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A little encouragement from across the fence. Photo by Joshua Huston

Say it loud and clear: We belong here  

Anti-Asian crimes display violent tribalism that needs to end.

Anti-Asian hate: I grew up in a small town in New England. My parents had moved there to get away from the city, and we were one of only three Chinese families in town. For me, that just meant we ate with chopsticks and got money in red envelopes on Chinese New Year. Other than that, I thought I was a normal American kid.  

Then, one day in second grade, I was walking home from school and waiting at an intersection for the light to change, when a school bus pulled up beside me. Some kids on the bus were pressing their faces against the windows, and pulling the corners of their eyes into narrow,  slanted slits. They were chanting something that was muffled by the glass, but it sounded like: Ching-chong-Chinky-chong-Chinky-chong-ching.  

When I got home, I told my mom about it. She looked at me sadly, and sat me down. Then she gave me “The Talk.”  

The Talk is the conversation non-white parents have with their kids when the realities of race can’t be ignored anymore. She didn’t tell me to never run away or never put my hands in my pockets when the police are watching, the way Black parents have to. She just gave me the Asian version.  

Those kids are stupid and ignorant. Ignore them. Keep your head down, mind your business, and  stay out of trouble. Eventually, they’ll go away.  

My mom was no stranger to racism. As a schoolgirl in New York City, she watched white people throw bricks through store windows in Chinatown after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Never mind that the Japanese had attacked China, too, raping and killing tens of thousands of defenseless civilians. The subtleties get lost when people are angry and scared.  

Her parents had to hang a sign in the window of their bakery: “We are Chinese-Americans. We are not Japanese.” She made sure not to go into white neighborhoods alone. She stayed home after dark. She stayed out of trouble. Eventually, the war went away.  

For me, things eventually got better, too. The name-calling and harassment peaked in middle school, then gradually faded. When I went to college in California, anti-Asian racism disappeared from my life entirely – until it didn’t. 

Last year, when it became clear that the pandemic was going to be a huge political liability, some politicians looked around for a scapegoat. They quickly settled on China. Soon the phrases “China virus” and “Wuhan flu” were in steady circulation, quickly followed by the more derisive “Kung flu.” Within months, reports of violence against Asians started to rise. Over the course of 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes increased 150% over the previous year. So far in 2021, that trend is only accelerating, and growing more deadly.  

In my mom’s hometown of New York City, there were 28 reported incidents of anti-Asian violence last year, up from three in 2019. In one recent brutal attack, a man was caught on video kicking and stomping a 65-year-old woman and yelling, “You don’t belong here!” Onlookers simply turned the other way.  

The politicians, of course, claim to deplore these attacks, and ooze indignation when anyone suggests that they bear some responsibility. Yet, whether consciously or not, they’re blowing the same dog whistles that have triggered every wave of racial violence since the beginning of humankind.  

There is a deep, subconscious vein of violent tribalism in the human psyche. It’s been there since our prehistoric ancestors defended their territory from marauding outsiders, and it’s alive and well just beneath our civilized veneer. Our failure to admit that, and to confront it head-on, is the root cause of the war, racism and inequality that have plagued us throughout our history, and that still torment us now.  

As parents, we need to understand that being non-racist, and raising non-racist children, isn’t enough. We need to be anti-racist. We need to provide an active counterforce to millions of years of evolution that will forever be a part of who we are. We need to admit that our children, no matter how innocent, kind and well-raised, will always be one social upheaval away from the Hitler Youth, the machete-swinging adolescents of the Rwandan genocide and the gun-toting children of the Cambodian killing fields. Maybe white families in America should have their own version of The Talk, where their children can learn about the dangers and risks that come with the color of their skin.  

As for my fellow Asian Americans, history has lessons for us as well. Being a “model minority” won’t protect us, any more than it did the Jews who were model Germans in 1939. Keeping our heads down isn’t enough. We need to teach our children that they belong here, as much as anyone else, and that they should say so loud and clear.  

Jeff Lee lives, writes and works in Seattle. This column was originally published April 12, 2021

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About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.