(David Paul Morris / For The Times)

Coronavirus Coverage

Column: BART Woman: A reflection on COVID-19 and anti-Asian racism

A racist encounter on the BART train reflects the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/rinazhuang/" target="_self">Rina Huang</a>

Rina Huang

October 29, 2021
On March 9, 2020, I walked into the BART train and made eye contact with a middle-aged white woman who immediately pulled her shirt up to cover her nose. 

“Oh,” I thought. “It’s because I’m Chinese.” 

That realization stung. I didn’t know how to react to that, so I didn’t. I sat there and took it. Well, I sat there fuming and wondering why I was born Chinese and why I had to be blamed for COVID-19.

I didn’t want to think that the entire world was against me. It was much easier to blame everything on her, so I did. With every assumption I made about her, my anger grew. She didn’t deserve to be debated with. It was perfectly fine for me to sit back, because she was just so far gone it would be impossible to argue with her, because she was racist. She is racist. She probably teaches her children stereotypes about everyone that isn’t like her family. She probably thinks that immigrants stole a better job from her. She probably works in a small office and listens to Rush Limbaugh religiously. I packed all of my anger at the world into this wildly insane persona.

That night, while I was in bed going over what had happened, a thought occurred to me. Maybe she didn’t even mean it that way. Maybe she just hated the smell of the train that much. Maybe she just felt cold. 

So I lay there, struggling with my thoughts. Did I want her to be racist or not? 

Say she was. Say she wanted me to physically see her disgust. She looked at me and couldn’t contain her hatred. That would make this an isolated incident, an act of hate and ignorance that I can in turn ignore, and I can go on in life never worrying about this again. It was her problem, not mine.

But say she wasn’t. Say she was just cold, or her nose was itchy. If she wasn’t being racist, why did I react the way I did? 

Living in the Bay Area with its prominent Chinese American population, surrounded not just by diversity but by many people who shared the same heritage as me, I always considered the racism to be far away. People who were racist toward Chinese people resided in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, not in our beautifully diverse metropolitan areas. And yet social media, the news, and the sitting American president calling it “Chinese Virus” were screaming at me that it was only a matter of time before I was attacked. 

My struggle with this particular white woman isn’t a proper reflection of the racism I go through in America, nor is it a proper reflection of the racism people of color regularly experience. But it reflects the constant struggle we face on a day to day basis. We must always be on the lookout for racism. In a society that is inherently racist, there doesn’t need to be a direct attack for me to feel uncomfortable. Indeed, in America we can be extremely diverse, but our roots are in racism and xenophobia, a shared heritage we all have to fight every day in our lives. 

When Chinese immigrants came for the Gold Rush, America responded with the Foreign Miner’s Tax Act. When the Chinese started settling down on the West Coast, America responded with the Chinese Exclusion Act. When the Chinese simply existed, America responded with the Pigtail Ordinance, the Cable Act, and anti-miscegenation acts. With no way to gain citizenship, we were the perpetual foreigners, squeezed into Chinatowns and surrounded by anti-Chinese sentiments. San Francisco, which now has the largest percentage of Chinese Americans in the United States, was the birthplace of the Workingmen’s Party of California, which coined the then-popular statement “The Chinese must go!” Seen as a “race of people whom nature has marked as inferior” by the People vs. Hall Supreme Court case in 1854, we were degraded and humiliated. As strangers in a foreign land, as members of a community, we were attacked in our homes, two main examples being the San Francisco riot of 1877 and the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, the latter known as the largest mass lynching in American history. 

And yet somehow, we carried on, and America carried on. Now, the model minority myth follows us everywhere. We are the “perfect immigrants,” model students, and complacent followers. In only 100 years, the Chinese went from despised vermin infecting the land to now being seen as hard-working and well-educated, when a mere century before we were seen as poor and uneducated. This switch didn’t happen just because we were recognized for our hard work. This switch came at a time of turmoil in America, where the Civil Rights Movement led by mainly Black activists was shaking the nation. In calling for equal rights, they were seen as radicals. In response, white America cited the success stories of Asian Americans, Chinese Americans under that umbrella category, arguing that Black Americans could also gain success by focusing on education and conforming to a racist America. Asian Americans weren’t finally being applauded for their work; we were tools to undermine the Civil Rights Movement. 

This model minority myth makes Asian Americans one-dimensional. We are test scores, brand-name purses, and quiet sustainers of the status quo. The work we put in is dismissed because we are supposedly inherently more intelligent. Our complaints are ignored because the racism we face is not seen as equally important to the racism faced by other minorities. It ignores the history of violence and discrimination we experienced to get where we are. It encourages ignorance, because that is what drives racism. 

People are racist because they are ignorant. Ignorance is what breeds fear and hate, and ignorance is taught. Ignorance is what killed Vincent Chin, a Chinese man about to be married when two white men violently murdered him, apparently blaming him for the success of Japan’s auto industry. They didn’t spend a day in jail. Ignorance impacts people from all areas, from all races. We’ve all heard stories like Vincent Chin’s, because unfortunately, he wasn’t the outlier. The public execution of George Floyd 30 years after Chin’s murder and of Rayshard Brooks just two weeks after attests to our sad reality. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that started in WuHan, China did not start a new strain of racism against those of Chinese and Asian descent in the United States; it simply re-opened old wounds that run deep in our nation.  Nevertheless, the struggles that Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans face aren’t specific to us. Discrimination, micro-aggressions, and racism are widespread in our modern America, and they impact everyone, regardless of race. A call for an end to racism is a unifying call, a call to join together, to put aside our differences and agree that all racism should be condemned. Because when one of us suffers from its sting, all of us are poisoned. 

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