Anti-Asian violence is nothing new. It's always been part of American history, along with the denials and non-apologies that come with it. It's only now that many of us are coming to terms with it and realizing how dangerous it is to the people and cultural institutions we love.
When the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) issued a public statement in response to a blatantly racist, anti-Chinese meme posted on social media by SAG-AFTRA board member John Mitchell (who has since been removed from the board), it came on the heels of news coverage about recent violent assaults on Asian community members in the United States.
“Our founding principle is about standing up for our community and making spaces for our community,” PAAFF festival director Selena Yip told BSR. “If a member of SAG-AFTRA, a nationally known union, is saying and doing things that go against what we believe in, and they’re supposed to be representing people in our community, we’re clearly not being represented once again.”
The normalization of racist jokes, non-apologies like the one offered by SAG-AFTRA after local news anchors Nydia Han and Denise Nakano called out Mitchell’s offending post, and a historic lack of accountability for crimes committed against Asian persons set a tone that contributes to physical violence toward people of Asian descent. These acts of violence, which are gaining national attention in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, are indicative of a long-term issue, Yip explained.
“It’s not really a spike; [anti-Asian violence has] been happening for a really long time,” Yip said.
Clarity about our past
She’s not wrong, and history is full of grim examples from the film and television industry.
In one example, in 1988 future Hollywood A-lister Mark Wahlberg viciously attacked two Vietnamese men with a five-foot-long wooden stick, causing one of them to permanently lose sight in one of his eyes. Though he yelled anti-Vietnamese slurs at the men as he attacked them, Wahlberg’s crime was considered by law enforcement to be unmotivated by race. He served 45 days in prison, and went on to become a celebrated actor and owner of a burger chain. Wahlberg requested a pardon for his conviction in 2014, but dropped it two years later after a very public backlash, which included a statement from a Black woman who was assaulted as a child by Wahlberg two years before his attack on the Vietnamese men.
During World War II the US fought fascism abroad but violated the rights of Asian Americans at home. On February 19, 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted America's entrance into the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration incarcerated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, more than half of them children, and more than two thirds of them American citizens. For more than four years, these citizens and legal residents were held in concentration camps on American soil under the racism-fueled suspicion that they may be traitors or Japanese operatives.
They included future actor, author, and activist George Takei. After a celebrated career in film and television, Takei starred in the musical Allegiance (premiering in San Diego in 2012 and later on Broadway), inspired by the stories of Japanese Americans imprisoned in the camps. He also documented his own experience in the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy in 2019.
A better future
Knowing this history, it’s important to also remember that the future is in our hands. Everyone can take action to end anti-Asian hatred.
Learn about Asian American history and experience works of art by Asian American artists. Read books about Asian American history and culture. Watch movies made by artists of Asian descent. Learn about the obstacles (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act) Asian immigrants faced as they made their way to the United States. The Free Library of Philadelphia's Asian Americans website has book lists and resources to help you get started, and PAAFF has launched a new Film Club to invite film lovers of all backgrounds to connect through Asian and Pacific Islander cinema. And PAAFF board chair (and BSR writer) Rob Buscher hosts Look Toward the Mountain, a new podcast detailing stories of Japanese Americans in a Wyoming concentration camp during WWII.
Support organizations that promote Asian American artists and their work. Mark your calendar for the 14th annual Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and buy tickets for its at-home or in-person screenings (depending on social-distancing restrictions) when it hits screens in November. Check out events and exhibits from Asian Arts Initiative, including Unity at the Initiative, a multisite and at-home experience. Share and retweet social media posts from these organizations and others that represent Asian American artists and creatives.
Call out anti-Asian messaging when you hear it and see it. When a friend or relative shares a meme that shows harmful stereotypes or false information about Asian community members, don't let it slide. Say that what they've shared is contributing to anti-Asian violence and it's causing harm to people you care about. Even responding briefly with "This isn’t true," or "Why is this funny?" can prompt the person to take it down and start a valuable conversation. Beyond that, ask arts and culture organizations you are part of or support, like SAG-AFTRA, what they are doing to stop anti-Asian racism (like updating the board member vetting process, suggests Yip) and offer more opportunities for Asian American artists and performers.
Be mindful of how you describe acts of anti-Asian violence and oppression. Words matter, especially when it comes to talking about how Asian Americans were treated in the past. The detention centers where people of Japanese descent were imprisoned during WWII are often called “internment camps” today, but it’s important to call them what they were: concentration camps (even President Roosevelt and officials in his administration used the words “concentration camp” at the time). We owe it to survivors of this shameful moment in history, like George Takei, to describe the tools of oppression by their real names, just as we owe it to Asian American community members who face harassment and physical violence now to call out anti-Asian racism when we witness it.
Image description: A photo of an Asian man sitting on a stool against a black background. He wears a dark blue polo shirt and has a tattoo on one arm. He holds up a WWII-era magazine with a racist caricature of a Japanese person on it. He has a dismayed expression.
Image description: A photo of the opening reception of the 2020 American Peril: Faces of the Enemy exhibition in the large, marble-lined corridors of Philadelphia City Hall. Small groups of people look at the photos on the walls and talk with each other.