Attacks on Elderly Asian Americans – Seeing the Whole Story

The recent string of attacks on elders in Chinatown sparked a national discussion around Anti-Asian racism, but is the issue even deeper than race?

It hurts to watch the video of 84 year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee being shoved to the ground and killed. It hurts to continuously see similar videos of seemingly random violence, surfacing around the country. It hurts enough to stand out in memory, amid one of the most devastating and traumatic years in history.

It’s particularly painful to watch through the lens of a member of a society that literally, just experienced a colossal reckoning over racial divides; a society that’s no stranger to seeing minorities attacked, and various forms of acts of mass random violence. It’s hard to watch as a member of that society, whose past and present is embedded with racism and xenophobia, that’s been reinvigorated by a racist presidential administration, not to mention a global pandemic.

Many news networks quickly labeled the events as a “rise in hate-crimes against Asian Americans across the country,” and often paired with a Black face to point to as the culprit. Of all times in February of course, at the intersection of Black History Month and the Lunar New Year. It’s garnered national and celebrity attention to anti-Asian hate in the country, and motivated calls for Black and Asian solidarity. Though interestingly, there has actually been little evidence to show that these attacks were racially motivated.

These clips are brief, grainy, horrific snapshots that seem to be easily understood, but end up leading to a longer story that’s usually, an incomplete one. The clips are vague and with little context, inviting the viewer to fill in the missing information. Some people saw the videos as a story of a vulnerable population being targeted and attacked, an extreme escalation of hatred toward Asian Americans, whom have long been vilified, othered, and oppressed. Many Asian Americans saw that video as the last straw and were inspired to fight something that has gone on too long. While some saw this as an opportunity to display their anti-Blackness and again, scapegoat another minority community.

It’s natural to see the videos and be disgusted, feel a visceral revulsion of the simply horrendous, violation of human decency you just watched. I think it’s noble to be enraged, feel called to action, crave change and demand results immediately. But because of the glaring optical aspects of race at play, it can be easy to fixate on that, and if we can’t think beyond that, we risk missing the deeper, broader reality of the situation.

Race and racism here is not to be minimized, but it’s not the entire picture. What if we inquired about more than their country of origin, and color of their skin in the story? Such as, the pattern of a rise in robberies and assaults in Chinatowns every Lunar New Year; or about the history of mental illness and long criminal record of a variety of assaults by the man who killed Mr. Ratanapakdee, Antoine Watson; or the impact of the extreme financial strain of economic collapse that millions are currently suffering through in this country.

The story that’s not being told here, is the story of a wealthy country rampant with poverty, racial disparity, class inequities, desperately underserved, often interracial-minority communities, with a culture lacking care, resources and protection, for its most vulnerable members. These factors can’t be removed from the story because they make up the fabric of the society that is the set and setting. We need to take in the context of the story as a whole, to truly understand it.

A video of an officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd is what it took to mobilize the public into finally creating change and awareness about the state of racism in our country. But that video only scratches the surface of a deep history and culture of violence, hate, and racial oppression against Black Americans. The detrimental effect of that history, encompasses and surpasses the reach of just police brutality alone.

If these terrible viral videos are what it takes to finally bring visibility to the AAPI community, to shatter some model minority myths, then by all means I welcome the support. Hate crimes against AAPI are finally just now starting to be focused on, and the response of support and solidarity shown by so many has been heartening. This is a great opportunity, to sow healing and solidarity between all minority and racial groups right now, but we cannot stop there.

As a nation we’re in a lot of pain, and we’re hurting while we’re trying to heal. We all experienced, and/or are currently going through some form of collective or individual trauma. We’re sensitive to seeing more vulnerable people hurt, sick of witnessing hate and racism, and we’re hungry to denounce those forces when we see them.

But Asian Americans aren’t the only victims here, we all are. We’re not just failing at healing racial divides, we’re failing low-income communities, massive amounts of citizens unhoused, failing to provide aid for our mental health, for our elderly, vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed, and failing to build strong ties in our communities. We must take into consideration all the societal failures and shortcomings, that lead to an individual committing a crime in the first place.

It can be dangerous and misleading to react off of our gut reactions. Instead, by keeping a community-minded perspective, we can broaden our perspective to accurately see what the problems are, avoid past mistakes, and allow ourselves to respond with truly productive solutions that create a safer and more accepting community for all.

This article was printed in the “commentary” section of the 2/25/21 edition of El Tecolote newspaper, based in the Mission District of San Francisco, CA.

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