I originally planned to devote this blog entry to writing and the choice I made when I started, that I would sometimes write about universal subjects and sometimes about matters related to being an American of Chinese descent. Recent events, especially the rise in violence against Asian Americans, have given me a context I was not expecting.
A March 27 rally in New York. “One aspect of this racism draws on the long history of treating Asian Americans as outsiders and as foreigners, as enemies, rather than as citizens,” Erika Lee said. Photo: Ron Adar. Courtesy AP Images.
For me, the connections between the fiction I write, the scholarly work I’ve done, and the cultural milieu I live in are always part of life. As I watched and read news about Donald Trump using terms such as “kung flu” and “China virus” in regard to COVID-19, and news coverage of increased violence against Americans of Asian descent, I noted that many people—some of Asian descent and some not—expressed surprise at the violence.
I wasn’t surprised. The number of people who were surprised, or even shocked, relates to some degree to the reputation of Asian Americans as a “Model Minority,” recently described as “the false idea that Asian Americans as a minority group have achieved social and economic status levels comparable to white Americans. In reality, Asian American communities are among the poorest demographics in the U.S and experience racism daily. And even if an Asian person has achieved a certain level of privilege, it doesn’t erase generational trauma or other barriers that are intrinsically linked to the fact that they are not white.” (“Anti-Asian racism is a constant in U.S. history — if you've bothered to pay attention,” Natasha Ishak on mic.com, March 25, 2021.) The last point is often lost in discussion: That educational, financial, and social status are not protections against racist hostility. Sometimes success itself can bring about envy and hostility in others.
My own lack of surprise comes from the ways that anti-Asian racism so often appears from just under the surface of everyday life.
I’m going to describe an incident from many years ago that fits the description of a “micro-aggression,” which I also feel is relevant to the issue of surprise.
I’ve attended science fiction conventions and sometimes writers critique groups nearly all my adult life. Racial hostility has been almost completely absent. That’s a different question from whether an editor or others in a publishing company want to accept fiction with protagonists or other major characters of Asian descent. The latter is a business matter and a subject for another time.
I knew the late author Suzette Hadin Elgin for many years, starting in the 1980s. She was a respected linguist who also had a long science fiction career. I read and really liked her nonfiction book, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, which she followed with many more books on variations of the same subject. The point, in my phrasing, was to help people stand up for themselves in the way they speak without raising hostility levels. She was known for her feminism and generally progressive positions on social issues. I considered her a friend and we crossed paths at many conventions.
I was the toastmaster at Soonercon in 1990, in Oklahoma City. In the opening ceremonies, I introduced all the guests. The main guests, including Suzette, sat at the main table in front, while most of the others were in the audience. During the weekend, I took part in panels. When I walked into the area for closing ceremonies, I happened to see Suzette in the audience seating. I asked–I emphasize “asked”—if she would sit up in front again. Without speaking, she got up and took a few steps forward. Then she turned and said, with a bit of a fake accent, “Is this ancient Chinese saying?” With a distinctive smirk, she walked up to the main table and sat down.
I was genuinely shocked by her comment. No, it’s not the worst insult ever. It’s “micro.” Still, given what I considered her friendship, and her successful series of books on verbal “self-defense,” I was caught off-guard. A simple “No, thanks,” would have been fine and that’s the kind of response she suggested in those books. Nowhere in her work—of course—did she suggest that going to an ethnic insult was a good idea.
So, yes, I was surprised by her comment. This might be the reason I’ve rarely—maybe never—been surprised by this sort of thing ever again.
At the time, I noticed that no one else had heard our exchange. Because I did not want to make this moment any bigger, I let it go. I mentioned it to a few friends after the con but otherwise did not talk about it. At the time, I did not want to come across as being too sensitive on the subject and, given the progressive views she had freely expressed, I was concerned about not being believed. Now as I write this much later in life, I’ve decided to describe the moment and not care if some people don’t believe it.
My point is not about Suzette per se but the larger fact that when she was unhappy about something I said, an old ethnic insult was her first response. I’ve always known that racial and ethnic hostility is often just under the surface with many people, including many people of Asian descent in their attitudes toward other groups. Yet this comment from Suzette has been the only such moment in my long experience with the world of science fiction writers and convention fans.
Her comment was especially a surprise from someone with Suzette’s progressive and feminist positions—but also a lesson that falling back to insults of this kind can be a knee-jerk response no matter what her larger views appeared to be. As always, the context of such a comment is a type of social supremacy; there wasn’t any comment from me that would somehow equally designate her in racial and ethnic terms—and I would not have lowered myself to use any such response in any case. Her comment was a reminder that she had a verbal weapon with which to attempt “putting me in my place” of lesser social status while she walked away without any such vulnerability.
As we look at the recent news of violent and verbal hostility, the ease with which someone like Suzette chose to use an ethnic insult no longer looks like a one-off verbal incident from the distant past. Instead, it’s just another example in a world with many others that are contemporary—amid rising violence.
Yes, violence is much worse. At the same time, the violence did not take long to appear following the inflammatory comments by Donald Trump and like-minded people; like Suzette’s mindset, the hostility was right under the surface and easily tapped. The opinions and feelings behind micro-aggressions and violence are the same.