Asian Alaskans grapple with anti-Asian racism, feeling unsafe after Atlanta shootings

Leslie Ishii is the artistic director at Perseverance Theatre Artistic Director in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Last week, a string of murders targeting spas in the Atlanta area left eight people dead, including six Asian women. The tragedy amplified the conversation around anti-Asian hate, racism and violence in the United States, heightened in the last year by COVID-19 misinformation and stereotyping.

Reports of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have increased dramatically over the last year. Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks anti-Asian harassment and violence, reported 3,800 incidents in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic through last month.

But the shootings in Atlanta were an inflection point for many Asian Americans already struggling to feel safe within their communities over fears of gender and race-based violence.

“This wasn’t the first time for me. Throughout my entire life, I’ve experienced this,” said Leslie Ishii, a theater artist and a fourth-generation Japanese American woman based in Juneau. Ishii said anti-Asian stereotypes, particularly of Asian women, have made her feel like an outsider her whole life.

“I’ve had people walk up to me and touch my hair and say, ‘Oh, your hair is so smooth and black,’” she said. “We’re not seen as fully human in that moment, we’re seen as something very exotic.”

COVID brought another layer of stereotyping. Last week at a grocery store, a shopper accosted her, blaming her for the spread of the coronavirus. The same thing happened a year ago in Minneapolis.

“I was walking down the street to go to the theater, and someone yelled across the street and just kept yelling at me: ‘It’s the Chinese flu. It’s your fault.’”

Now, Ishii said, she thinks twice about what time of day she shops, keeps an eye out for store exits and tries not to be alone in a grocery aisle.

In the wake of last week’s killings, Ishii, who serves as artistic director for Perseverance Theater, has been holding spaces to grieve with her theater community and drafting statements calling on theater and film industries to stop perpetuating stereotypes.

She said she hasn’t gotten a lot of sleep.

“I grieve off and on. I think of artists that I know who have been accosted or abused,” she said. “I think about, of course, the victims and the families.”

Chris Stuive is a counseling professor in Kenai. She is a Korean American adoptee, raised by white parents in Michigan.

In the years she’s lived in Alaska, Stuive said it’s sometimes difficult to parse out what’s racism and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s overt, such as a kid at daycare calling her son a “g—” — a derogatory term for Asian people that may have originated during the Korean War.

But there are also subtle things, like being stared at in the grocery store during the pandemic. Last week, a man started barking at her at the gas station. Processing all of it, wondering if she’s being singled out for her race, is exhausting, she said.

“It takes a lot of emotional energy,” she said. “You’re kind of left with this emotional residue that you have to sit with and wonder. And then you feel guilty, like, ‘Am I overreacting?’ … and then you beat yourself up for giving negative thoughts space. It takes attention away from other things that I’d rather be doing, or that would make the world a better place.”

Having grown up in a white family, Stuive grappled a lot with her identity. Internally, she said, she feels white — but every once in a while she’s reminded that’s not how she’s perceived.

“It really hurt my heart to think just based on what I look like, I could be accosted,” Stuive said. “I know that based on what I look like, I’ve been dismissed [or] paid less money than I should be. But the idea that I could just lose my life walking down the street, in the United States, that’s pretty unreal, right? But it’s happening.”

Stuive said the last few years have made her more alert and cautious, knowing she or her family might be a target. And having witnessed racism in Alaska — and seeing people ignore it — she doesn’t think Alaska is immune to the rising tide of hate crimes in the Lower 48, she said.

“In the past, I would have thought, ‘Oh no, this is just like an isolated event.’ But there’s just been so many things that are just straight-up hateful. It’s really hard to dismiss them all,” Stuive said.

Tom Li (left) and a person who didn’t want to be identified hold signs saying “Hate is a virus” and “Stop Asian hate” at the corner of Dimond Boulevard and Old Seward Highway Saturday, in response to increased anti-Asian racism and violence. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

That diminished feeling of safety is something many Asian Alaskans are grappling with. Tom Li is a software engineer who moved to Alaska from Fuzhou, China 10 years ago to attend college and be with his father.

Li fell in love with the state and its people. An Anchorage resident, he calls himself Alaskan first, then American. But on more than one occasion, Li said he’s endured racist threats and harassment, even found himself cornered by white men larger than him, hurling insults or trying to pick fights.

“‘You look ugly.’ ‘Go back to your country,’” Li recalled some saying.

Every time something like that happens, Li said he feels upset for a few weeks. After one particularly confrontational incident — two men stopped Li and his then-girlfriend to harass them on the sidewalk — Li decided to start carrying a gun. And he doesn’t go to bars alone because it doesn’t feel safe.

“I don’t want to get into fights, I don’t want to risk my life when there is so much good things out there,” he said.

Last Saturday, Li and a friend waved signs denouncing the Atlanta shootings on an Anchorage street corner. A lot of people honked or gave thumbs up, one yelled “All lives matter,” and some just ignored them, he said.

Li said Asian communities don’t always feel visible beyond restaurants in Anchorage, and he wanted to bring awareness to the fact that anti-Asian hate exists up here, too.

“One of the women who died in Atlanta, she had two boys,” he said, referencing Hyun Jung Grant, a single mother who worked at one of the targeted spas. “My mom raised two boys. I almost see my mom in the pictures.”

Racist rhetoric around the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, may have amplified anti-Asian hate in the last year, but Asian Americans and scholars contend that it’s not new. E.J. David grew up in the Philippines, moved to Utqiaġvik as a teenager and now studies the psychological effects of historical oppression at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

“The Filipino and Chinese cannery workers in the early 1900s — they were segregated, and the separation was not equal,” he said. In addition to poorer living and working conditions, Asian cannery workers were paid less than their white counterparts.

In a study a few years ago, David and his colleagues found more than half of Asian Alaskans experience harassment, violence and other forms of racism in their daily lives. Nationally, Stop AAPI Hate found Asian women report hate incidents more than twice as often as Asian men.

David said that trend of gendered racism is also familiar in Alaska, with the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the high rates of violence against Native women.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up the third-largest demographic group in Alaska, after white and Alaska Native people. But like Li, David thinks they’re not always visible.

In Anchorage, he said “we tout our diversity a lot, but we don’t harness it, we don’t let it influence our leadership, we don’t let it influence the direction of where our city should go.”

Processing the Atlanta shootings over the last week, David — who has experienced his own share of profiling and race-based harassment — said he felt saddened and enraged, but not surprised.

“I’ve seen it coming, not just because of the past year. I’ve seen it coming because of my entire life. And because I study history, I’ve seen this coming because of 200 years of history,” he said.

David said there’s a throughline between centuries of discrimination and stereotyping and the violence seen last week.

“What they do is they paint people as less than whole. It distorts what people really are, which is a full, complex human being. And once you start distorting your regard for people, once you see them as less human, then you’re more likely to commit violence against them.”


Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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