By Yugan Sakthi
“Since the first body of our ancestor arrived on this land to work on the railroad, the xenophobia, discrimination, against our identity, has resulted in many tragedies.
And today, we’re still suffering, but no one saw it. We are afraid of showing our culture. We’re being asked to change our meaningful names. We’re being called, ‘you don’t belong here.’ The spring is here, but our hearts are still in the winter.”
These were the opening lines to Asiatown community organizer Xinyuan Cui’s speech. In just a few succinct sentences, she captured the reason why I and a thousand other people had gathered Sunday afternoon, under an overcast sky and biting winds, to speak out and protest.
The rally was a stand against hate towards the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. It was hosted by Asiatown Cleveland and APAPA Ohio (Asian Pacific-Islander American Public Affairs), and organized by OPAWL (Ohio Progressive Asian-American Women’s Alliance), OCA Greater Cleveland, and ASIA Ohio (Asian Services in Action).
The rally was organized in response to the devastating mass shooting on March 16 near Atlanta, to which six Asian and Asian-American women fell victim. More generally, It spoke out against the rise in hate crimes against AAPI people over the past year, as well as against the deep-rooted history of violence against people of Asian descent in the United States. It was a call for solidarity with each other and for liberation from White supremacy.
With posters in hand, participants cheered and yelled along with the six speeches that formed the first half of the rally. The speakers represented a diverse array of national and community organizations.Their powerful voices instilled messages of rage, grief, and hope. And they called on communities, on allies, and on political leaders, to recognize and confront the structural racism and violence that the AAPI community faces.
The second half of the rally was a march through Asiatown. The route wove itself up Payne Avenue, across Superior Avenue, down to the interstate and back, in a winding loop. Hundreds of marchers chanted “no justice, no peace,” “hey hey! ho ho! racism has got to go,” and “this is what democracy looks like!” Elders of the Asiatown community watched from street corners and families poked their heads through windows.
Underlying both halves of the rally was an energy of solidarity and togetherness that was powerfully tangible. The energy was an expression of grief and of resilience, of rage and of love. This article explores that energy. What led to it? What is its history? What action does it ask us to take?
A History of Anti-Asian Hate
People from the Asian continent have migrated to the United States since the late 1700s. By 2050, Americans of AAPI descent will comprise 10% of the country’s population. Yet, the community has faced hate, violence, xenophobia, and discrimination since the very beginning.
The first large wave of Asian immigration occurred in the mid 1800s. By the 1870s, Chinese Americans numbered nearly 100,000 in the State of California. They were employed primarily by the rapidly-expanding railroad and coal industries.
As Asian immigration grew, so did anti-Asian sentiment and violence. In the early 1900s, the Asiatic Exclusion League formed to push policies preventing the immigration of people from China, Korea, Japan, and South Asia. The Rock Springs riots and massacre on September 2, 1885 left 30 Chinese American workers dead.
In major cities around the country, anti-Asian riots and violence were all too commonplace. In the countryside, Asians were routinely harassed and prevented from holding agricultural and mining jobs.
In government, what started as the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, eventually expanded in 1917 to the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, prohibiting virtually all Asian immigration. Such exclusionary policies would not be phased out until the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
Possibly the most extreme form of violence against Americans of Asian descent occurred during this time. During World War II, over 100,000 first- and second-generation Japanese Americans were thrown into inhumane internment camps, and faced violence and harassment around the country.
The Civil Rights movement brought along with it a wave of reforms to immigration policy, to the benefit of the AAPI community. However, as with the violence against our Black sisters and brothers, the violence against AAPI people continues to this day.
Anti-Asian Violence Today
Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a ripe breeding ground for hate and violence against Americans of Asian descent.
For more than two decades, the U.S. government and media have been involved in fear mongering, charged rhetoric, and propaganda surrounding all things China. When COVID-19 became a serious issue in the United States in early 2020, politicians on both sides of the aisle were quick to point their scowls towards China.
Former president, Trump, among his horribly insensitive yells of “kung flu”, called it an act of Chinese aggression. Current president, Biden, insisted and continues to insist that China played a role in misinformation about the pandemic. Along with many media outlets, he and his administration continue to push the narrative that this country’s failure to respond in a timely manner to the pandemic was somehow, in part, China’s fault.
Considering all this, it should be no surprise that this past year saw a 150% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, especially against women. Nearly 3800 were reported and these do not include the many instances of hate against members of the AAPI community, especially against elders, that go unreported.
This hate is not new. This is why we rallied.
Violence Against Women
Yet this story does not tell the whole story of the rally, and of anti-AAPI hate in the U.S. AAPI women, as well as non-binary and transgender people, have faced unique challenges.
Since the early colonial era, women from the “Orient” (now a highly inappropriate term, used to refer to any culture east of Europe) were sexualized and fetishized. This attitude has persisted throughout U.S. history. It can clearly and painfully be witnessed in Hollywood and American television, where Asian women are overtly sexualized and depicted as “easy” sexual conquests.
The U.S. military has played a brutal role in the lives of many Asian women of various cultural descents. U.S. troops, throughout World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as current stations in Korea, Japan, and the Pacific Islands, have repeatedly enacted violence, much of it sexual, against women.
Among other consequences of such violence, one remains especially relevant today: the children born from the widespread rape and prostitution often face severe discrimination, and carry with them the weight of their intergenerational trauma.
OPAWL is one of the organizations providing resources for members of the AAPI who have faced these challenges. As OPAWL co-director Tessa Xuan said in her powerful speech:
“As Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander women, non-binary, and transgender people across Ohio, members of OPAWL who are here with us today come from many different backgrounds, from Palestine to Cambodia to Guáhan [Guam] to the Philippines.
But all of us have been impacted by sexual or racial violence long before the pandemic. Most of us are also dealing with intergenerational trauma from our families being separated, being bombed, being colonized and persecuted.”
The shooting in Atlanta that claimed the lives of six women was not something new. It was the latest chapter in an ongoing volume of the marginalizing violence that AAPI women, non-binary, and transgender folk have faced historically.
Not a Monolith, Not Your Model Minority, Not Your Enemy
Many participants held up posters that read “not your model minority.” The myth that Asians and Asian Americans are a “model minority” is one that has been propagated heavily in recent times. It manifests itself as, for example, my classmates in school asking me “why did you get that question wrong? Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?”
Two facts underlie this myth. First, is that much of the recent wave of Asian immigration has been high-skilled and highly educated workers who came to the U.S. to work high-paying jobs. Second, as a whole, Asian Americans are the highest-earning racial minority in the U.S., and certain groups such as Indian, Japanese, and Chinese Americans earn higher on average than White Americans.
Yet, a model minority this does not create.
The terms “Asian” and “Asian-American” are themselves highly misleading. AAPI folk come from nearly 50 different countries, and the cultural diversity among these, as well as the economic disparities among immigrants from these countries, is vast.
In fact, Asian-American is now the racial group with the highest level of income inequality. Many AAPI communities, such as Burmese Americans and Cambodian Americans, are some of the poorest ethnic groups in the nation, and even within the supposedly high-earning groups like Indian or Japanese Americans, the disparities are huge.
Not to mention that many immigrants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia are here as refugees and asylum-seekers. Why, then, does this myth exist?
The speakers at Sunday’s rally made it clear: White supremacy — It is a game of pitting minority against minority. It is a game of invalidating the struggle of Black and Latinx communities, by making it seem as if they are the reason for their own poverty, because look how the Asians are doing.
When, in reality, the physical and economic violence of White supremacy affects the AAPI community with no less ferocity, leaving many of its members in the dust, and stuck between two walls — one that keeps them entrenched in cycles of poverty, and another that tells them they should perform according to their destiny as model minority.
In the struggle for racial justice, it is not the minorities who are each other’s enemies. The real enemy is the historical force of White supremacy. It is a force which erases the diversity and struggle of Asian Americans for its own gain.
Elaine Tso, CEO of ASIA, brought to light in her speech some of the struggles AAPI members have faced during the pandemic with regards to receiving aid and government services:
Unfortunately, some community members have not received any of these services, either out of fear, stigma, or ineligibility.
Some examples include community members who were concerned [that] accessing support services would impact or reveal their immigration status. Community members were sick but afraid to be tested for COVID. Community members also were actually ineligible to receive some support, such as first round or second round stimulus relief, because of the mixed immigration status of their household.
If members of the AAPI community are supposedly the “model minority,” then why do we get treated like this?
Elected Officials and Policy
At Sunday’s rally, speakers and protesters urged a common message: say it for what it is. It is hate, it is racially and sexually motivated, and it does not get the attention it deserves, not from people in our communities, and not from the officials we elect to represent us.
Behind the speakers stood an array of current and former City councilmembers, as well as mayoral candidates. As they proudly stood holding a #StopAsianHateMarch banner, the scent of a few questions pervaded the air.
What have you done for us? What are you doing for us? What will you do for us?
In her speech, Xuan spoke extensively about elected officials and the action that the AAPI community in Cleveland seeks.
One year ago we warned Cleveland City Council and elected officials all around Ohio that the violent attacks we were seeing would get worse if they didn’t speak up and do something to stop it. One year later, close to 4,000 hate incidents have been reported across the country. Precious lives have been lost, and we are still waiting for concrete action from our public officials, from the White House to City Hall.
City Council finally passed a resolution condemning anti-Asian violence this month introduced by Councilman Jones, and we are grateful for that. We appreciate that, but we are not satisfied.
Words alone will not keep us safe. This is a critical time and we need concrete action, policy, and resources to address the root causes of White supremacist violence. We need our city to make serious equitable investments in Asiatown, a neighborhood that means so much to our Asian American communities, and a place that people of all races call home.
A group of residents meets here in Asiatown every weekend for Chinese dancing, but instead of dancing in a public park, they dance in this vacant parking lot, across from the abandoned Dave’s Supermarket.
At this point, a lady from the crowd piped up: “We don’t even have a sidewalk to walk safely!”
“Yes!” Xuan responded and continued.
For years, Asiatown has been asking for walkable sidewalks. They’ve been asking for good schools where their kids can see their stories in the history books. They’ve been asking for greenspace where they can feel safe. These are basic things that every family in Cleveland deserves to have.
When we think about what real safety looks like, when we think about solutions that will address the root causes of violence and actually prevent violence from happening, it’s clear that we don’t need to continue more police and more surveillance in our neighborhoods.
When we think about anti-Asian violence we must also remember Jun Wang, who was killed by North Royalton police during a mental health crisis. Today in 2021 the Cleveland Police still call us “Orientals” on their website. Pouring more resources into law enforcement has not kept our women, our children, or our elders safe.
And what we are looking for is accountability from our public officials. True community safety in the form of resources and investment.
Hope, Joy, and Looking Forward: What Can We Do?
Action does not need to wait for City Council. Action occurs at all levels of our city, and we as Clevelanders can take great strides towards making meaningful change for Cleveland AAPI communities.
Jenika Gonzales, a graphic designer for Global Cleveland and one of the speakers, delivered the following message to AAPI allies:
Our stories are complex but they are beautiful. They are something to be proud of because this is our home too. Hear us today but also continue to fight for us and every marginalized community. Support all community-led solutions and resources. Invest in language support for mental health, legal, employment, and immigration services.
Our communities are fighting back, but we can’t do this alone. Look out for each other, and when you see hate, please do something, say something.
Investing time and resources into following AAPI-led efforts across Cleveland is an immediate and impactful way to create change. When we recognize that we face common enemies — White supremacy and racism — we recognize that any one marginalized group’s fight is everyone’s fight.
Participants were also given three concrete action steps they could take. These extend to all readers and members of the community as well.
First, if you have witnessed or been victim to a hate crime, report it.
Second, if you are an ally, stand up for AAPI friends, colleagues, and community members. Take bystander intervention training and support AAPI-owned local businesses.
Third, call (202) 224-3121, which will connect you to the Ohio state representatives. Request two things. First, more funding for AAPI community-based and community-led solutions. Second, for language access for AAPI communities.
The story of Sunday’s rally, however, was not only one of loss, fear, grief, and rage. It was one of love and support. It was a story of hope, resilience, and community solidarity.
Dr. Shemariah Arki, in her speech, quoted the following poem by civil rights activist and revolutionary Assata Shakur:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
And, as Xuan said, in her speech:
One thing that has been healing for me has been thinking about the joy, the strength and wisdom, that each of us carries from our ancestors, whether they are our blood relatives, or our chosen lineage.
Because, as Gonzales said, the story of AAPI in this country is complex and beautiful. We bring with us thousands of years of history, diverse cultures, incredible food, vast knowledge, ethics of hard work and care, and valuable perspectives. We carry with us not only intergenerational traumas, but also intergenerational resilience. Sunday’s rally was a testament to that fact.
Having been an integral part of Cleveland for over a century, AAPI communities inject the city with a unique vitality. In the ongoing fight against White supremacy, supporting our local AAPI communities is crucial. As Cui put it in her speech:
When White supremacy makes us invisible, we need to stand for each other to see each other and fight for each other. The winter will be over. May liberation come.