For most Asian Americans, racism isn’t being hit in the back of the head with a crowbar in New York City. It isn’t the violent horror stories you see in the news. To many of us, racism is mundane. It’s unremarkable. It’s simply a passing part of day-to-day life. It’s a low hum in the background that we have learned to tune out over time.
I can still remember when I made this realization: the first time I was called a slur by a stranger. It was only a few weeks ago, at 9:30 p.m. I had just finished eating at a Korean restaurant in Allston with a group of five friends. Five of us, including myself, were Korean; the last member of our group was Chinese. Within 50 feet of exiting the restaurant and stepping out onto the dreary sidewalk, I saw a pair of white men, cladden with sweatpants and unkempt beards that showed hints of whitening. They were smirking casually, almost drunkenly. As we passed, they offered each of my friends and I a small nod and sloppy, slurred “ni hao.”
First came the bewildered confusion. Quickly after, though, came the anger. I began to feel a burning in the bottom of my chest, but as I began to raise a righteous finger in protest, my friends lowered my hand. After we took a few more steps, one of them told me, “it’s not worth it.” As we stopped at the corner up ahead to wait for the crosswalk light to change, I turned to my friends and said, “I can’t believe that just happened.” My friend turned back towards me, eyebrows raised, and remarked, “you haven’t been called the c-word before?”
The most surprising part of the whole incident, to me at least, wasn’t being labeled Chinese by a stranger with zero prompting (and to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being Chinese; the problem is the deliberate belittlement of my Korean heritage by diminishing all East Asians to simply “Chinese”). I knew that being racially insulted was only a matter of time once I returned to the U.S. I was surprised by the nonchalant reactions of my friends. To them, this was normal — hardly worth addressing. As we stood at the crosswalk, the mood was somber, but the topic of conversation quickly moved on. Within a minute, it was as if the past few moments had never happened. We never talked about it again.
In retrospect, I realize that the reason this was my first time remembering being called a slur is because I moved from New York to Korea in eighth grade. In other words, I had left the states before I really understood what it meant to be called a slur. For minorities in America, however, slurs are just a part of life. Even as I’ve been writing this op-ed, a Chinese friend came up to me and informed me that he had been called out with racist comments more times than he could count.
The Asian American experience with racism isn’t just the muggings or shootings you see on the news. After all, the two men didn’t get in our faces. They didn’t follow us as we passed by. They didn’t shove any of us or throw a punch. The Asian American experience with racism is the fact that I wasn’t all that surprised by randomly being labeled Chinese. It’s the way that my friends treated the incident as if it was hardly worth mentioning and how we’ve never talked about what happened afterwards. It’s how in the face of blatant, explicit racism, my friends’ instinctual reaction was to internalize it and pretend it never happened. The Asian American experience with racism includes the fear of escalation that prompted my friends to lower my hand, not just the violence that may have resulted had they not done so. It’s a fear that is mundane and omnipresent: a faint, usually unnoticeable worry that permeates all aspects of life.
To many Asian Americans, racism has become a normalized fact of being. It’s not always — in fact, it’s usually not — as explicit as it was that night in Allston. The way I usually encounter racism is when people ask me if I’m a U.S. citizen even after hearing my perfect English for an entire conversation. It’s when I think back to when a classmate complimented how smart I was in third grade and I’m no longer sure if it was a comment based purely on my merits as an individual. It’s a less visible kind of racism than the hate crimes that make the news. It’s also a less terrifying kind of racism, but an exponentially more tiresome one. It adds a tiny weight to every aspect of your life; even though the added weight is usually unnoticeably small, when it’s aggregated over every day and every week, it becomes exhausting. It’s a quiet, subtle kind of racism, but one that is utterly inescapable: a kind of racism that you fail to notice until you are called a chink by a stranger in Allston and — like a crescendoing wave — it hits you all at once.
Eric D. Hwang ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Stoughton Hall.