This morning, Sarin Cheung — who is part Thai, part Chinese — gave one perspective on life as an Asian-American in Westport. Here’s another, from Injae Choe.
Thank you for this opportunity for someone like me (of Korean and Chinese descent) to speak up at this particular time as a Westport resident.
I am a sole proprietor professional making a comfortable living, but I certainly am not immune to both overt and covert forms of racism. I own and operate a mindbody acupressure practice both in New York City and here in Connecticut, so the recent gun shootings targeting mostly Asian massage therapists that took place in Atlanta did indeed hit home.
Since the birth of our daughter 9 years ago, my family eagerly moved to Westport from Brooklyn. Ever since, we have felt very much welcomed and well integrated into this community, except for the following couple of incidents.
At the start of the pandemic last year inside a local store, one customer (white male in his late 50s-60s) went on a long, vocal, racially charged rant against the “China virus” and the inconveniences of mask wearing. He then shouted out an expletive-filled fantasy to round up the Ch**ks to personally machine-gun them down. Within the small confines of the shop, it was clear that I was the lone token Asian person toward whom he was directing his tirade.
Totally shocked, and choosing not to engage, I simply retreated to a far corner of the store, put on my headphones and just waited it out, until that disgruntled racist man eventually completed his purchase and left the store.
And in recent months, in the streets of New York, on separate occasions, I’ve been berated — unprovoked — in broad daylight by a couple of cowardly individuals who only dared hurl their hackneyed racial slurs at my back once I had walked past them a fair distance.
Still ugly. Still disheartening for me to witness in fellow human beings. And once when I was chased through a scaffolding tunnel, I felt the full impact of being what I’d call “race-objectified,” being reduced to a mere representation of one entire race, so that I’m no longer a person, but merely a convenient target.
Another racist incident was something that my wife, though white, had experienced firsthand, by virtue of being the mother of a biracial child. At another (much bigger) store here in Westport, it was this time a store employee (Latina) who asked my wife point-blank in a racist or at minimum racially insensitive manner about the shape of our daughter’s eyes.
She did so not in a complimentary, curious manner, but rather in a demeaning and mocking way, with the pulling of the eye corners, etc. Fortunately, this happened just as our daughter had briefly wandered off to the next aisle of merchandise and so she didn’t catch wind of what was being said about her. My wife, similar to me in the other instance described earlier, simply chose not to engage or confront.
One consolation from this episode was that my wife subsequently felt compelled to share the whole experience with an online local moms’ group and received nothing but the warmest responses and shows of support. We also discovered from the other posts that such incidents weren’t that uncommon in our town.
One major takeaway from these episodes is that such ugly incidents seemingly operate on racial lines only, affecting minority group members and their spouses and parents even if they happen to be white. Socioeconomic status and other demographic factors seem to matter little, though some of the most sensational recent Asian hate crimes have clearly singled out the especially vulnerable elderly. And it’s with horror that my wife and I feel obligated to eventually address these issues with our little one and to find ways to protect her.
From a psycho-biological (rather than political) perspective, certain impulsive, aggressive thoughts and actions on the part of highly stressed individuals feeling an exaggerated and/or imagined foreign threat are understandable, though these are of course not to be condoned. But when the acting out of such thoughts and behaviors don’t merely offend but lead to the harming and literal killing of unwitting innocent human beings targeted solely on the basis of their race and ethnicity, we need to move beyond just reprimand or criminal punishment. We need to delve deeper into the origins of such aggressions, to learn how we could prevent such atrocities if we want to progress as a harmonious, civilized society.
I believe a good place to start is in our school curriculums. The phenomenon of what psychologists call “dehumanization” needs to be studied in depth. Dehumanization is what enables racists, bigots, chauvinists to inflict harm without remorse on fellow human beings whom they’ve conveniently deemed to belong to a reprehensible other, known as the “out group.” As long as such psychological dynamics to varying degrees aren’t exposed and kept in check, racism — ranging from personal to institutional — will persist.
To have a chance at stamping out rampant racism, we need to not only inhibit racially insensitive or offensive behavior, but also to foster compassion toward fellow members of society, ideally from an early age, so that dehumanization tendencies can never take root in any person’s psyche.