NEW ORLEANS — We didn’t choose our race when we came into this world, but racism is a choice.
How we treat someone that may look different, what comes out of our mouth, the stuff we post online, those are products of choice. We get to choose if any of that comes across as racist or not.
As the nation observes Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re going to focus on what many are calling “Asian hate." You’ve likely come across #STOPAAPIHATE in the past year in which reported physical and verbal attacks against Asian Americans have seen a sharp increase.
With all the recent headlines about racism, you’ve also likely come across terms like “lived experience” and “microaggression.” Here are some examples of both from some members of the Asian American community in the New Orleans Metro area:
“Like when my daughter walked the dog, and a 6-year-old girl just went out saying are you a dog eater?” Tony Hu said.
“I was in Vegas with my 10-year-old son, and he had someone randomly come up to him and yell to him, go back to your country,” Dr. Jeffrey Kuo said.
“If you can’t go there asking me about my age and my weight, why are you going there asking me about my race?” Barbara Weaver said.
“Even something like, for example, my name. My real name is Crystal, it’s on my birth certificate, but even when I introduce myself, people don’t want to accept that that’s my name. They want to impose some sort of foreign sounding name on to me,” Dr. Crystal Zheng said.
“One of the things that’s often said about Asian people amongst ourselves is we’re not in public enough, we’re not out there enough, we’re not outspoken enough. And I think the magnitude of these crimes have had a lot of Asian groups say we have to speak up, we have to say something,” Cynthia Lee Sheng said.
“I think having the term microaggressions helps because those have always existed, and people can kind of say well it’s not ‘big’ racism, it’s not really racism unless it looks like this and this," Angel Chung Cutno said. "The people who are always saying that are people who are white, and so you can’t say you’ve never seen or experienced racism when you are not the person who will be the target of racism."
For this installment of our ongoing series “The Talk," we’ll be discussing race and identity with four women: Angel Chung Cutno, Barbara Weaver, Cynthia Lee Sheng and Crystal Zheng. All have a shared pride in their Asian heritage.
“My heritage is Chinese. My grandfather, best I know, moved over from China in 1917,” Cynthia Lee Sheng said.
“My parents immigrated from China," Crystal Zheng said. "I was born in the U.S. and raised in Virginia."
“My Vietnamese name is Nguyen Thanh Nga. I was born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an American father,” Barbara Weaver said .
“I was raised in a multicultural home. My father is Black, my mom is an immigrant from Korea,” Angel Chung Cutno said.
Angel Chung Cutno’s interests and talents are an extension of her diverse upbringing. She’s a piano playing, Mardi Gras Indian beading poet. She recently wrote an untitled piece about being biracial. She read the poem to us. One part touches on her childhood.
“Did you hear all the times someone called my mom Chinese and said all Asians are the same? Did you notice when we went to serve other communities I looked like them more than anyone in our youth group? Yeah, y’all were quick to assure me ‘you’re not really black.' I know y’all saw the looks of disapproval and heard the whispers of judgment from the parents who said there is no place in society for mixed race children,” Chung Cutno said.
She now considers herself an “Afro-Asian for justice”.
“It took a while for me to get to where I am. I mean I’ve had times that I’ve identified one way or the other and other times I’ve struggled with identity. But that is where I landed is yes, an Afro-Asian for justice. It defines everything that I do,” Chung Cutno said.
From the murder of George Floyd to the attacks on Asian Americans, Chung Cutno says this past year cuts to the core of her identify.
“The pain was just continuous for me. In one way it felt like I had to shift my energy from the Black community to the Asian community and at the same time I wanted to know that both of my communities were really going to be there in support,” Chung Cutno said.
Barbara Weaver’s biracial experience is different.
“I personally don’t fear being stopped by police officers, so I don’t have that. What I do have is ‘go back to where you came from, you speak perfect English, you don’t have Asian eyes and nose, and I should’ve burned your village down,’” Weaver said.
Weaver says her first time conversations with strangers usually start with what may seem like a benign question.
“Their initial question is ‘where are you from?' I’ll say I’m originally from Oregon, and I moved to Louisiana about a dozen years ago. They’ll then say ‘no, where are you really from?’” Weaver said.
Where are you really from? That’s something many Asian Americans would consider a microaggression because they feel it singles them out.
“I can’t imagine what the response would be if I were to ask a white American this, where are you from? Where are you really from? I want to deep dive and find out that you were from say Wales or from Ireland. I can’t imagine going there with anyone,” Weaver said.
For certain Americans it’s just understood: They are from here. They are American. Despite being born in the U.S. Dr. Crystal Zheng finds herself constantly explaining where she’s from. Doing so, Dr. Zheng says, has a cumulative effect.
“There’s definitely this feeling that you’re a foreigner,” said Dr. Zheng, an instructor in the infectious diseases section at the School of Medicine at Tulane University.
Dr. Zheng wrote about that feeling of being a “foreigner” and many other issues, in an opinion for the non-profit, non-partisan newsroom The Lens. In the opinion, she described a dangerous confrontation two fellow doctors had with an armed man near her office.
“When COVID first emerged I personally experienced some racist events of some people calling me out on the street that I had Coronavirus, or an Uber driver asked before I got in to make sure that I didn’t have Coronavirus. Then the incident that I had written about in my op-ed, that happened here at Tulane," Dr. Zheng said. "That really shook me because someone pointing a gun saying are you ‘Chinese or Japanese? If you are then I’m going to kill you.’ That incident happened under the highway overpass, near my office. I really felt I was fearing for my physical safety."
Shortly after that incident last April, Tulane University Police sent out an alert to the entire campus. It detailed how the suspect kept following the doctors saying, “if you are Chinese or Japanese, I’m going to kill you.” The suspect then lifted his shirt to show a gun in his waistband.
According to that alert, the suspect eventually walked away after one of the doctors said, “we’re here to help.” There’s no video of that encounter, but you may have seen other video clips of physical attacks.
During the past year, in different parts of the country, Asian Americans have been attacked, seemingly for no reason. Reports of Asian discrimination in the U.S. increased sharply after the pandemic began.
“Then, finally something like Atlanta happened. People started to take note, but really all of that tension and violence had been building for a year,” Dr. Zheng said.
Back in March, authorities arrested Robert Aaron Long after they say he opened fire at three different Asian spas in the metro Atlanta area. Eight people were killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent. The suspect said the shootings were not racially motivated. Investigators say he admitted to them that he had a sex addiction, had visited some of the spas in the past and that they were a temptation he “wanted to eliminate."
Dr. Zheng says that so-called explanation is layered with racism and sexism.
“People are failing to realize that even if it’s due to his sex addiction, the root cause is the fetishization of Asian women and therefore is racism. It’s not that the two are mutually exclusive topics,” Dr. Zheng said.
“I’m a woman. I’m Black, I’m Asian and people have called me exotic, and people have called me the perfect fantasy for every white man,” Angel Chung Cutno said.
Atlanta area prosecutors this month said the mass shooting is a hate crime, but the motive remains a point of public debate. To many Asian Americans though, the fact that the businesses targeted were Asian and the majority of people killed were Asian women, is enough for them to speak up about the fear, anger and frustration within their community. Some feel they’re being scapegoated.
“Asians are invisible in this country. The only time that you know Asians exist is when there’s a pandemic or a war,” Barbara Weaver said.
Earlier this spring, local Asian Americans held a rally at City Park. They called attention to what they feel is growing anti-Asian sentiment, but it also seemed to be an effort to show their patriotism.
“We as Asian Americans love being Americans and want to be treated as such,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kuo at the Easter Sunday rally.
“We can’t live in a society where because of what you look like that makes you the enemy. We’ve got to be better than that. We have to have the discussion,” Cynthia Lee Sheng said.
Cynthia Lee Sheng says as a young girl, she was aware that she was different, but it didn’t overwhelm her.
“I didn’t really feel like I was the ‘other’ because I guess it was always with me. It was always that way, it wasn’t like I went to a school where I was in a community with a lot of Asian people around me and then I moved to a city where it wasn’t as many," she said. "That would’ve been a stark difference in my life. It was always that way for me. What made me feel different more than that was that my dad was the sheriff,”
Before he died in 2007, Harry Lee was sheriff of Jefferson Parish for almost 30 years. He had a reputation for being tough on crime. At home, Lee Sheng says he taught her to toughen up.
“I remember going home and telling my father like, somebody made fun of me because I was Chinese. I’m thinking my dad was going to come and save the day and call the principal and be my hero so to speak and he kind of just looked at me and he kind of laughed," Lee Sheng said. "It was just like shock because it was the opposite reaction I thought he would have. He just kind of said ‘you let that little kid bother you?’ Later in life, I remembered that story. Without teaching me that lesson directly, he was teaching me that lesson of you don’t give people that power over you. You don’t let them do that to you and I never was able to talk to him about that because I hadn’t thought of it until really after he was gone. You don’t really think about those things until you’re an adult, but it was really a powerful lesson."
Lee Sheng is the first Asian American, and the first woman to hold the office of Jefferson Parish President. Even in that position, she can’t speak for an entire race or ethnicity. In a similar vein, Lee Sheng says the hateful actions or words by individuals should not represent a broader group, and certainly not the country
“I mean everybody’s experience is different, so we can all only speak for ourselves. I’m of Asian heritage. To me when, I look at it, this community embraced my family, but my family put themselves out there and worked hard," she said. "It was part of this community. As an Asian person you can see these things that are going around communities and withdraw in and look at the worst of people. But you have to find the best people out there and interact with them. It is a simple thing, but in that way you have to say, yes, these things exist but there are much better people out there and let me turn my attention to that and let me be strong in that arena."
Like the issue itself, conversations about race are complicated. To some conservatives the protests, rallies and reckonings from the past year are part of cancel culture or an attempt to silence certain language, behavior and political beliefs.
“Yes, Caucasians, we are being racially profiled as well, but the news is not reporting on that. All they show is Black Lives Matter and what’s happening to Asian people they’re not showing the racism that’s being shown to Caucasians,” said Tina, of New Orleans.
Tina didn’t want her last name revealed, but she reached out to us after we invited viewers to take an online survey on race. More than 900 people responded to the survey, which also left room for people to share their opinions. Tina says there’s no easy remedy for the racism that’s taken place.
“I’m sincerely sorry that the Native Americans were stolen from, that people of color were slaves and treated so despicably. I’m so sorry that people of color have been mistreated by law enforcement officers, additionally now Asian people are being racially profiled. All of that being said, I am not responsible for it, so stop blaming me for the past,” Tina said.
Through the survey, we encouraged people to leave us a voice message. One woman’s message lasted more than four minutes. Here are portions of that message.
“So, I’m 28. I’m a single mother, I am a student. My sexual orientation is bi-sexual. I am a Republican. My issue with race in general is we’re leaning toward becoming a racist country again by uplifting certain races and pushing down others, instead of treating all races equally. I don’t believe in systemic racism; however, I do think there have been several instances of injustices for Black people. I don’t believe however that George Floyd was an injustice. I don’t believe Breonna Taylor was an injustice. I think the race issue has only gotten worse since we’ve been pushing a narrative that white people are racist. Emotion is being pulled over logic and that’s the real problem we have in America right now. I also think race is being used to weaponize the left against the right and I think race relations has only gotten worse because of the fact that we keep pushing the fact that America is racist when it’s not,” she said.
The impact or severity of bias and racism is subjective. The arguments can get messy, and sometimes, video evidence won’t settle them. Even after Derek Chauvin was convicted for murdering George Floyd, some people dispute it was because of bias or race. Before the jury deliberated Judge Peter Cahill cautioned the jurors to be aware of how personal or lived experiences can influence their understanding of bias.
“No matter how unbiased we think we are, our brains are hardwired to make unconscious decisions. We look at others and filter what they say through the lens of our own personal experience and background. Because we all do this, we often see life and evaluate evidence in a way that tends to favor people who are like ourselves or who have had life experiences like our own,” Judge Cahill said
If you believe the judge, then maybe you can understand why many Asian Americans are reacting to the Atlanta shootings and other attacks. Their life experiences make it possible to see their mother, sister or daughter as one of the victims. But if that isn’t your life experience, then you may view it differently. We’ve heard the calls for empathy but before that can happen, Angel Chung Cutno says some people must confront their own bias.
“I think people deny racism exists because they don’t want to have to stand face-to-face with their privilege. If you acknowledge that racism is there and that systemic racism exists and you’re a beneficiary of it, then you have to in some way acknowledge that it’s there. That is a very painful thing for people to have to do and it’s not saying that you’re bad if you have privilege. It’s not saying you are doing something to hold people down, but acknowledging it is really the first step to healing, and that’s a huge thing to ask,” Chung Cutno said.
Without clear consensus on what is the problem, the conversation about Asian hate, and the larger one about race continues. Our conversation with Chung Cutno ended with her reading the final verse of her poem, which captures the personal nature of something that can affect countless people.
“So, when you say we treated you just like we did our other friends and trying not to make me feel different, you unknowingly denied my difference, and your color blindness erased the fullness of who I am. So, I mourn our friendship because you truly never saw me behind the mask.”