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Ask the Expert: Combating Asian Hate and Stereotypes

Wed May 5, 2021

On Monday morning, government officials in New York spoke at a rally to decry the recent spate of hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the United States and call for harsher punishment. 

“To those who perpetuate Asian hate, we now have people in the Justice Department dedicated to finding you, exposing you and prosecuting you,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader from New York, said at the rally. 

But as if to illustrate the pervasiveness of the problem these days, only hours later, an Asian woman walking in Manhattan was struck in the head with a hammer by a stranger who demanded that the victim remove her mask.  

That incident is part of a larger and disturbing trend nationwide. According to a study by researchers from Cal State San Bernardino, hate crimes, particularly against Asian-Americans, surged by 169% in 15 major cities from the first quarter of 2020 to the same time period this year. The shootings of eight Asian women at three separate spas across Atlanta in March was only the most egregious and shocking example.  

In response, the Senate last month overwhelmingly approved legislation aimed at strengthening federal efforts to address hate crimes directed at Asian-Americans.

The historic underpinnings of the prejudice and stereotyping that contribute to this wave of Asian hate has become the major scholarly thrust of Susie Lan Cassel, a longtime professor of literature and writing studies at Cal State San Marcos. Cassel participated last month in two virtual campus events focused on the topic: “Conversations That Matter: From Yellow Peril to COVID-19” and “The Hypersexualization of Asian Women in America: From Stereotype to Massacre.” (Additionally, the University Library has created a resource guide titled "Stop Asian Hate: Anti-Racism & Cultural Awareness.")

 

Question: How did you come to be interested in the field of Chinese American history and literature? 

Susie Lan Cassel: In graduate school, I was going to focus on feminist studies until I learned about a new field that was emerging based on texts such as “The Joy Luck Club” and, more importantly, “The Woman Warrior.” This new kind of literature was being used to help us think through bicultural tensions at every level, including language, moral values, family expectations, race, gender, ethnicity, food, personal identity, etc. I relished the opportunity to contribute to understanding these issues at cognitive and emotional levels since many of these tensions had been such integral and unspoken parts of my life … and I wanted to share those discussions with students in the classroom.  

After I arrived at CSUSM, a colleague at the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum introduced me to a local diary that was written by Ah Quin, a Chinese immigrant widely considered the first mayor of San Diego’s early Chinatown (in the Gaslamp Quarter). Helping us understand what life was like for Ah Quin and his wife, Ah Sue, during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act has become my life’s work, and toward that goal, I’m editing his diary and writing an interpretive book about their lives. Though I knew the history of Chinese immigration before delving into this San Diego Chinese couple’s lives, I had to understand it in a personal way in order to grasp what it was like for them to live during those times. I am finding a lot of similarity between the anti-immigrant discourse of the present and what Chinese experienced in the late 19th century, such as the sense of economic threat, the fear of immigrating hordes, etc.  

 

Q: What was the main message you tried to convey in “From Yellow Peril to COVID-19?” 

SLC: In this panel, I wanted listeners to understand that “yellow peril” in America developed in response to the fear in the 19th century that “hordes from Asia” would invade America’s shores and take over this beautiful, newfound country. If we look at the big picture, we can understand how such a fear could develop. China was the biggest country in the world at the time, with something like 430 million people (compared to America’s 50 million or so). However, not all Chinese wanted to immigrate. This is a crucial fact. In the 19th century, only Chinese from the southern province of Guangdong came to America, and the vast majority of those came from just a few specific counties that were devastated by overpopulation combined with war, political and climate tragedies. By one estimate, only about 170,000 of the 12 million or so people who immigrated to America in the second half of the 19th century were Chinese. This bears repeating – millions came to America from Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere, but only a fraction came from China. The scope of immigration from China was nowhere near the level that was feared even before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, but we were unable to accept this truth. 

The circumstances were made worse by America’s perception of Chinese as extreme “others,” such that fears in three additional domains arose. First, Chinese were considered an economic threat because some believed they took jobs away from white working men. Second, Chinese were often scapegoated and blamed disproportionally for disease spread (like we see now with COVID-19). Third, they were seen as a threat to the morals of a Victorian Christian culture because of their “heathen” beliefs and “hypersexualized” women (more on the latter below). In short, initial fears about massive waves of Chinese immigration were augmented by domestic beliefs that Chinese were so unassimilable that they threatened America’s Victorian, Christian framework. These fears compounded into a racial metaphor that viewed Chinese – and later other Asians – as a “yellow peril,” an existential threat to civilization itself.  

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the idea of “yellow peril” spread to Japanese and other Asians. The problem is that none of the fears mentioned above materialized. Again, in the 30 years that Chinese had open immigration to this country (before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed), only about 150,000 arrived – a small fraction of the tens of millions of European settlers. History has shown time and time again that the threats associated with Asians in America have been exaggerated or misplaced, but they still have caused great harm. During World War II, for instance, the Munson Report (a U.S. government investigation issued in 1941) found that Japanese in America were basically loyal and of no great threat, but just three months later, America decided to imprison 117,000 people of Japanese descent anyway, the majority of them American citizens. Again, we have a history of ignoring facts when they don’t align with our anxieties, but we can do better than that. We must challenge ourselves to be more rigorous.  

 

Q: And what was your message in “The Hypersexualization of Asian Women in America”? 

SLC: In my mind, the hypersexualization of Asian women stems from laws and policies passed in the 19th century specifically to keep Chinese from becoming long-term settlers in America. In short, Chinese male laborers in 19th-century America were paid significantly less than white workers. As a result, few men were able to bring their wives (by 1860, fewer than 2,000 Chinese women were here, compared with about 35,000 Chinese men). Chinese generally planned to stay for only 3-5 years, but their depressed wages gave capitalists an incentive to continue to hire them. Conversely, tens of thousands of Chinese were willing to forego family reunification in order to work in America and support their families back in China. As a result, tens of thousands of Chinese men lived in America for decades and even lifetimes, developing the California swamplands, new railroad lines, some Napa Valley vineyards, fisheries, etc.  

Meanwhile, a very unfortunate sex disparity emerged within Chinatowns. Because Chinese men couldn’t support their wives on the low wages – and many thought they would head back to China sooner rather than later – very few Chinese women came to America. For the last half of the 19th century, on average, there was only one Chinese woman for 20 Chinese men in America. The few Chinese women who came as wives and servants were therefore often forced into prostitution. Furthermore, Chinese Tong gangsters began to kidnap, buy or trick women in China and smuggle them here for sexual service. About 10,000 Chinese women came to America in the 19th century, and it is possible that the majority of them were prostitutes – but not because Chinese women were inherently more licentious or immoral, as Americans often believed. Said differently, Americans had good reasons for believing that most Chinese women were working in the sex trade, but they didn’t understand that these women had been forced into prostitution, in part as a result of the economic discrimination against Chinese men. Because of these circumstances, Chinese women were soon stereotyped as “hypersexual,” and the Victorians began to pass laws to ban all Chinese women from coming to America in order to preserve American Christian morality (e.g., Page Law of 1875). The Victorians simply failed to grasp that the very economic discrimination they had perpetrated against Chinese men had fostered trafficking in Chinese women since Chinese men couldn’t afford to bring their wives and worked in America for decades at a time.  

In the 20th century, America’s involvement in multiple wars in Asia gave way to several “war bride acts” that allowed soldiers to bring women they had met in Asian countries to America. These women reinforced the 19th-century view that Asian women were obedient, hypersexual and poor. In short, in this panel, I wanted listeners to understand that the continued hypersexualization of Asian women is an unintended consequence of America’s immigration laws and discriminatory policies. This stereotype didn’t come out of nowhere. Fundamentally, Asian women are no more sexual than any other women, but the idea that they are came from policies that shaped how Americans and Westerners view(ed) these once strangers. 

 

Q: As someone with your research background, what was your reaction when you heard about the mass shooting in Atlanta? 

SLC: Like many others, I was deeply saddened and pained, but in an environment where Asian women have been the targets of 68% of nearly 4,000 acts against Asians in the last year, I was not surprised. There is a long history of violence against Chinese in this country and especially in this state. By one estimate, at the height of the violence against Chinese, between 1885-1886, there were 168 mob attacks that sought to drive Chinese out of various Chinatowns, most of them in California. In addition, 34 Chinese were murdered in a raid in Hells Canyon in Oregon. Twenty-eight were shot in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Closer to home, many people don’t know that in 1871, 19 Chinese men and one 14-year-old Chinese boy were lynched by a white mob in Los Angeles. Violence against Chinese in this country has a long and mostly silent history that it is time to acknowledge more fully.  

What has been striking to me now as I re-immerse myself in Chinese American history is the extent to which this violence suggests that America didn’t just want to stop additional Chinese from coming, but wanted to kick out all the Chinese who were here. It is common knowledge, I think/hope, that 15,000 Chinese men risked life and limb to help build the first transcontinental railroad; once it was done, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned working-class Chinese men from entering America. But even after 1882, laws like the Scott Act of 1888 prevented Chinese from being able to visit China and return to America (something like 20,000 Chinese were stranded, some on ships in the middle of the Pacific Ocean); the Geary Act in 1892 humiliated resident Chinese by forcing them to carry registration papers; and general immigration acts in the early 1900s were applied discriminately against Chinese women in a continued effort to deport them. The combined message is pretty clear: America did not want Chinese to establish homes and settlements in the U.S., unlike European counterparts who were welcomed to plant roots and came by the millions. 

 

Q: How does the bloodshed in Atlanta fit into a historical context of Asian stereotypes and violence against Asians? 

SLC: I believe that many of the stereotypes about Asians grow out of the anti-immigration laws that were passed against Chinese. I mentioned above the way the laws stereotyped Chinese women as “hypersexualized” and prevented them from immigrating. In addition, miscegenation laws prohibited Chinese from marrying out, so Chinese family formation was delayed in America for 100 years. This is one origin for the stereotype of Asians as “forever foreigners.”  

Also, because Chinese were discriminated against economically, the later generations of Asian immigrants understood that they would have to work extra hard in order to make a living in America, so they urged their kids into math and science fields to improve economic stability and taught them that the cards are stacked against them and they would have to sacrifice fun and work extra hard in order to succeed —thus the “model minority” stereotype and a focus in STEM fields. Yes, there were additional factors, like language issues, that helped to make some of these stereotypes persist, but I believe they began with conditions of systemic racism that can’t be ignored. 

 

Q: What are your thoughts about the debate taking place as to whether to charge the murders as a hate crime? 

SLC: We should understand well enough how racial stereotypes operate in our society such that words like “go back to China” need not be explicitly uttered in the moment of a violent act for it to qualify as a hate crime. Six of the eight people who were murdered in Atlanta on March 16 were Asian women. The shooter said he had a sex addiction and drove to three different spas in order to seek out those whom he considered “temptations.” As I discussed above, Asian women have been hypersexualized in America due to laws and policies embraced across the last two centuries. Furthermore, the women who were killed were working in an industry that is associated with sex work (which also has a historical legacy). In short, the Atlanta women were in double jeopardy. They were killed for no reason of their own making. Instead, they were triply disadvantaged, representatives at the nexus of misogyny, class and race. Again, I see this tragedy in terms of the legacy of structural racism, of policies that were passed decades ago that continue to render Asians and, in this case, Asian women vulnerable in Western society today. From a literary lens, this massacre can be seen as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of some immigration laws and policies. 

 

Q: As an Asian American, have you experienced any prejudice due to your background

SLC: Yes, I get it from three sides: from whites, Asians and Mexicans. My mother is ethnic Chinese born in Vietnam, and my father was a GI who met my mother in Vietnam. I am thus a product of America's 20th-century history with war brides. As a result, I've been asked whether my mother was a prostitute (no!); I've been called different versions of "half breed," stalked by a Sinophile for a few years, and treated like a monkey in a cage when I speak Cantonese. I grew up in Chula Vista, where I also have been regularly mistaken as Chicana and scolded by Mexican elders for not speaking Spanish better

 

Q: Do you have any friends or family who have felt prejudice? How damaging has the last year been for them? 

SLC: I live with my mother in a three-generation household, so out of caution for her, I honestly haven’t gone out much this year. We worry a lot about older people and women who are out walking or shopping alone.  

 

Q: Do you think there will be long-term effects in the Chinese American community from the use of derogatory terms like “China virus” and “kung flu”? 

SLC: As long as the U.S. has a taut relationship with China, and Asians in America are seen as “others,” moments like this simply reinforce an already extant history of “yellow peril.” Every time America has issues with China, Chinese restaurants will suffer. Until we can see each other as individuals and bond via our shared humanity, this kind of tribalism and violence will unfortunately persist.  

 

Q: What do you think can be done to combat Asian hate and Asian stereotyping? 

SLC: For me, the best antidote to both stereotypes and fear is good information. If we understand where stereotypes come from historically, they can lose some of their power today. So let’s start by opening our minds and trying to understand how we got here. Let’s agree that America is a great country for many reasons, among them the promise embedded in the Statue of Liberty and her creed to “give me your tired and poor.” But just as we are not perfect as individuals, America has not perfectly executed its promise. This land was not ours to take; our great fields and railroads were, in part, built on the backs of slave and immigrant laborers who suffered and were too often vanquished; America has played favorites, extending settlement rights to some immigrants while banning others. Let’s look honestly at our history so that we know our full selves. Ethnic studies classes can give helpful perspectives. In addition, let’s commit to trying to put our fears to rest by seeking good information and corroborating it. Let’s be rigorous in our thinking and vigilant in examining our sources (every faculty member on campus will be happy to help with this!). Let’s talk to one another and try to understand one another’s viewpoints and subject positions. Let’s be of good faith and remember that we are all in this together, trying to forge the best life and community possible … together.