The past 2 years have been a period of mourning, anger, fear, and exhaustion for Asian Americans: 16% of Asian American adults were victims of hate crimes in 2021, up from 12.5% in 2020; 31% worry “all the time” or “often” about being victimized because of their race; and 36% have changed their routines over concerns about personal safety. Despite the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, one-third of Americans remain unaware of the situation. The White House’s invitation to BTS—the globally popular K-pop group—will go a long way toward raising awareness.
Refusing to stay silent after the mass murder in Atlanta, Georgia, last year that left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent, BTS issued a statement: “What is happening right now cannot be dissociated from our identity as Asians.” Despite their inimitable success and stature, the seven performers have not been immune to anti-Asian racism; they know how it feels to have racial epithets hurled at them, be blamed for COVID-19, mocked for the way they look, and dismissed.
Dismissing Asians and Asian Americans comes easily when they are absent from one’s imagination: 58% of Americans cannot name a single prominent Asian American; and only two states (Illinois and New Jersey) require Asian American history to be taught in their public schools. Not surprisingly, 42% of Americans cannot name a single policy or historical event related to Asian Americans. Even when prompted, 45% are unaware of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and 67% never heard of the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982.
Vincent Chin was a Chinese American engineer who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan. Chin was blamed for the loss of auto jobs amid a rise in Japanese imports and a national recession. The two white men pled guilty to manslaughter, yet each was sentenced to only 3 years of probation and a fine of $3000.
The trope of Asian Americans as the foreign “other” is a product of decades of targeted exclusion. Asians are the only group who have been explicitly excluded from immigrating into the United States because of their race and national origin. Beginning with the Page Act of 1875 that banned women from any “Oriental country” on the presumption that they were prostitutes, laws of exclusion soon expanded to Chinese male laborers with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese exclusion was not repealed until 1943, and America’s long-standing policy of restricting immigrants from non-European countries was not abolished until 1965 when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Like two-thirds of Asian Americans today, I am an immigrant. I am also a child of immigrants; at the age of 3, I emigrated with my parents from South Korea because my father sought to pursue a PhD in religion and work with a professor at Temple University whose research he admired. My mother—who was trained as a nurse by American missionaries in Seoul—obtained a visa for our family, enabling us to immigrate after the 1965 change in US immigration law.
Soon after entering the PhD program, my father would feel the sting of racism because his spoken English did not match his reading fluency (nor his fluency in German, for that matter). Dismissed as a “foreign student,” he had trouble finding professors willing to listen to his ideas and shepherd him into a dissertation project. The dismissal of Asian students is not unusual. In a 2012 study, researchers sent emails to more than 6500 professors in American universities across disciplines, posing as prospective graduate students with names signaling their race and gender. Professors were the least likely to respond to those with Chinese and Indian names. My father earned his PhD in spite of being dismissed, but it took years longer than it should have.
We may not know about their legacy of exclusion or even be able to name a prominent Asian American to be intimately familiar with the pernicious stereotypes of Asians—they are indelibly foreign, and therefore easily mocked and readily disregarded. This is the cost and consequence of failing to include the history of Asian America as an integral part of the history of America. Given their stardom, BTS could easily choose to turn a blind eye and dismiss anti-Asian violence and racism. They choose not to, and neither should anyone else.
Jennifer Lee is the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University, New York, NY, USA. [email protected]