Learning to Grieve Anti-Asian Racism as an Asian American

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.

Faith Chang

Faith and her husband Jeff live with their 4 little people in Staten Island, NY and serve in Grace Christian Church. She has a Certificate of Christian Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary and is passionate about orthodoxy for the sake of life before God and worship unto him. When given alone time, she reads, writes here and onher blog, and declutters.

6 thoughts on “Learning to Grieve Anti-Asian Racism as an Asian American

  • March 26, 2021 at 6:37 am
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    Most of what is being described as racism against asian americans is really confined to the history books. It is pushed into a desired narrative by the strongly politicized press corp as evidenced by the recent shooting in Atlanta which was assumed to be anti-asian in headlines before being clarified with inconvenient facts days later. There is a degree of resentment towards Asians but it is caused by envy due to success, not racism. Most of the violence directed towards Asians is from Black urban poor who have settled into a pattern of life that does not encourage striving for personal improvement. Chinese and Indians are resented in other parts of the world for the same reason. Consider Indians in Fiji or Chinese in Viet-Nam. The pattern is more analogous to resentment of Jews for their commercial successes than historical enmity by Armenians to Turks or Serbs towards Bosnian Muslims. Please pause to think a little more deeply before jumping to a conclusion that serves the political narrative of the day.

    Reply
    • March 26, 2021 at 11:27 pm
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      Wow, I was surprised to encounter a troll on RM. Why do I think Irv is a troll? (It is probably not even his real name.) Because while I actually agree with some of the things he wrote, he is ignoring the key points made by the author and is just discrediting what he thinks is an article that somehow “serves the political narrative of the day”. It doesn’t.
      A key point of this article is the author’s lament on her “apparent lack of grief over recent events in the news.” Irv does not address this at all and just totally brushes off the pain that people experience from racist acts and thinks it is just part of a desired political narrative. He is disrespectful to what Asian Americans have experienced, but then again why should I be surprised.

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      • March 28, 2021 at 6:16 am
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        Jason – You are free to comment as you wish. So am I. Do we really need thought police assigning motives and connotations to other people’s words. I just posted a short comment. It was not my intention to publish a point by point rebuttal to Faith’s article. There was nothing to disagree with. She wrote about her subjective impressions in the context of her faith. I merely added a few brief comments that popped into my head after I read the article. My key point was that most of the news reports about the shootings in Atlanta jumped to conclusions about the motive, that the conclusions were provisional and wrong, and in my opinion were thrown out there because the conclusion was favored, not because it was true.

        Reply
  • March 26, 2021 at 3:05 pm
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    Hello Faith, from an old collegemate living in Canada–saw that you went to the online reunion with your lookalike daughter. Hello also to Larry, I read his post the other day but did not have time to comment.

    I think the commenter Irv has a bit of a point. I feel that even in this moment of tragedy, Asian-Americans are once again being used as pawns by larger forces.

    Anyway, I did not come to leave that thought. I do thank you for posting on these issues of the day.

    My personal view is that it is dangerous for a country if its peoples saw themselves are members of separate tribes. It is similarly dangerous for believers to adhere too much worldly identitarian thinking. I am not persuaded we ought to grieve for wrongs done to our tribe than wrongs done to other tribes.

    I am also curious about the “chronic feeling of being unsafe”. How does that fit into the context of human history? I’m fascinated that Americans living in the 21st century would feel that. And does that feeling overrule the promises of scripture?

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    • March 26, 2021 at 8:43 pm
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      Jon! Hi! So good to hear from you!

      Thanks for those thoughts. I 100% agree that we aren’t meant to grieve for our own “tribes” more for others, especially as believers who affirm the image of God in all people. (I have at times had to deal with my own judgmental anger at those who were/are willing to speak up about justice for Asian Americans but not other groups… but that’s another story.)

      The interesting thing for me was that, as Larry wrote in his article, I felt it easier to grieve and feel over injustice done to others than to Asian Americans — and that’s partly what made me think there was something deeper I had to process. And, as I wrote, I think growing used to being sinned against in these ways subtly shaped my response (or lack thereof).

      I think the feeling of being unsafe is a human one, part in parcel of living in a fallen world. But the degree to which we feel it depends on our experiences and make up. In the article, I was referring to the fear of being harmed due to racist harassment— and chronic in persistence but not necessarily in every place/time. I believe the feeling has to do with how God made our bodies to respond to keep us safe (that we instinctively want to avoid things/situations where we were harmed, feel anxious where that safety hasn’t been guaranteed). The reality of rising anti-Asian harassment and violence since Covid in NYC means it makes sense that people feel afraid, but even before then, many Asians Americans (and women in particular) have already had many experiences of harassment that take away our sense of safety in certain places.

      Others have explored this relating studies about trauma with experiences of racism. And I don’t think this feeling nullifies the promises of God or even signals distrust, since faith is more about turning to him in our fear than not being afraid (as in Ps 56:3 e.g.)

      Reply

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