Commissioner Susheela Jayapal
On March 21, 1910 — more than a century ago — a mob of two hundred white residents of St Johns, then an independent town just north of Portland, attacked a small community of Indian immigrants who had arrived at the tail end of the nineteenth century to work at the local lumber mills. The Indian workers were beaten, one was thrown out of a second story window, and eventually all were forcibly put on trains and sent south to Portland. The next day, the St. Johns Review decried the violence, but described “the Hindus” (most were Sikhs, not Hindus) as “an undesirable class of citizens by reason of their grotesque appearance and filthy conditions.”
Racism and violence have always been part of the Asian experience in the United States, a fact that’s reflected in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans, the St Johns riots, the Islamophobia that resulted in violence against South Asians after September 11th, on to the fresh wave we’re seeing today. None of this is new.
And that it is not new makes it a painful reminder that we are still seen as dirty, diseased (literally, according to the former president), and foreign. It makes me wonder whether I will ever be truly seen as American.
But what is changing, I think, and what gives me hope, is the growing understanding within our Asian communities that this violence against us is part of a shared history with each other, and with other communities of color — Black, Indigenous, Latinx. While there have always been some who understood this — for example, activists like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, and others who put the principle into practice decades ago by standing and working alongside Black leaders — it’s becoming far more widespread, more embedded in our concept of ourselves and of where we sit in the landscape of race and racial justice.
That understanding has been complicated by the very category of “Asian.” It lumps together a vast range of national origin, ethnicity, language, history, and culture, as well as very different reasons for and experiences of our migration to the United States. In fact, we’ve lacked even a shared definition of who is Asian American. Google “are Indians Asian”, and you’ll find a lively discussion of this. As an Indian American, I often don’t see myself in the prevailing image of who is Asian, which tends to include East and Southeast Asians rather than people from the Indian subcontinent. (I’ve received comments like “I don’t think of you as Asian” and “I don’t think of you as a person of color” – comments that render me invisible, because I’m certainly not white.) Because of this diversity, it has been difficult to both honor our distinct cultural identities and recognize our shared experience of anti-Asian racism and violence.
Many of us have also seen our struggles as separate from those of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Americans. That was certainly true for me when I came to the US in 1979, as a 16-year old, to go to college. Growing up in India, Indonesia, and Singapore, in a sea of brown, I had no language for the construct of race when I arrived here. I had language for caste, and color, and colonialism, but I didn’t understand that those frameworks were rooted in race. And as I began to perceive race and racism, I initially saw it as applicable to Black and white, not to me. It took me some time to understand that the micro-aggressions I experienced (and many not so micro) weren’t only about my being from another country, but also about the color of my skin, and that all color was a signifier of race.
What I see today, and particularly among young people — my children, for example — is the recognition that the construct of race is rooted in anti-Blackness and colonialism; and that our future is inextricably linked to that of Black and other brown Americans. That none of us is safe from white supremacy and white nationalism, and none of us will survive it unless we lift each other up.
As we respond to today’s violence, I see us connecting it to the genocide of Indigenous people, the enslavement of Black people, the policy violence of anti-immigration laws, and the carceral violence of our criminal legal system.
Grace Lee Boggs said that “the world is always being made fresh and is never finished.” That through-line, of deep understanding of the connection of our struggles and of our strength, is essential to leading us out of this violence and into a world made fresh.