UW News

March 19, 2021

How white supremacy, racist myths fuel anti-Asian violence

Signs read "hate has no place" and "stop Asian hate"

Signs decrying hatred and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community were part of a rally in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District on March 13, 2021.Mimi Gan


As an assistant professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, Linh Thủy Nguyễn focuses on a number of research areas, including Asian American and Southeast Asian American studies, immigration and refugee issues, and gender and family.

She also values the role of community, whether as a means of providing services or taking collective action, in tackling problems and offering a voice.

The recent, national wave of violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) is only the latest in a much longer history of oppressive, hateful acts, Nguyen said. (Nguyen points out that this term is used here to be inclusive of the experiences of Pacific Islanders while acknowledging the complicated political conditions of some Pacific Islanders whose experiences as indigenous populations are not adequately captured through the lens of race.)

The organization Stop AAPI Hate has tracked nearly 3,000 incidents over the past year, which advocates say is likely an undercount, because many people don’t report what happened to them. That’s not surprising, Nguyen said: Reporting incidents of discrimination or violence can be traumatic and potentially lead to even more harassment.

Read Linh Thủy Nguyễn’s related op-ed in The Seattle Times.

“The lack of visibility around the issue also means that those who choose to speak out may face denials and threats for doing so,” Nguyen said. “Individualized acts of violence may be disregarded as a one-off rather than part of a larger system of attitudes and beliefs that contributes to violent acts against particular communities.”

Nguyen spoke with UW News about the history of racism and violence, and ways forward.


Racism and violence against those in the AAPI community has gotten more attention recently, but it’s not new. Can you talk about the history of these attitudes and incidents?

In the last year we have seen a marked uptick in physical and verbal attacks against Asians and Asian Americans. The senseless murders at massage parlors in Atlanta — the killings of eight people, six of whom were Asian women — also shed light on the gendered dimensions of racial violence. What Celine Parreñas Shimizu has called the hypersexuality of race is so normalized in representations of Asian women as hypersexual, sexually available and submissive, which are tied to a longer history of imperialism and Orientalism. Dating back to 1875, the Page Act barred the migration of Chinese women and effectively cast them as prostitutes. In this long tradition of representation, Asian women have been constructed racially through these images of sexuality.

Linh Thủy Nguyễn

When Asians are blamed for the coronavirus, we can see the Orientalist discourse of “Yellow Peril,” which frames Asians as perpetually foreign and threatening to Western civilization. Mass acts of racist violence have tended to abate in times of economic prosperity and surge in times of economic contraction or uncertainty. In Seattle and Tacoma, after completion of the railroad system, the Chinese were driven out of neighborhoods. Once their highly exploited labor was no longer needed, they faced mob violence, upheld by state and federal laws rooted in fear of their foreignness and the false conception that Chinese settlement would overrun local communities and take away American jobs.


The latest wave of anti-Asian violence surged due to anxiety over the coronavirus. Even with the arrival of vaccines, anti-Asian violence has persisted. What can explain that?

The pandemic brought into relief the extreme disparities that exist in this country. The wealthy and middle class have more or less been able to shift to remote work, while the working class has either faced unemployment or had to continue low-wage work with constant anxiety of uncertain protections against the virus. Essential workers like grocery store employees and farmers have not had opportunities to socially distance and work from home. The former president’s anti-Asian rhetoric tied to the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” provided a target for the frustrations of many whose lives were upended and thrown into uncertainty.


What is the “model minority” myth, and how can it better enable us to better understand anti-Asian sentiment?

The “model minority” concept is attributed to sociologist William Petersen’s 1966 New York Times story detailing the quiet successes of the Japanese community after the devastation of internment during World War II. The myth upholds Asians as models for other minorities to emulate and suggests that Asians have somehow overcome racism because of their economic successes. When Black communities in the civil rights movement demanded structural changes, such as access to jobs and education, the myth blamed them for not cultivating the individual attitudes and work ethic that would supposedly allow them to overcome racism. We know that individual achievements cannot undo racism and does not protect you from racist violence, as the attacks against AAPI communities have revealed.

It’s a fallacy that ignores the reality that, while white supremacy is the foundation, racism is not experienced in the same way by all communities; the racialized character of capitalism means that value is extracted through differentiation and the differential valuation of marginalized communities. The myth is so pervasive and rooted in ideas of merit and hard work that benefit Asian Americans at the exclusion of Black Americans. This relative benefit makes it difficult to see the damage, not only to other racialized communities, but also to our own families and communities. It creates a monolithic Asian community, which fails to capture the economic and generational heterogeneity of Asian groups and leaves out the experiences of many Asian communities who face poverty and underemployment.


What lessons can we take from the past?

Nothing has ever changed because a single person in a position of power decided to do it. I am always heartened at the responsiveness of the AAPI community. At the start of the pandemic, it was community members who organized to support one another through mutual aid, food pantries and campaigns to support the businesses in the Chinatown-International District in Seattle. As social movements of the past and present show us, attitudes and racist policies change when we name them and demand action to change them.

For more information, contact Nguyen at lnguye@uw.edu.

TV cameras pointed to people standing under a banner that reads AAPI Against Hate

Members of the media cover the “We Are Not Silent” rally at Seattle’s Hing Hay Park.Mimi Gan