly half of Chinese-owned restaurants nationwide being forced to close as a result of consumer prejudice according to data from more than 400,000 transactions taken by Womply, a credit card processing company. 

Anti-Asian racism in this country is nothing new. America has a long history of sinophobia, which is the hatred of China, its people, diaspora, and culture. When the Chinese immigrated to the United States in the 1850s, they were viewed as second-class citizens; a source of dispensable, cheap labor for unwanted, dangerous, and vigorous jobs. Chinese workers were paid significantly less than white workers in goldmines, railroads, and farms. Chinese immigrants were so socially antagonized that many white miners formed political meetings to strategize ways to get rid of them through financial and systemic means.

Anti-Asian racism has a repeated history of being overlooked, normalized, and even ignored. Asian people were dehumanized with the label of “perpetual foreigner,” which rationalized violent beatings and killings in the eyes of perpetrators. Chinatowns across the U.S. also have a history of being burned. One atrocity which is often overlooked in US history is the Chinese Massacre of 1871, during which a mob of 500 people attacked, robbed, and lynched Chinese residents in Los Angeles because of a rumor that a Chinese person had killed a police officer. With an estimated 20 Chinese people hanged, this may have been the largest mass lynching in U.S. History. The targeting of Asian Americans for racial prejudice can also be seen in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only law to be passed in American history that prohibited nearly all people of one ethnicity from immigrating to the U.S. This act also banned citizenship for American-born Chinese. 

Asian Americans have long been scapegoated for issues such as the spread of drugs, being wartime adversaries to the U.S., and for the country’s economic decline; seen as a result of Asian Americans “stealing” jobs. During the late 19th century, Chinese people in the U.S. were racialized and blamed for the spreading and addiction of Americans to opium. During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in mass internment camps simply for having “the face of the enemy.” In 1982, Vincent Chin was brutally murdered for being mistaken as Japanese, under the pretense that Japan had been stealing American jobs through their imports and declining the U.S.’s automotive industry.

COVID-19 was not the first time Asians Americans were blamed for a pandemic, either. In the past, Asian Americans have been blamed for the bubonic plague, leprosy, cholera, smallpox, and SARS. This was seen in the (1900-1904) San Francisco Plague

As paranoia rose around plague outbreaks in San Francisco, lockdown orders targeted the Asian community. Chinatown residents were forced to be segregated and quarantined, while people of European descent were allowed to roam freely. It is important to note that former California Gov. Henry Gage signed orders to prevent the media from reporting on the plague in an effort to negate panic and keep California’s economy strong. In addition, from the years 1910-1940, Chinese immigrants were harassed and detained on Angel Island, California with the belief that they carried diseases. The deportation rate of immigrants at Angel Island was estimated to be anywhere from 11-30%, whereas the deportation rate of immigrants on the East Coast of the United States was only 1-2%. 

With those modern day atrocities and history in mind, we wanted to do our part. As active supporters of Stop Asian Hate — a movement that promotes awareness of anti-Asian racism — we attended a rally that condemned anti-Asian racism at San Francisco City Hall Feb. 14. At the rally, we had the opportunity to exchange dialogue with several fellow protesters and, importantly, continue to work on our respective projects to amplify Asian voices and stories which had been over a year in the making. These are our personal stories of how we’ve been combating anti-Asian racism.

Victor Yuan

As a filmmaker, I wanted to bring attention to anti-Asian racism. Film is a powerful medium that enables all of us to tell our story and be represented. Since there is underrepresentation of Asian Americans in both traditional and new media, my hope is to author my own take on the world as not only an Asian American, but as a filmmaker who is passionate about authentic storytelling. I wanted to do this project because I didn’t want to see another documentary that looks at our history through a solely negative lens, instead I set out to craft a narrative that looks at our history in a more nuanced way that reimagines the future of Asian Americans with hope and positivity.

In an ongoing project that started last year, I have been working on a self-produced documentary, interviewing many of San Francisco’s Asian American community leaders to unpack racial discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. What I hope this documentary will do is combat racism and share voices that will inspire and educate others.

When I interviewed Russell Jeung, a sociologist and professor at San Francisco State University, he spoke about the work he has done in forming Stop AAPI Hate, “The center that tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States,” he said. 

Speaking on the relationship between anti-Asian racism and media representation, Jeung said, “Everyone has an implicit bias because we are shaped by the media; it constructs the way we think and that’s the power of the media — the power of our little smartphones.” 

While at the rally, I interviewed activist William Lex Ham, who helped organize the recent nationwide Stop Asian Hate rallies. He said, ”We are grouped as this monolithic group and while the Asian diaspora is incredibly diverse… we are all treated the same, unfortunately.”

As we continued to talk about this past year of violence, his positive lasting remark was, “The future for Asian Americans and Asian American activism is so bright! What we are seeing is the galvanization of Asian America… we are finding our collective voice and finding our collective power.”

Kayla Toy

It was frustrating to see no mainstream media coverage and very few peers talk about the rise of anti-Asian racism during the early stages of COVID-19.

Responding to that, I used my platform, a math memes Instagram account @confessions.of.a.math.major_ that had around 50,0000 followers at the time, to vocalize my stance on anti-Asian violence. To my surprise, NextShark, the leading source for Asian American news reshared my statements to a larger audience.

It was important for me to share the Asian American story on social media since it’s often underrepresented in mainstream media. What was most rewarding about my work was receiving many direct messages thanking me for educating about anti-Asian hate crimes. Some of my posts even reached 43,000 reshares and 72,000 likes.

Large activist platforms like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and visual artist Favianna Rodriguez started to repost my statements as well. I am grateful that this issue is finally getting some media attention. 

The rise of anti-Asian violence also encouraged me to reconnect with my Chinese roots and the Asian community. At the Stop Asian Hate rally, I spoke to Asian American activist William Lex Ham and Boba Guys CEO Andrew Chau. It was also important for me to support small Asian-owned businesses by shopping in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I even had the opportunity to meet with community leaders in Chinatown to talk about anti-Asian violence on Lunar New Years. 

If we want to see progress, it is urgent for people to actively fight against anti-Asian racism. We need everyone to speak out against anti-Asian racism, amplify Asian American voices, challenge history’s one-sided narrative by studying Asian American history, support Asian small businesses, watch films that do not perpetuate racist stereotypes, and donate and volunteer for AAPI organizations. You cannot be an anti-racist without acknowledging the racism inherent to the Asian American experience.

One thought on “Anti-Asian racism: Fighting back with film and social media

  1. I love the the representation in this article! There needs to be more of this type of educated awareness at USF! Hope to see another one soon!!

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