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Peter Chee: Behind the mask

For Asians in America, the threat — and the fear — is real

On the outside, I presented myself like I would any other day for work.

I socially distanced. I made small talk about the weather. I maintained the facade that everything was “OK.”

After my last appointment, I returned to my car and removed the masks I wear — the physical mask first, then the emotional ones. Uncovered and alone in my car, I let my frayed edges — my emotional exhaustion and grief — show.

Guest Writer

Peter Chee is a real estate and portrait photographer making his home in Portland. An Oregon State University grad who grew up in Hawaii, he has a background in print media that led him to a stint as a staff reporter for the News-Register earlier in his career. He is passionate about social justice and gender and racial equity. He believes not in sensationalism, but speaking truth to power, even if it’s uncomfortable. During the pandemic, he’s been enjoying home cooking, food photography and loose leaf tea.

It was the afternoon of March 17, amid a week when anti-Asian hate seemed to reach a crescendo.

Just that morning, a white man in San Francisco punched a 75-year-old Asian grandmother in the street, blackening both her eyes — this after he’d punched an 83-year-old Asian man a short distance away. The day prior, a white male in Atlanta killed six Asian women as part of an eight-person killing spread among three Asian-owned spas. 

There’ve been almost daily reports in the weeks since. We’ve experienced a wave of attacks. Assaults. Slurs. Spitting.

And it didn’t just start. According to a recent report on National Public Radio, nearly 3,800 reports of anti-Asian discrimination have been documented since March of last year in the U.S.

As an American of Chinese descent, my heart is heavy. I hope in sharing my words here I can serve as a touchstone to humanize myself and those who resemble me.

This is real. This is happening. Please do not look away.

Like many, I am fatigued from life constrained by the pandemic. But I also feel I have a target painted on my back. So I am on alert every time I set foot outside the house.

Day to day, I work hard to manage my fears and care for my well-being. I exercise. I meditate. I read. I have a kick-ass therapist. And I’m part of a men’s emotional support group which meets virtually.

Still, I feel helpless, because all the push-ups, self-help and “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube can’t stop a sucker punch, not to mention a knife, a bullet or a truck.

Asians in America have been acutely feeling the pain of racist attacks and scapegoating since the start of the pandemic.

Dog whistle phrases like “Kung Flu” and “Chinese Virus” were given a national platform. Meanwhile, the words of Asian-Americans trying to raise the alarm were lost amid media coverage of larger racial justice protests, along with COVID and the presidential election.

The Atlanta murders proved a tragic inflection point. Yet even so, many Americans still minimize or deny the magnitude of anti-Asian sentiment. 

So much denialism centers around the belief that compared to “everything else,” this issue is small. But hate always starts small. It starts with stereotypes, objectification and name-calling, then escalates. Read the headlines or open a history book to see where things go.

I’ve been told on the street, “Go back to China!” But I was born in America, as were my parents. English is the only spoken language I know.

What does racism feel like? For me, racism tears at my identity as an American. It sets me adrift, when by all accounts I am worthy and deserving to stand proudly.

After being arrested, the Atlanta gunman spoke of his struggle with sex addiction, telling police he targeted the Asian women to remove “temptation.” When asked by police if race motivated him, he said no. And I’ve watched as authorities continue to tip-toe around the issue of race ever since. 

Here in America, a man sooner committed and confessed to mass murder than openly acknowledge either his racism or his misogyny — a malignant brew that places Asian women in special danger. In reported cases alone, Asian women are 2.3 times more likely to be targets of racist incidents.

By the numbers, to say men committing mass murder in America is a problem is an understatement. From 1982 to the point of the Atlanta rampage, 116 mass shootings had been carried out by men, three by women.

This is a hard fact to face, but we need to overcome the cognitive dissonance — the continued denial in the face of reality — that the most violent and lethal attacks in America are perpetrated by males. 

Beyond racism and sexism, and perhaps running deeper, I believe systems in American society too often give rise to men whose entitlement prevents them from knowing empathy, displaying self-awareness or taking responsibility for their own emotional needs. This leaves many primed to harm the women around them — and anyone who doesn’t look or think like they do — as they are often overly relied upon for emotional processing,

This lack of male empathy and emotional awareness is compounded by the unrealistic expectations of what is often referred to as “toxic masculinity.” From childhood, men are conditioned to never admit defeat, acknowledge wrongdoing, show vulnerability or display weakness.

To learn from failure is essential for emotional growth, but men often face immense downward societal pressure, which serves to inhibit them from doing so. I can think of no better example than a quote from shame researcher Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” in which a father and husband confesses his wife and daughters would “rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off.”

In his published work, author and historian Ibram X. Kendi promotes the concept of anti-racism. In short, for you to “not be a racist” isn’t enough, you must to speak out and actively work to change the cultural and societal environment where racism thrives.

From my standpoint, we can take the principles of anti-racism and apply them directly toward efforts to unlearn sexism and misogyny.

Men must better see to their own emotional wellness, then find the courage to reach out and support others. This is because racism, sexism and misogyny are ultimately linked by the need for more men to place value in those who are different from them. 

As an Asian American, things are scary for me right now. But I still have reasons to feel hope.

I’ve had numerous white friends offer support, through public acts of advocacy, private messages, offers to deliver food, even the gift of fresh eggs from a clutch of hens. Beyond this, many of my white friends are showing real courage engaging in difficult conversations with family members and colleagues.

Just as importantly, my friends are continually looking at themselves in the mirror, with honesty and compassion, to find ways to grow as allies. For this, I am so grateful.

If you have friends of Asian descent, I say now is as good a time as ever to check in, because there’s a good chance they are hurting — even if they aren’t outwardly showing it, even if anti-Asian attacks have once again slipped lower in the headlines. What matters is to help them feel seen, validated and like they belong.

If you don’t have any Asian friends, consider supporting Asian-run businesses, or even donating to organizations geared toward racial justice. Every form of support counts.

I began this piece speaking of removing the emotional “masks” I wear. I set these aside to do honest work on my own prejudices, entitlement and sexism, as do the other men in my support group.

It is vulnerable reflection I hope more Americans, men especially, find the courage to do. Lives quite literally depend on it.

This is the crux of race-based work — having the humility to both see and learn from small missteps, in order to avert failing in larger, life-ending, life-ruining ones.

Comments

ErinChen

Thank you Peter. Our family too has been left grieving after this recent spate of Anti-Asian hate.

Sponge

Mr. Chee is thoughtful and articulate in sharing his personal experiences and resulting anxiety. However, his attempt at diagnosing the underlying cause for the problems is less than convincing, while it touches on the prevailing mantra of “toxic masculinity.” His belief that “systems in American society too often give rise to men whose entitlement prevents them from knowing empathy...”, is too broad and too vague, making unqualified assumptions about both “systems” and “entitlement”. I cannot challenge the pain of his personal experience, but I am reluctant to buy into his culturally popular finger-pointing. I believe the problem is far more complex and insidious than his armchair assessment.