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Asian Americans see generational divide in tackling racism

The shootings in Georgia and other recent attacks against Asian Americans exposed the division between different generations of the community

ATLANTA – The fatal shootings of eight people – six of them women of Asian descent – in Georgia’s massage companies in March drove Claire Xu into action.

Within days, she helped organize a demonstration condemning violence against Asian Americans, which was supported by a broad group of activists, elected officials and members of the community. But his parents were opposed.

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“’We don’t want you to do this’”, Xu, 31, remembered telling her later. “‘You can write about things, but don’t expose your face.’”

The shootings and other recent attacks against Asian Americans exposed a generational divide in the community. Many young activists say their parents and other elderly people are sad about the violence, but they question the value of the protests or worry about the consequences. They also found that older generations tend to identify more closely with their ethnic groups – Chinese or Vietnamese, for example – and seem reluctant to recognize racism.

This division makes it more difficult to forge a collective Asian-American electorate that can exercise political power and draw attention to the wave of attacks against people of Asian descent in the United States since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, community leaders say.

“In our countries of origin, where our ancestors came from, they would not even imagine that someone from Bangladesh would be included in the same group as someone from Laos,” said Angela Hsu, president of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

But these differences obscure a shared experience of “feeling that we are constantly considered foreigners in our own country,” said US representative Andy Kim of New Jersey.

Much of the recent violence against Asian Americans is aimed at the elderly, and some elderly people took part in demonstrations to condemn it. But Cora McDonnell, 79, said she did not want to speak, although now she is afraid to walk the blocks to her home church in Seattle.

She emigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1985 and said her culture was “more respectful”.

“You speak perhaps in your family, but not in public,” she said. “You really don’t miss out on things.”

Lani Wong, 73, said she understood this feeling, although she did not adhere to it.

“Just don’t stir the pot, don’t get involved,” said Wong, president of the National Association of Chinese-Americans. “I think that was the mentality of the older generation.”

Some young Asian Americans said they were frustrated by their family members’ reactions to the shootings.

E. Lim said it was “annoying and very sad” to hear his parents defame the massage work done by some of the victims of the Georgia shooting.

“It’s almost like this desperation for denial, so they don’t have to recognize that there is a world that hates them,” said Lim, director of organization and civic engagement at Asian American Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

A pastor in the Atlanta area, Tae Chin, said his Korean mother-in-law also questioned the victims’ line of work, while urging him not to focus on the race. Four of the murdered women were of Korean descent.

“‘ Just work hard. Just live. Just be a good person, and they’ll see someday, ‘”Chin, 41, remembered her saying in a phone call after the March 16 attack. “I think,‘ That’s why we have this problem to start with, because that’s exactly what we do. ’”

Allison Wang’s parents were similarly inclined and thought she was wasting time protesting the shootings.

“I think they believe it is more important to focus on their career and family and they don’t think we can make a difference,” said Wang, who helped Xu organize the rally in downtown Atlanta.

For Raymond Tran’s family, the political history of one of his home countries played a role in opposing his involvement in any organization. The Los Angeles-based lawyer said that when he was growing up, his parents told him about an uncle arrested and tortured by Vietnamese Communists after joining a group of students.

Racist policies in the US strictly limited immigrants from Asia until the 1960s, so many Asian families have been in the country for only a generation or two. It is not uncommon for new immigrants to focus on supporting their families, avoiding attention in favor of assimilation.

Asian immigrants face the additional burden of the “model minority” stereotype that portrays them as workers, law-abiding and un complaining, and attribute their achievements to these characteristics, say historians and advocates.

“It divides generations,” said Maki Hsieh, CEO of the Asian Hall of Fame, a program that honors Asian leaders. “It separates Asians from each other and ultimately separates them from other groups.”

Xu said her parents are concerned about her safety, but she thinks their objections to her activism have also partly resulted from a desire to avoid problems. They understood the need to speak out against anti-Asian violence, but did not want her to do so, she said.

“I sincerely believe that if this is the way everyone thinks, then there will be no progress,” she said.

The younger generation is also maturing during a period of renewed racial awareness – reflected in last year’s Black Lives Matter protests – that makes it impossible for Asians in the US to “fly under racial radar anymore,” said Nitasha Tamar Sharma, program director Northwestern University’s Asian American Studies Program.

In addition to holding rallies and vigils across the country after the shootings in Georgia, young organizers shared stories of racist encounters and used the hashtag #StopAsianHate to raise awareness of the dangers facing Asian Americans.

“In America, we are all one,” said Hsu, the president of the Bar Association. “We are seen in a similar way.”

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