As faculty whose expertise includes Asian-American studies, we feel called upon to address the responses to recent reports of racially offensive graffiti. For many, the very idea that this incident could be termed offensive or threatening may seem confusing. We believe this confusion stems from a lack of awareness of anti-Asian racism and Asian-American history and a misunderstanding of the nature of racial harassment.
Because we have little information regarding the incident’s context, we cannot speak to the intentions and reactions of the persons involved. However, as literary scholars, we understand that language bears meanings and invokes histories that may exceed a writer’s conscious intentions. In short, the words we use have consequences. Taking responsibility for our words requires us to try to understand the effects they may produce.
People of Asian descent have lived in Massachusetts since at least the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, common misconceptions persist that Asian-Americans are new arrivals to U.S. society – perpetual “foreigners” who have neither experienced the more painful aspects of its racial histories nor participated in redressing them. More to the point, misguided and demeaning presumptions regarding Asian-Americans as a “model minority” often serve to obscure a long history of anti-Asian racism. Asian-Americans have been barred from becoming naturalized citizens, targeted by mob violence and incarcerated en masse in wartime, all on the basis of race.
The legacy of this history still shapes everyday experiences of anti-Asian racism, which may include petty harassment, serious threats and physical violence. Such incidents are rarely “only” about race, but when race is specifically invoked in such a situation, whether through a slur or a more “neutral” racial signifier, racism makes its presence felt, in ways that may be only dimly perceived by the actors involved. Moreover, these incidents are commonly gendered and sexualized. For example, Asian-American women are often sexually harassed in ways that call attention to their race. Understanding the histories of imperialism and warfare that produced stereotypes of Asian women as sexually subservient helps you to recognize that harassment as simultaneously racist and sexist – as intertwined issues, rather than separate ones.
Vince Schleitwiler, assistant professor of English
Ji-Young Um, assistant professor of English
Dorothy Wang, assistant professor of American studies