Why aren’t I angrier? Sadder? Why aren’t I speaking out? Compelled to action for my own people?
Even as fellow Asian Americans have been speaking out in recent days about their grief and anger about the way people in our communities are being and have been treated, I believe there are many of us who are still processing our own disparate responses. Like fellow RM contributor Larry, I have been wondering why my own reaction has been as tempered as it’s been to the increasing anti-Asian racism and violence this year.
This week, Larry wrote about the way the model minority myth can numb us to trauma. In his guest post, Peter Ong touched upon the way many Asian Americans deal with the pain and shame of being perpetually othered, “swallowing the bitterness.” Today, I want to explore another reason why some of us, myself included, may be having trouble grieving over anti-Asian American racism. It hit me while reading something Youn Yuh-jung, the 73-year old South Korean actor who starred in the film Minari, said in an interview.
Youn, speaking of the immigrant experience of those in her generation said this: “We expected to be treated poorly, so there was no sorrow.”
The Givenness of Anti-Asian Racism
I grew up seeing people do things like cutting my mom in line at the grocery stores in Brooklyn, NY, and when she spoke up, hearing them cursing and yelling at her to go back to her own country. As a teen on Staten Island, strangers shouted racial slurs often enough so that even as an adult, I still instinctively brace myself a bit when walking past young people where I live.
Even before Trump and Covid, my husband had garbage thrown at him while jogging, the perpetrators shouting slurs out the window as they drove by. In more recent years, people have yelled “Go Trump!” at him as he ran. My daughter has been the target of racism in a homeschooling group and in her local gymnastics class. The hardest part for her was trying to grasp why no apology was forthcoming even after I spoke to the mom of the child who’d said to her and her sister, “I hate Chinese girls.”
Since Covid-19, students in our church have been mocked about the “China virus.” For months, those in my social media networks have been sharing reports of anti-Asian violence, telling one another to stay safe. Before masks were mandated, a friend posted a photo of a man she saw on the subway. He yelled profanities about how he hated Asians and would beat all Asians who wore masks. He then approached her and asked why Chinese people brought the virus to America.
Last week, someone in our neighborhood networking site posted that everyone should stay away from Chinese restaurants because they are run by communists. Just the other day during work at a Christian bookstore, a customer made an inappropriate joke to me about Chinese last names.
There are many more stories I could tell, just from my own family and friends. Stories of being mistreated and dismissed. Of violence never reported or charged as hate crimes. Of being targeted as Asian American women, objectified and fetishized. Most Asian American children of immigrants have seen our elders treated with contempt because of their accents. We grew up witnessing their being taken advantage of, harassed, and disrespected in ways they wouldn’t have been if they’d been white. Many of my friends were bullied as the few Asians in predominantly white schools. Though we may not speak with accents, we and our children face the same racism our parents did, though often with the veneer of politeness.
In the Chinese-American community, we don’t speak often about our experiences of racism with one another, not necessarily merely because of shame, but because these incidents happen so widely and so often. My experiences of racism are so common among those in my community, they almost feel to me like they aren’t worth mentioning— but that’s part of my point here.
Grieving the Absence of Grief
Youn Yuh-jung’s words about expecting mistreatment and thus not feeling sorrow have been helpful for me in thinking about my apparent lack of grief over recent events in the news. As I’ve been seeing those around me respond, I am coming to see how our collective experiences of racism have so shaped my expectations and imagination, they’ve taken away my ability to grieve.
To be clear, I don’t think violence or racism is excusable. I feel sad for families and friends who have lost loved ones, angry over individual instances of mistreatment. But this sadness and anger doesn’t necessarily translate to feeling sorrow over the broader sin of anti-Asian American racism and the effects it’s had on our community at large. I believe that at least in part, my experience of the givenness of racism — harassment, discrimination, othering, even violence— has made it difficult to name, grieve, and feel indignation over it.
Youn mentioned in her interview that she couldn’t relate to people crying over the Oscar-nominated movie she starred in, why it would be so moving to Asian Americans. In some way, I’ve felt the same. I don’t fully relate to the joy of having our stories being told in Hollywood, and I think it may be because I never knew to want it. I am used to cringing with friends at the way Asians are represented in film and books, even in Christian circles. I don’t expect to see us up front or stories I relate to portrayed accurately simply because they never have been.
As a parent, I hold unverbalized limits on what I feel is feasible for my children in terms of their futures, and sometimes wonder if the possibilities I think are open for them (and myself even) would be the same if I were white. I can’t imagine living in an America where people who look like me aren’t discriminated against, where it’s expected that we’re treated with dignity in the broader culture, and where we’re afforded all the same opportunities available to those in the dominant culture.
When my daughters were told “I hate Chinese girls,” my oldest cried. My non-Asian friend, who’d heard what was said to my girls before I did, was so shocked and angered, she told me what happened with tears in her eyes. But I wasn’t surprised, and there were no tears from me. Later, I talked to my daughter about the reality of racism and how we respond to those who don’t apologize. I didn’t even think to mourn with her over her first, but not last, racist encounter.
I believe that many of us aren’t grieving right now because experiencing racism is par for the course of being Asian in America. Part of the reason we seem to feel so little is because we’ve experienced racism for so long. Like Youn and those in her generation, we expect we will be treated poorly, so there is no room for sorrow.
An Invitation to Grieve as an Act of Faith
These days, I witness the responses of faith leaders and Asian American activists to anti-Asian violence, and am immensely grateful for their voices and their courageous pursuit of justice. I’m seeking to be mindful of other Asian Americans processing recent events, sharing resources that may be helpful to them. My husband and I are considering what practical action steps ought to be taken where we are.
Yet at the same time, as I’ve seen impassioned speeches appealing to our common citizenship as Americans, I have felt personally disconnected from them. I have never sought to feel like I belong, because since I was a child, my experiences told me we didn’t. I see the importance and effectiveness of such appeals, but for me, there is no non-racist, purer, ideal America to appeal to. I don’t grieve because there was no illusion for me of America being different than what it’s been for me and those who look like me.
But, and this is the condition I think may be key for other Asian Americans also processing their lack of grief, I am learning that I can appeal to what we know as Christians the world is meant to be. And this has been the starting point for allowing myself to feel sorrow.
The tears of my daughter and friend testify to me that racism is not only wrong, but that it ought to be jarring. That in some way it should be surprising, though our lived experience of it isn’t. Christians take up the practice of tears as testimony in the form of lamenting— refusing to take the evil in the world as a given because we know of the presence of sin as alien and intrusive. Believers lament because we know racism is a result of humanity’s rejection of God. It shouldn’t be normative, not because America is “better than this,” but because the world was meant to be different. We grieve the way sin mars God’s creation because it grieves him. So in light of mistreatment and violence toward image bearers, including ourselves, we appeal to God with urgency and sorrow to bring his kingdom and justice on earth.
Thus, I am wondering if learning to grieve over anti-Asian racism is in and of itself the act of faith God is requiring of me now. To weep over the dangers that we as Asian American women face is to affirm our God-given dignity and declare racist fetishization as demonic and evil as it truly is. To be sorrowful over the racism my children encounter is to recognize the wickedness in their being made to feel shame or fear because of their God-given ethnic identity. To grieve is to agree with God saying in his Word that things are not the way they ought to be.
Though my expectations have been shaped by racism, I need God to recapture my imagination. Perhaps the same is true for you today.
To lament anti-Asian racism in our country, we need to believe that God has specifically spoken to the plight of the outcast, that he cares deeply for the common struggles of the immigrant. If not, he wouldn’t have commanded his people: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:34).
We need to hear that though our parents’ generation may have endured silently with faith and courage, though he bore them up and carried many of them in his church, God still hated the way they were disrespected and gravely mistreated. For, “he executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner” (Deut. 10:18a). The way my mother was spoken to as she bought groceries was an affront to his holiness and to the image of God, because his word says, “with [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (Jam. 3:9-10).”
We need to be assured that the bullying our youth face for being of Asian descent isn’t merely “just a part of life” they need to learn to endure, but also deeply offensive to God. That as the Psalmists did, they— and other targets of racism— have reason to cry out, “Let not those rejoice over me who are wrongfully my foes, and let not those wink the eye who hate me without cause. For they do not speak peace, but against those who are quiet in the land they devise words of deceit….You have seen, O LORD; be not silent! O Lord, be not far from me!” (Ps. 35:19-22).
We need to believe that even for those who haven’t been victims of the worst types of violence, the chronic feeling of being unsafe — whether as Asian American women, or elders and immigrant parents, ought to be completely aberrant, not expected and managed. That part of God’s vision for a just world is that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Mic. 4:4).
And we need faith that all of our own experiences, and those of our immigrant communities, are not insignificant to God. We may feel our suffering is so common it is unimportant, but he has seen and kept record of our pain: “You have taken account of my miseries; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” (Ps. 56:8, NASB).
Beloved, He Restores Our Tears
Beloved Asian American child of God, if you are grappling with your own lack of tears, it’s possible that it’s not because you haven’t cared about or suffered under racism, but because you have. You may not be feeling sorrow because you have come to expect mistreatment for yourself and our community, and this is not something to be ashamed of but to mourn.
Fellow image bearer, I pray you don’t feel shamed into silence or action today, but that God’s word and Spirit would minister to you in your places of brokenness. He hates the wrong done against us and those we love. He sees you, your family, our communities. And in the presence of Jesus, the man of sorrows who is familiar with grief, you may find your tears again.