In recent weeks, fears over the spread of COVID-19 have fueled a surge in anti-Asian American hate crimes across the United States, prompting a dialogue within the Asian American community about collective actions that could be taken to prevent such hostility.

As an Asian American who experienced racism during my upbringing in central Massachusetts and later in my professional life, I felt compelled to respond.

In a Washington Post op-ed, former Democratic candidate for president, Andrew Yang, offered a solution to the recent uptick in xenophobic incidents, arguing that Asian Americans need to show their “Americanness” by doing everything we can to accelerate the end of the COVID-19 crisis.

Yang faced backlash from some members of the Asian American community who found the concept of having to prove one’s Americanness to be offensive. After all, an extension of Yang’s argument would suggest that simple acts of patriotism are enough to stop racism.

Andrew Yang speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, in 2019. His recent response to COVID-fueled racism has drawn some heat. Flickr: Gage Skidmore/2019

But one need not look beyond the Japanese-American experience during World War II, when 120,000 people joined the armed services while their families were detained in internment camps, to conclude otherwise.

Debate surrounding Yang’s troubling proposal shed light on a widespread perception often cast on the Asian American community. It begets a narrative that goes something like this: Asian Americans are permanent foreigners in their own country and, as such, can and should be treated as “the other.”

Such is the narrative that inspires the saying “go back to your own country.” When hostilities are incited against “the other,” that serves as a rallying cry to face a common enemy — whether real or imagined.

Pervasive Racism

To be sure, Asian Americans are not unique in their treatment as foreigners in their own country, but the wounds do not cut any less deep. Recent attacks on the Asian American community conjured up painful memories from my youth. Walking home from school, I was called a “gook” and physically assaulted because of my skin color.

During a high school pick-up basketball game, a police officer singled me out, handcuffed me, and threw me against my car without justification. The officer, unable to explain why he threatened me with arrest, only released me when friends began photographing and recording his abuse of authority.

At the time, central Massachusetts lived up to its reputation of pervasive racism, and the perpetrators of the racist incidents against me were motivated by an effort to make me feel different. In their eyes, I did not belong.

Years later, I saw questions of loyalty and patriotism have a disproportionate impact on U.S. government officials of Asian descent, even if their language skills and cultural knowledge make them uniquely qualified to advance U.S. interests. The State Department has made important strides to ensure transparency for officers facing barriers to certain assignments based on their ethnicity, but also acknowledges much work remains to be done to advance diversity, representation, and inclusion.

If we don’t tell our story, no one else will.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work closely with State Department leadership to ensure the diplomatic corps reflects the diversity of the American people and foster understanding that Asian Americans have already answered the call to service for decades.

Collective action against COVID-fueled racism starts with a recognition that discrimination against Asian Americans is easily dismissed and even tolerated because of the concept of otherness. This tendency is further exacerbated by the equally damaging image that paints Asian Americans as the model minority, subservient to a system pitted against them. For their part, some Asian Americans, lulled into a false sense of belonging, are vulnerable to letting instances of racism roll off their backs.

In order to chip away at the perception of otherness, Asian Americans should capture the moment to situate themselves in the American public discourse. For far too long, our shared story of discrimination has gone untold.

COVID-fueled racism presents a unique opportunity to do so now that xenophobic incidents are surging to the forefront of headlines.  With the fastest growing minority group in the United States whose members are increasingly breaking barriers in respective industries, the space for telling the Asian-American story continues to expand.

Any effort to share our collective story of discrimination should be sustained, vocal, and conducted in solidarity with the experiences of other minority and underrepresented groups in the United States.

Finding commonalities in a struggle against racism would reinforce and strengthen the message that discrimination should not be tolerated under any circumstance, regardless of the victim and whether a search is underway for a pandemic scapegoat.

As a public servant, I appreciate and admire Andrew Yang’s call to action. But a call to action shouldn’t have to satisfy a litmus test for Americanness.

Instead it can serve as a catalyst for making our shared story heard. Because if we don’t tell it, no one else will.

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