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    ‘My Little Asian Thing’: Everyday Anti-AAPI Bias and Its Effects

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    A few years ago, at a professional event we regularly attend, we struck up a friendly conversation with a newcomer. As the man repeatedly used the word “we” in talking about his household, we asked him whom he lived with. The man’s response: “It’s me and my little Asian thing.”

    We were stunned. The man was referring to his wife. And soon thereafter he revealed his “little Asian thing” was, in fact, a physician at a major medical center.

    The man’s casually referring to his physician wife in such a manner truly revealed to us the depth of marginalization that Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women face. He not only dehumanized her by referring to her as a “thing” that was “little,” but he also expressed his ownership of her. She was “my little Asian thing.”

    We can only imagine the degree to which the mass murderer of Asian-American spa workers in Atlanta considered those women his possessions with which he could do as he wished, including killing them when he was having “a really bad day.” Of course, it should go without saying that no AAPI woman should face such degradation and violence regardless of her station in life, whether she be a physician, spa worker, or vice president of the United States.

    Sadly, this incident is just one of a number of times people have nonchalantly marginalized Asian Americans in otherwise friendly conversations with us. Several years ago, we ate dinner at a popular San Francisco restaurant in which the warm and outgoing owner was clearly friends with many of his customers. When he didn’t recognize us, he immediately pulled up a chair to converse. We soon realized that we lived very near each other, whereupon he exclaimed with delight: “It’s so nice to meet neighbors who are not Chinese!”

    Of course, at that very moment he was meeting a Chinese neighbor: Stuart. He was clearly oblivious to that fact and was perhaps ignorant more generally that there are many mixed-race Chinese Americans like Stuart. It probably didn’t even cross his mind that both of our families could be multi-racial white/Asian-American families as, in fact, they are.

    The restaurant owner likely sensed we were taken aback by his words, because he immediately stammered: “Nothing against the Chinese! I’d just like to be able to speak with my neighbors.” Attitudes about race can be multi-faceted, nuanced, and complex. Not everything is blind hatred. But the restaurant owner’s confidence in initially making such a broadly anti-Chinese statement greatly disturbed us.

    The very casualness with which some people have felt free to denigrate Asian Americans to us reveals the insidious pervasiveness of anti-Asian attitudes. This conceptualization of Asian Americans as “other” undergirds the strikingly persistent perception that Asian Americans, even those who have been in the U.S. for multiple generations, are not Americans, but instead “perpetual foreigners.”

    When a man spray-painted “No More Chinese” in large letters in multiple locations in our neighborhood six years ago, he invoked verbatim the racist rhetoric employed to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. When a man brutally attacked a 65-year-old AAPI woman in broad daylight on a New York City sidewalk last month, police said he yelled anti-Asian slurs, telling her, “You don’t belong here.” The person who graffitied “F–k China, Get Guns” on a telephone pole just a half block from our house last year delivered a chilling message of intimidation to his many AAPI neighbors.

    According to a recent report from Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition formed to address anti-Asian discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 70 percent of reported anti-AAPI hate incidents over the last year targeted Asian-American women. The Atlanta murders and the New York City attack represent two of the most horrific examples of such racist and misogynist violence and demonstrate the gravity of the consequences of our society’s maintaining the attitude that Asian Americans are foreigners.

    Educating the nation about our lives by telling our personal stories has been a key element in the successes of the marriage equality and LGBTIQ rights movement. The marked increase in anti-Asian hate incidents over the past year has finally brought much-need attention to Asian Americans’ struggles. We hope that America’s hearing the personal stories of Asian Americans in tandem with other proactive legal and political strategies will greatly reduce physical and verbal violence. We yearn for a day when no AAPI person will ever again be referred to as “my little Asian thing.”

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on April 22, 2021