Not a hyphenated American
Race and the Atlanta shootings
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I’m an Asian American— American by passport, Korean by heritage, a subconscious bearer of multiple intersecting identities, neither fully Korean nor American, a perpetual foreigner wherever I go. I never had to think of myself as an Asian while growing up in Asia, but in my adopted country I’m gradually made aware that my Asian face triggers immediate assumptions about me that I didn’t have to consider before. Yet when I visit South Korea, my own people ask the same questions: “Where are you from?” “Oh, your Korean is pretty good!”
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an Asian American in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, in which a man went on a rampage at three spas, killing eight people, six of them Asian women. I, like many other Asian Americans, was already noting the rise of attacks against Asians in major cities across the country. I had watched one video after another, trying to make sense of what’s happening: Is this a hate crime specifically targeted at Asians? Is this part of a national trend? If so, why?
Those videos also made me extremely uncomfortable: What am I supposed to think about many of the attackers being black? Am I supposed to be wary of black strangers now—the very definition of racial discrimination? If the attackers were white, it would be easy to label the acts as white supremacy. But when the violence is between minorities, how do we begin to define it at a time when many have rallied around the Black Lives Matter movement?
I uncomfortably recalled the black-Korean conflict in 1992, in which a Korean store owner shot a 15-year-old black girl in the back of her head over a bottle of orange juice, inciting a major riot that shocked even Koreans in South Korea. I remember, before moving to the United States, people warning me about street violence in America—and they always really meant, “Watch out for black people.” If we talk about these attacks as anti-Asian hate crimes, shouldn’t we also be talking about our own community’s racism and complicity?
With the Atlanta tragedy, we have a white perpetrator. He’s not just white, but a professed Christian who attended a conservative evangelical church. For some, he is the perfect villain—he hits the trifecta of race, sex, and religion. The inside conversations that many Asian Americans had murmured among themselves are now gushing forth in a bitter spurt of sorrow, confusion, and anger.
People debating whether or not alleged killer Robert Aaron Long’s motives were racist are missing the point, though. Whatever his heart’s intent, there’s no escaping the fact that the conversations, the grief, the memories pouring out due to the Atlanta shootings are about race. I’ve spent hours talking with my Asian American friends trying to make sense of a senseless crime. Not all of us are beating our chests. Many of us are confused, not knowing what to think or feel. Some feel baffled or guilty that non-Asians seem more heartbroken than we are. Many have stayed silent, even while watching, reading, and resonating with others who also have been mocked, dismissed, and assaulted because of their race.
Do we have adequate language to understand ourselves? Who is the Asian American community? We’re not a collective, monolithic group with a shared history like the descendants of black slaves in America. Nor do we share the same language and culture. Historically, my people’s oppressors have been the Japanese. Am I supposed to feel solidarity with those who historically brutalized, raped, and colonized my people, simply because we’re all “Asian American”?
Some people want to flush away any talk about race, dismissing it as identity politics. Well, we didn’t get to choose our own identity—our identity was chosen for us by the way people view us, by the way history shaped us, by an infinite number of random, individual actions and perceptions over which we had no control or knowledge. And now, we want to speak for ourselves, to share who we are as Americans, as Asians, as individuals made in the image of Christ. Are we ready to hear these voices, beyond the loud cries of activists with narrow platforms, or people intent on dismissing the reality of racism?
I don’t delight in talking about race. I can’t speak for others, but I have no interest in painting myself as a victim, allowing activists to weaponize my racial or ethnic identity to promote their cause, or becoming a hashtag that trends for a few days. Sharing a viral Instagram post or tweet won’t diminish anti-Asian sentiment. Neither will protesting on the streets.
But looking to Christ will. Christians worship a God who went beyond showing empathy—He became us. He proved His radical love for us by wearing the skin of human beings and literally putting Himself in our shoes: walking with us, eating with us, and weeping with us.
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