My experiences with anti-Asian racism in San Francisco and Indiana
Originally published on my website: rebeccaxliu.com
Disclaimer: I’m going to be talking about Asian hate crimes (there are NO graphic pictures or videos in this essay, though) and the first few minutes of episode 5 of The Premise. I wanted to provide this disclaimer, in case you want to steer away from those parts.
“Is San Francisco super different vs Indiana? I’ve never been all my friends say stick to the coasts else I risk redneck encounters”
An Asian Canadian acquaintance asked me this when they found out I was from Indiana. They admitted they have always lived in an “Asian bubble, surrounded by a very high concentration of Asian folks.”
I find the second sentence of their message very offensive.
Some people (not me) might interpret these words as a fun joke, but I think they’re emblematic of a problematic stereotype. I’m not writing this essay to roast this person (and we did have a productive discussion afterwards), but because I’ve had a lot of people in San Francisco ask me variations of this question. Because of my experiences living in Indiana, I feel instinctively defensive and viscerally annoyed when I hear ignorant assumptions about what the rest of the US is like.
Look, I get it. The media and television frequently portray many parts of the US as unwelcoming toward Asians. In episode 5 (“Butt Plug”) of B.J. Novak’s new show The Premise, a young Asian American boy named Daniel (adult version played by Daniel Dae Kim) is cruelly mocked and bullied by his peers. The main bully chucks a basketball at Daniel’s face, cuts Daniel’s hair while he drinks from a drinking fountain, and mercilessly mocks Daniel for bringing kimchi to school for lunch. Thirty years later, the bully is remorseful and refers to his treatment of Daniel as “the shame of [his] life.” When his wife asks what he teased Daniel for, he regretfully says, “for being different.”
I absolutely and unfortunately have had Asian American friends who grew up in similar situations as the above. On one hand, I’m grateful I never had those experiences, but on the other hand, that’s basically saying I’m grateful to be treated like a normal human being. And that should be expected, not something I’m grateful for.
I previously wrote an essay about my experiences growing up Taiwanese American in Indiana and other Asian American moments I’ve had. In those essays, I wrote about some of the microaggressions I experienced and normalized while living in Indiana (e.g., people asking if I’m good at math or getting me confused with other Asians). Those comments are annoying and I don’t want to downplay the pernicious effects of microaggressions, but in Indiana I never feared for my life because I was Asian.
I can’t say the same for my experience living in San Francisco, and I’ve actually experienced more overt racism here than in Indiana.
Racism in SF:
- This past March, I was standing outside of a boba shop with a Taiwanese American man. About thirty feet away, we heard a (likely mentally unstable and likely homeless) man hollering “FUCKING CHINESE, FUCKING CHINESE” over and over again to no one in particular. We both froze for a second, but neither of us actually thought we were in danger. That is, until the man marched toward us and got right in our faces. “Ching chong ching chong,” he chanted as he gesticulated wildly in our faces. I averted my gaze and looked toward the ground, hoping my silence would make this end faster. After what felt like an eternity (but was realistically probably less than a minute), the man inexplicably left.
- A couple of months after that, I was walking near my neighborhood in the afternoon. I was listening to music and lost in thought; suddenly, a man walking in the opposite direction less than ten feet away spat at (not on) me, glared at me, and then resumed walking. This happened so quickly that I could barely register what had happened. However, there was no mistaking the malice in his glare.
- In August, I was running in my neighborhood and saw a scruffy-looking man in front of me on the sidewalk. We were heading in the same direction, so his back was turned to me. As I approached him, he turned around and swiftly put his fists up to prevent me from passing him. Years of playing Capture the Flag in gym classes made me instinctively try and go around him. But he quickly blocked my path and the determination and ferocity on his unshaven face showed me that this was not a game. I sprinted away from this man onto the other side of the road, my heart rate accelerating.
You might be wondering if all three of these cases are actually racially motivated, and I agree that it’s difficult to definitively say they all are. I feel pretty confident saying the first case was motivated by race (thank you to the perpetrator for removing any ambiguity from the situation with his word choice), but the root of the other events is more nebulous. To me, the second case is likely racially motivated, but the third one is the most unclear. In that scenario, it could’ve been because I was simply a person deemed to be threatening or annoying. But because I am an Asian American woman, I’m always going to interpret events that happen to me through those identities.
My experiences of racism in San Francisco are part of a broader trend. Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit that “tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States,” released a report in June 2021 about the 9,081 incident reports it had received from March 2020 to June 2021. The report found that 38.6% of incidents had happened in California, while 16% happened in New York.
Reasons why so many Asian hate crimes are happening in SF:
This seems to contradict people’s assumption that the coasts are safe havens for Asians while the middle of the US is rife with racism. But why might this be? I’ve thought about and researched some possible explanations:
- Disparate size of Asian American populations: The most obvious reason is that there are way more Asians living in states like California and New York compared to states in the middle of the US. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 22.4M Asian Americans (2019) in the US, 30% live in California.
2. Underreporting in other parts of the States: Stop AAPI Hate was founded by Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University. A3PCON is based in Los Angeles, while the latter two are based in San Francisco. Because of this, it’s possible that people in California may be more aware of Stop AAPI Hate and how to report hate crimes.
3. Copycat crimes: In May, NBC reported on the Stop AAPI Hate report that I mentioned earlier. The article quoted Russell Jeung, Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founder and professor and chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University. He discussed how seeing hate crimes in the news could cause perpetrators to commit similar “copycat” crimes:
“While there’s been an increased awareness around anti-Asian incidents, there’s a possibility that the way in which many graphic attacks are circulated could, in part, lead to “copycat” crimes as well as a continuation of these attacks, Jeung fears. He added that it’s the media’s responsibility to help mitigate such occurrences and instead inspire more unity by including the broader context in which these incidents occur.
‘Sadly, some journalists have to grab attention-seeking violent crime that now seems to portray Asians as victims, and others as perpetrators,” he said. “We would appreciate stories that tell more of the context about the individuals and the broader social, underlying factors that lead to a crime or racism.’”
4. Familiarity bias: One of my Asian American friends from Indiana hypothesized that non-Asians were more likely to form stereotypes about Asians when there are larger groups of Asians. In smaller towns, people might personally know and be friendly with the Asians they see and therefore less likely to harass them.
5. Larger homeless population in cities (e.g., SF, NYC, Boston):
I’m not saying that homeless people are the only perpetrators of Asian hate crimes, but anecdotally it seems like a lot of perpetrators are homeless and / or mentally unstable (not conflating the two). A NY Times article describes an instance where a man spat at a 63 year old Chinese American bus driver, punched him in the face, and called him an anti-Chinese slur. This was the 33rd arrest for the perpetrator, who is homeless and mentally ill and “being monitored for treatment in a mental health program run by the Police Department.”
The article describes how this case is not anomalous: “Many of the people charged recently with anti-Asian attacks in New York City have also had a history of mental health episodes, multiple arrests and homelessness, complicating the city’s search for an effective response.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 28% of people experiencing homelessness in 2020 lived in California (yes, I recognize that California is the largest state), and that California has the third highest rate of homelessness in the States: 41 people per 10,000 (after New York: 47/10,000 and Hawaii: 46/10,000).
It’s difficult to know how to respond when the person harassing you is mentally unstable and / or homeless. I’m pretty outspoken, but you can’t exactly have a thoughtful discussion with the perpetrators in these situations and “unpack” the situation like you would in a college seminar.
After the first incident happened to me, some people expressed surprise that something like that could happen in SF. Because SF is 36% Asian, a lot of people assume that there’s little racism toward Asians here.
Of course, some of this is in response to the rhetoric Trump used and the pandemic. The Taiwanese American man I was with in situation #1 grew up in the Bay Area, but had never experienced anything like this previously.
I hesitate a little to share my experiences from Indiana, because I don’t want to invalidate or downplay the racist experiences that people do encounter in other parts of the States (or anywhere). Racism is terrible, so I’m not condoning it or saying that people should experience it to build character.
However, it’s important to share different perspectives so that people don’t automatically assume growing up in the Midwest means you’re subject to “redneck encounters.”
Things I want people to take away and consider from this essay:
- Seemingly disparate narratives about a city can coexist:
- Example 1: SF has a high Asian population, and there have been a lot of Asian hate crimes here.
- Example 2: Some parts of the US are rife with racism, but in many other parts, people will treat you like a normal human being (they might just have questions, because they don’t know that many people who aren’t white)
- We all have some unconscious biases or misconceptions about places or people we’re not familiar with. How can you learn more about these people and places and educate yourself?
- Putting yourself in new situations can be uncomfortable and potentially scary, but if you always stay within your bubble or comfort level, you could be missing out on seeing more of the world and having valuable learning experiences
- When people talk about being “well-traveled,” they frequently think of visiting glamorous cities in Europe or backpacking through Southeast Asia. I think it’s equally, if not more, important to visit parts of the US (or the country that you live in) that aren’t as sexy and see how different types of people live.
Things that I am not saying and therefore don’t want people to take away from this essay:
- I’m going to be mean if you ask me about what growing up in Indiana was like (I love talking about this! And I try to do it in a friendly way! But I want people to come to these discussions with a curious and open mind.)
- People should endure racism to build character
- Homelessness is the main cause of hate crimes against Asian Americans
- SF is “more racist” than other parts of the States — you can’t make categorical statements like this, because you have to consider confounding factors (e.g., the five points I mentioned)
How microaggressions cause lasting pain (BBC)
Stop AAPI Hate National Report (through June 2021)
Key facts about Asian Americans, a diverse and growing population (Pew Research Center)
Anti-Asian hate incident reports nearly doubled in March, new data says (NBC)
He Was Charged in an Anti-Asian Attack. It Was His 33rd Arrest (NY Times)
The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)