At a recent panel for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) addressing anti-Asian racism, I was asked, “A recent mass shooting in Atlanta targeted Asian massage businesses. Afterwards, the accused shooter cited sex addiction as his motive. The police initially discounted race as a factor because of that explanation. What was wrong with that assessment?”
As an Asian American woman and community advocate, I can’t think of a more gut-wrenching question – and yet, it is an issue that absolutely must be addressed, even after the alleged shooter’s indictment on domestic terror and murder charges. Quite simply, it is impossible to discount race as a factor in any decision or behavior.
White supremacy is deeply embedded in American culture and everyday experience, so much so that it can influence our physical instincts, emotional reactions, and mental frameworks even without our knowing.
Moreover, the police’s denial of racism and seemingly sympathetic initial response to the accused is a shocking example of a certain form of violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC): “racial gaslighting.”
The term “gaslighting” describes manipulative, psychologically abusive behavior in which someone consistently distorts the truth of your experience and makes you feel like you’re being unreasonable or unrealistic.
Let me share a very ordinary example of racial gaslighting. A few weeks ago, I was venting to a couple friends. I told them how someone had said an anti-Asian slur and “shut up, bitch” while I was speaking in a Zoom webinar the day before. Then, I recounted an incident when I had shared a sticky rice dessert with a medical school classmate, who then said, “the inside is great, but the outside is like snot.” I told my friends how since then, I could not help but wish that classmate ill.
It was a classic example of a person of color experiencing a microaggression and venting to her friends about it – except it led to (what I only later realized was) racial gaslighting.
One of my friends cut me off and said, “don’t you think you’re being passive-aggressive? He said it was like snot, not ‘it was snot.’”
He wasn’t being ironic. He was taking a moral high ground - first, dismissing the comment and breezing over how it was a micro-aggression, and second, saying that I was being passive-aggressive.
I was overcome by frustration and embarrassment. Only later did I realize how this was a small, mundane instance of what BIPOCs experience all too frequently.
Racial gaslighting, whether the perpetrator is aware of it or not, attempts to make us question our experiences and interpretations of racial aggression. Its purpose is to erase our lived truths and preserve systems of white normativity and supremacy.
And it is what happens to Asian Americans across the country whenever our experiences of discrimination and hate go unheard and unseen.
After thousands of reported acts of discrimination, harassment, and violence, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, to address anti-Asian hate crimes, primarily through law enforcement. And the alleged shooter in Atlanta was indicted on May 11 on domestic terror, murder, and potentially hate crime charges.
These efforts to address and prevent violence against Asian Americans are unprecedented, but protecting us from racial aggression requires much more. In the wake of the Atlanta shooting, Americans need a culture change, independent of law enforcement. May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, but the work we need to do will never end:
We need to stop placing whiteness on a moral high ground above BIPOCs.
We need to start validating and healing racial trauma.
We need to free ourselves from white-body supremacy.
We need to shift resources from law enforcement to communities.
We need to join the historic movement towards solidarity and care.
And in the process, we will bring healing and empowerment to ourselves and each other.
Jennifer Y. Tu, is a Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) Fellow at Duke Divinity School, a medical student at Duke School of Medicine, and a second-generation Chinese American born and raised in New Orleans. She currently serves as the coordinator of the United Chinese Americans (UCA) Youth Mental Health Collaborative, also known as WAVES (Wellness, Advocacy, Voices, Education, Support). She is expressing her own opinions here.
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