Just as I’ve found the strength to move on from one story, it feels like another tragedy is around the corner. Like many of you, I’ve been reeling these past two weeks from the shooting in Atlanta where six Asian women died. My heart aches for the loved ones of all eight people who perished.
Among the reports of this vicious crime across left-leaning media outlets, I’ve noticed a trend where the source of anti-Asian violence is traced back to the former U.S. president. There is no doubt his racist rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic emboldened many of his followers to unleash their hatred and abuse on marginalized people all around the country.
My concern with this attribution is that it reproduces a comfortable myth that racism (and other violent expressions of systemic injustice) is always something that exists ‘out there’.
It’s a time-worn tradition to pick the biggest, baddest, loudest, most comically evil ‘racist’ and claim injustice starts with them.
, I’ve been thinking a lot about Hannah Arendt and her theorizing around the “banality of evil”. She first introduced this notion in 1963 when she reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key organizers of the Holocaust, which Arendt herself escaped.
In his trial, Eichmann insisted on his positive regard for Jewish people and his disdain for their genocide by the Nazi regime. He attested that the horrors he orchestrated and optimized were the result of simply following his superiors’ orders as a good, obedient bureaucrat.
Arendt’s concept came under much fire. Many felt the word ‘banality’ abstracted and minimized the Final Solution. Others insisted that this was a misreading of Arendt’s meaning. Arendt herself admitted that she wasn’t altogether clear on what she meant by the phrase either when she first penned it.
Despite its problems, the banality of evil illuminates some powerful insights into hatred and violence.
It’s a reminder that oppression is rarely located in individuals.
Rather, oppression is systemic, deeply embedded in our institutions and culture, woven into our ideology that it simply becomes ‘normal’ and ‘natural’.
Anti-Asian hate has been a fundamental dimension of American, Canadian, Australian, and British systems and cultures for decades. We were derided as the “yellow peril” since the earliest migrants arrived from China in the 1850s during the gold rush after the Opium Wars when Britain devastated Chinese people and communities.
In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the Geary Act of 1892 extended bans on Chinese immigration. Canada had restricted Chinese migration since 1885 through severe taxation. In 1923, The Chinese Immigration Act effectively banned almost all Chinese migrants from entering Canada. The Federation of Australia was celebrated with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, signaling the start of the White Australia policy.
During World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans including children were forcibly incarcerated. In contrast, German Americans were not relocated or interned on any large scale. I used to think this was a purely American tragedy until I found out that approximately 21,000 Japanese Canadians were detained in Canada and 4,000 Japanese Australians in Australia.
Hate crimes and police brutality against Asian Americans rocked the communities throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, such as the death of Vincent Chin in 1982 and the police beating of Peter Yew in 1975.
Jeff Chang, an Asian American activist recalls this moment of political awakening when Asian migrants realized that they could be stronger when they stood together: “there was a time when the term ‘Asian American’ was not merely a demographic category, but a fight you were picking with the world”.
Anti-Asian hate is not new and it was certainly not invented by the former U.S. president.
It is reproduced every day by people who would balk to think of themselves as ‘racist’. People who think of themselves as progressives but don’t call out their family and friends for their racism in fear of rocking the boat. People who vote left but don’t have any meaningful friendships with people of color. People who are proud of eating at ‘ethnic’ restaurants but also think most non-white migrants are weird or rude.Maya Angelou observes how:
Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good. … The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-fashion in the filthy hatches of slave-ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We turn our heads in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of ourselves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we’ve just been reminded of.
Oppression is also often internalized. When I first began teaching at the University of Sydney, a Chinese student in our subject angrily complained about being placed into a group with other “stupid” Chinese students who “couldn’t speak English”. Her wounds were deep and painful to bear witness.
When I meet other Asian scholars at academic conferences, I find I go through a tacit ‘safety check’. Do their research papers acknowledge systems of power/oppression? Do they work with other scholars of color or exclusively white scholars? Do they cite thinkers of color or exclusively white philosophers? When I smile at them, do they smile back?
Of course, I know this set of criteria is clumsy and reductionistic, but I need every protection and precaution before entering what can often be toxic spaces.
I feel there is a shift and stirring underneath these recent incidences of anti-Asian hate. The anger in our communities seems to be reverberating globally. Many of us can see the normalized, ‘banal’ patterns of hate threading through a violent history of European colonialism, immigration restriction, forced incarceration, U.S. colonialism, police brutality, and COVID-19 racism.
We are feeling the urgency and necessity of dismantling white supremacy.
We rage at white supremacy while also holding onto principled anger towards the abuses of Asian nation states, including the genocide of Uyghur, Rohingya, and Kashmiri peoples and the sustained subjugation of Dalits and the working poor. All systems of oppression are wrong and we do not need to choose one over the other to fight.
, the tarot card I wanted to invite to this missive today is the Knight of Swords.
In the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck, they are astride a charging white horse with their sword in hand outstretched. They are riding into battle, daring and direct, prepared to lay their body on the line to defend the values they hold dear.
Birds adorn this energetic card. The Knight’s cape is printed with birds, seen also on the horse’s harness and reins, while a flock can be glimpsed in the distant sky. The birds represent the lofty intellectual ideals of the Knight and the power to achieve them in the face of resistance and adversity.
The Knight of Swords, however, can sometimes be too impulsive and impatient. The small red heart on the horse’s halter is a reminder of the compassion and responsibility we need to balance our gusty pursuit of justice.
P.S. The next couple of days is the last chance to register for my workshop on surviving the white patriarchal academy. 304 people have signed up, which is beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you for being curious about what I have to share. I’m determined to make this my best workshop ever.