Last week, a Penn Ph.D student was referred to as a c***k on his receipt at a local Taco Bell. Since then, the story has been shared across a multitude of media, from The Washington Post, The New York Post, local news stations, Asian-American sites, and even Reddit. It’s amazing that a lot of people have rallied in support against the usage of the anti-Asian slur, but some comments have also responded with tones of racism in the form of anti-blackness, as well as classism. If we want a meaningful dialogue on how these incidents can be prevented from happening again, we need to realize that structural racism goes beyond one-time events, and find productive ways to advocate for Asian Americans without putting others down.
Anti-Asian and xenophobic sentiment is nothing new, and the slur that the Penn Ph.D student received is not an isolated incident; last October, a Korean-American man in NYC had his name spelled out as “ching” on his Starbucks order. Discrimination also takes place beyond transactional settings, and intrudes other aspects of life. According to a White House Report in 2016, more than one-quarter of Asian-American and Pacific-Islander students aged 12-18 reported being bullied or harassed at school. In addition, in the months after Donald Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded that 25 percent of bias incidents were motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment — not a coincidence.
What the Taco Bell employee said was horrible and wrong. However, belittling him for being a minimum-wage food service employee perpetuates the classist stereotype that food service employees are lazy, uneducated, and somehow don’t have the intelligence to understand racial slurs. Additionally, we can also be critical of the Taco Bell employee without being anti-black. Comments about “well if [the student] were black, then this would have never happened” conveniently ignores the racism that black Americans face today through police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, corruption in the judicial system, and erasure in academia.
To understand anti-blackness within the Asian-American community today, we have to look at the history of pitting Asian Pacific-Islanders against African Americans, which goes back at least to the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Southern plantation owners imported around 4,000 Chinese laborers as replacement and competition to former slaves who had escaped, according to University of Washington History professor Moon-Ho Jung. Chinese workers were considered to be more apolitical and productive than black workers, resulting in ethnic tensions.
Additionally, the concept of the model minority, first coined in 1966 by sociologist William Peterson in The New York Times magazine, places on Asian Americans as a group that each individual will be smart, wealthy, hard-working, self-reliant, docile, submissive, living the “American Dream”, according to The Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas. After World War II, the model minority concept became a way to allow Asian Americans into white-approved success and propel the image of a post-racial America, which in turn, pits marginalized groups against each other.
Although the model minority trope is sometimes seen as a “good” stereotype for Asian Pacific-Islanders, the trope is harmful because it invalidates Asian Pacific-Islanders’ experiences who do not fit that trope. Moreover, the idea of a model minority sets Asian Americans as the standard other racial groups should follow. If you comply with the rules and continue to work hard, you will be guaranteed success (yet Asian Americans still face barriers in holding CEO and top leadership positions). Furthermore, the expectation of being “docile” and “passive” in the face of injustice can discourage Asian Americans from speaking up.
Hence, when people respond to anti-Asian sentiment with anti-blackness, we distance ourselves further from combating white supremacy. Although the employee was fired, that does not mean that the issue of racism has been “solved.” It means that we have initiated a dialogue on racism that is a good start toward taking action on social injustices.
We need to now focus on including cultural sensitivity into the daily curriculum because racism isn’t the fault of one person, but rather a power structure — a societal problem. This is not the time for us to be pitting our groups against each other. There has never been a more important time than now to work together because white supremacy can’t be dismantled by one person for one group. Last year, when a Korean beauty store owner in North Carolina strangled a black woman, were the same people standing up for the black woman as much as they are calling out the Taco Bell employee? As much as we need to speak out about anti-Asian sentiment, we must speak out about anti-blackness as well. That way, we can truly combat racism on all levels.
SOOMIN SHIN is a junior in the College and the is Chair of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition.
OCTAVIA SUN is a second-year Master of Environmental Studies student in the School of Arts and Sciences and is the Public Relations Chair for the Pan-Asian American Graduate Student Association.