Language is power. When language is deployed at a sector of the population to dehumanize, it can transcend verbal abuse to physical violence. In the past year alone, we have witnessed the damage that unchecked venomous rhetoric can do when it’s deployed at scapegoating certain populations or eliding the truth of our nation’s history.
We know that our country’s ideals of freedom and justice have conflicted with our history’s founding in genocide and enslavement. We know that the subsequent systemic racism has targeted people of color, resulting in violence, including police brutality, as well as official policies that have prevented access to housing, jobs, and the ability to accumulate and pass down wealth to future generations. As Heather McGhee argues, our cultural climate has allowed racial equity to be seen as a “zero-sum game” and a competition for resources, rather than an outcome that benefits everyone. We saw one dangerous result of this mindset alarmingly manifest in the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
Over the past year, we have seen distressing increases in crimes against Asian American citizens; 3,795 anti-Asian hate crimes were reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia during the pandemic. Much of the uptick in these crimes was presumably due to the inaccurate blaming of Asians for COVID-19, but the big-picture truth is that the COVID-blaming is just another example of racism and discrimination directed at Americans of Asian descent that has been transpiring since their first arrivals in the United States.
It was horrifying and heartbreaking—but sadly not surprising—to learn that a white man had murdered eight people in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian women. It was heartbreaking to see how racial bias played into the depiction of these brutal murders. A Cherokee County Sheriff Office captain said the murderer was “having a bad day,” and the killer himself blamed his “sexual addiction” for his brutal crimes. For some people, this explanation means that the threshold of a hate crime was not met.
Accepting this decontextualized, surface-level explanation means that we continue to deny the power that language can have to reveal inequities and to examine our history unflinchingly. When we allow a mass murderer to label his own actions at the expense of historical context, everyone loses because it ignores a history of systematized, legal racism directed at Asian Americans spanning from the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act that restricted Chinese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, to Japanese internment during World War II, to the deliberate racially-charged language of the immediate past that called COVID-19 the “Wuhan flu,” and worse.
When we approach a horrific mass murder as an isolated, individual act, we dehumanize the victims and invite more such atrocities. When we accept the perpetrator’s definition of his unforgivable actions as “not a hate crime,” we normalize his behavior and dishonor the truth. If we consider how seldom we, as a culture, talk about racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s not surprising that we have become complicit in the gaslighting that has occurred. These community members’ fear in the face of increased harassment and violence deserves to be acknowledged and must be addressed with action.
Asian women, in particular, have faced harassment and violence since they first came to the United States. Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, stated, “Saying that this violence is not racially motivated is part of a related history of the denial of racism in the Asian American experience. Racism and white supremacy have been, and tragically continue to be, part of the Asian American experience.” When we consider the sexually submissive stereotypes of Asian women and their fetishization as exotic “lotus blossoms,” or “dragon ladies,” we must acknowledge the complexity of factors that incited these murders and other violent acts committed against Asian American women.
Roxane Gay plainly states, “A hate crime was committed. It was vicious, gendered, and racially motivated. It was about class, the fetishization of Asian women, and men feeling entitled to sex. To eradicate this kind of moral rot, we need to name every part of it.” Naming these intersecting elements allows us to stand up against, denounce, and resist the systems that protect this “moral rot.”
I am grateful to our community for the work we have been doing and continue to value around diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism. And I deeply appreciate our teachers who have been able to navigate so expertly these often tricky conversations with children in the classroom. Below are a few resources our teachers and administrators have utilized in preparation for such discussions, where appropriate.
Anti-racism is not a zero-sum game. We are all better when we see diversity as powerful and effective, when we choose to face our complicated and painful national history, and when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and humble in the face of hard truths.
We have chosen to accept the idea of a zero-sum game, so we can choose to disavow it. Where we do have power and privilege, let’s leverage it, rather than stalling in guilt or denial. We can make a difference in the lives of our Asian American and Pacific Islander colleagues, families, and friends who are hurting right now. We must hold both the long view and the immediate future simultaneously, taking one step after another in the right direction. Our children are watching us.
Warmly and in solidarity,
Head of School