What This Wave of Anti-Asian Violence Reveals About America

A 23-year-old Korean woman in New York was punched in the face last March and accused of having the coronavirus. More incidents followed as the virus spread, with Asian-Americans being spat on, beaten, slashed, even attacked with chemicals.


In response to pandemic-related violence like this, advocacy organizations came together to document cases of harassment and vitriol against Asian-Americans. Stop AAPI Hate received 2,800 reports in 2020, around 240 of which were physical assaults, and the AAPI Emergency Response Network has received over 3,000 reports since it started tracking Covid-specific hate incidents last year.

为了应对这些与大流行病有关的暴力,倡导组织联合起来,将骚扰和辱骂亚裔美国人的事件记录下来。Stop AAPI Hate在2020年收到了2800份报告,其中约240份涉及人身攻击;AAPI Emergency Response Network自去年开始跟踪与新冠病毒疾病有直接关系的仇恨事件以来,已经收到了3000多份报告。

The violence has continued into the new year. In January, in San Francisco, an 84-year-old Thai man died after being assaulted on the street; across the Bay, in Oakland’s Chinatown, a 91-year-old man was shoved to the ground. Some of these cases have made it to national news, but most haven’t. The low profile of this wave of violence is a reminder of how racial violence goes unexamined when it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard narrative of race in America.


Racial violence in the United States is not simply Black and white, even if it looks that way. Instead, it can reveal layered victimizations and mediated enmity. The recent incidents of anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, in particular, highlight this: Some Asian-Americans were outraged by the violence and demanded justice, but since the perpetrators in these cases were Black, many others felt deeply uncomfortable with contributing to the criminalization of African-Americans.


And here we come to the heart of the complexity of “speaking up” for Asian-Americans. Thanks to the “Model Minority” myth — popularized in 1966 by the sociologist William Petersen and later used as a direct counterpoint to the “welfare queen” stereotype applied to Black Americans — Asian-Americans have long been used by mainstream white culture to shame and drive a wedge against other minority groups.

我们从中看到了为亚裔美国人“站出来说话”的复杂性的核心所在。由社会学家威廉·彼得森(William Petersen)在1966年普及、后来成为用在美国黑人身上的“福利王后”刻板印象直接对照的“模范少数族裔”神话,一直被白人主流文化用来羞辱和离间其他少数族裔群体。

They are always caught in a no-win position between whites and Black Americans. They are thought to be “white adjacent,” but of course they can never belong to the club. They are persistently racialized, yet they often don’t count in the American racial equation. The central, though often unspoken, question underlying all of this is: Are Asian-Americans injured, or injured enough, to deserve our national attention?


To ask this question is to reveal something about how this country thinks about a racial calculus based on damage and hierarchy. Asian-Americans exist in a weird but convenient lacuna in American politics and culture. If they register at all on the national consciousness, it is either as a foreign threat (the Yellow Peril, the Asian Tiger, the Spy, the Disease Vector) or as the domestic but ultimately disposable prism for deflecting or excusing racism against other minorities.


This recent onslaught of anti-Asian violence can partly be attributed to our former president, who spoke nonstop of the “Chinese virus” and even the “kung flu,” but he could not have rallied the kind of hatred that he did without this country’s long history of systemic and cultural racism against people of Asian descent.


For our histories are more entangled than how we tell them. Few people know that many of the same families that amassed wealth through slavery also profited from the opium trade in China; that at least 17 Chinese residents were the targeted victims of one of the worst mass lynchings in American history in Los Angeles’s “Negro Alley” in 1871; that America’s immigration policy and ideas of citizenship were built on top of laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years; or that the “Model Minority” myth veils how Bhutanese- and Burmese-Americans experience poverty rates over 30 percent.

因为我们的历史比我们的历史叙事要复杂得多。很少有人知道,许多靠蓄奴积累了大量财富的家族,也从在华贩卖鸦片获利;1871年在洛杉矶“黑人巷”发生的美国历史上一次最严重的大规模私刑处死事件中,至少有17名华裔居民是受害者;美国的移民政策和公民理念是建立在诸如1882年《排华法案》(Chinese Exclusion Act)等法律之上的,该法禁止中国劳工在10年内移民美国(后续法案延长了这条禁令——译注);另外,“模范少数族裔”的神话掩盖了不丹裔和缅甸裔美国人高达30%的贫困率。

I think of James Baldwin’s words: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

我想起了詹姆斯·鲍德温(James Baldwin)的话:“我以这个罪行指控我的国家和我的同国人,无论是我,还是时间或历史,都不会原谅他们这个罪行,他们已经毁灭并正在毁灭成千上万的生命,他们不知道,也不想知道。”

When it comes to Asian-American grief, do Americans want to know?


These past few weeks, it seems as if Americans have opened to a kind of knowing. As I saw these recent incidents of anti-Asian violence unfold in the news, I felt a profound sense of grief. But I also experienced something akin to relief. Maybe, I thought, now people will start to respond to anti-Asian violence with the same urgency they apply to other kinds of racism.


But then I started to feel a familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach. Is this indeed what it takes? A political imagination (or, really, lack thereof) that predicates recognition on the price of visible harm?


There is something wrong with the way Americans think about who deserves social justice — as though attention to nonwhite groups, their histories and conditions, is only as pressing as the injuries that they have suffered. Racial justice is often couched in arcane, moralistic terms rather than understood as an ethical given in democratic participation.


It seems crazily naïve to suggest that we ought to learn, value and want to know about all of our countrymen out of respect rather than guilt. Yet while legitimizing racial and cultural differences exclusively in terms of injury may motivate reform in the short run, in the long term it feeds a politics of tribalism that erupts over and over again.


Two decades ago, I wrote in my book “The Melancholy of Race” that “we are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief.” We still are. In the desire to move past racial troubles — in our eagerness to progress — we as a nation have been more focused on quantifying injury and shoring up identity categories than doing the harder work of confronting the enduring, ineffable, at times contradictory and messier wounds of American racism: how being hated and hating can look the same; how the lesson of powerlessness can teach justice or, perversely, the ugly pleasures of power; how the legacy of anger, shame and guilt is complex.

20年前,我在《种族的忧郁》(The Melancholy of Race)一书中写道:“我们是一个可以发泄不满却不会悲伤的国家。”我们现在仍是这样。由于热衷摆脱种族问题,由于渴望进步,我们作为一个国家一直更注重量化伤害,确立身份认同,而不是做更难的工作,来愈合美国种族主义持久的、难以形容的、有时矛盾且更难处理的伤口:被恨和仇恨如何能看起来相同;有关弱势的教育如何既能教授正义,又能扭曲地教授权力带来的险恶快感;愤怒、耻辱和内疚的遗产是多么复杂。

Unprocessed grief and unacknowledged racial dynamics continue to haunt our social relations. The discourse of racial identity has obscured the history of American racial entanglements. And why is entanglement important? Because the challenge of democracy is not about identifying with someone like yourself (that’s easy to do) nor about giving up your self-interest (that’s hard to ask). It’s about learning to see your self-interest as profoundly and inevitably entwined with the interests of others.


But is this a lesson Americans are prepared to hear?


Asian-Americans are tired of insisting that others care. The truth is that few are listening. All we can do is to continue to tell our truths, to know, even just for ourselves, that we are here. As the poet Rita Dove wrote, “Here, / it’s all yours, now — / but you’ll have / to take me, / too.”

亚裔美国人已对坚持要求得到别人的关注感到厌倦。事实是,几乎没人在听。我们所能做的就是继续讲述我们的真实情况,继续知道我们在这里,即使只是为了我们自己。正如诗人丽塔·达夫(Rita Dove)所写的那样:“这里,/现在都是你的——/但你必须/也带上我。”

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