Early on in the pandemic, I told friends I had been spit on. At that time I was upset; I was shocked. However, for one reason or another I played it off as somebody just being stupid. I told a colleague what had happened, perhaps gliding over the racism. All I could think was that the elderly white woman who did the spitting was ignorant and didn’t know any better.
Then the past few weeks happened, and I had many conversations with close Asian-American friends. Like the one who called me the other night after returning from a run in Brooklyn. A group of young male teenagers had shouted “Ching Chong” at her as she passed by. She’s not an emotional person, but she was that evening. Was it stupidity or racism?
Sharon Osbourne of The Talk is now under investigation by CBS for allegedly calling her former co-host Julie Chen a “wonton” and “slanty eyes” and is denying the accusations in a very strategic statement written by a publicist. Stupidity or racism?
All I could think was that the elderly white woman who did the spitting was ignorant and didn’t know any better. Then the past few weeks happened.
And then there’s the train wreck going on at Teen Vogue over social-media comments that Alexi McCammond, the newly appointed (and now resigned) editor made about Asian-Americans when she was 17. Stupidity or racism?
Maura Moynihan, the daughter of the late liberal-lion senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, was filmed screaming at an Asian-American man who pulled out his camera after she told his wife to go back to “Communist China.” Stupidity or racism?
The bullies who beat, shove, and kill random elderly Asians for doing normal activities in broad daylight and then blame them for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time? Stupidity or racism? (At least some are starting to fight back. Like Xiao Zhen Xie, the 75-year-old woman who sent her 39-year-old attacker to the hospital.)
And now Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old white male who is charged with murdering six Asian women in Atlanta-area massage parlors, has blamed “sex addiction” for his crimes. Madness or racism?
When did it get this bad?
In June of 2020, Trump, speaking at a youth rally at a church in Phoenix, referred to the coronavirus as “kung flu.” Cheers and applause erupted. If you are Asian-American and have grown up in the United States, do you remember the first time someone pointed at you and said, “Kung fu?” Was it elementary school? Pre-school?
Trump gave racism and base stupidity, strains that have always been bubbling in the American melting pot, a chance to come to a boil. He gave these fringe hatreds legitimacy. He’s gone, but his legacy of hate is still spreading.
Getting spat on, being told to go back to my country several times a day (I was born in L.A.), usually at the post office or at the park while I jog, young people and old singing “China virus” at me (I’m Korean), people at red lights pushing the corners of their eyes upward, laughing, may have once seemed acceptable—but not anymore.
After several acts of random racism, I’m scared. I recently left my West Hollywood condominium and moved to Orange County, where I feel a bit safer, since there is a higher population of Asians.
My takeaway from all the conversations I’ve had with friends and family, over the media attention, is that with all the knowledge we have at our fingertips, stupidity is no excuse. I do believe that the dreadful people who taunt me are in the minority, but, simply put, it hurts. No one should get a pass. Not on racism. Not even on stupidity. If you are racist, you shouldn’t get to lead a news show, a talk show, a magazine, or a country.
Sharon Suh is a Los Angeles–based photographer