What does it take to be considered “American”?

Stella Fetherston, Art Editor

“Where are you from?” It’s an innocuous enough question. “No, where are you really from?” 

Out of the many stereotypes of Asian Americans, one has stuck out to me during this pandemic. It’s called “the perpetual foreigner,” and it’s basically rejection from the American identity. It’s not specific to one ethnic group, but as the pandemic unfolds around me, I think about how quickly the stereotype changed from the model minority and back into the dangerous, unfamiliar other. 

When politicians first started calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” and the “Kung Flu,” I wasn’t as shocked as I was angry. According to former President Donald Trump, it couldn’t be racist if China was where the virus was identified. After all, the moniker for one strand of avian flu is “the Spanish Flu.” But the thing is, that was over 100 years ago and didn’t result in an increase in hate crimes. 

This violence was denounced by Trump, but not in time to prevent racially-motivated incidents of harassment and assault against Asian Americans. These were the repercussions of the president’s continual use of harmful language. By blaming the pandemic on China, racist people were given a scapegoat to blame, and they used it. But in order for this violence to manifest, it first needed a strong foundation to take root. 

I haven’t talked about a lot of things, like systemic racism and the struggles of different marginalized communities. I won’t be going into detail about racist and dehumanizing propaganda during World War II or the Japanese internment camps. I won’t be debunking the model minority myth or talk about the harm of microaggressions. I won’t get into the fact that even though Asian people have the highest average incomes—according to the Pew Research Center—they also have the greatest income disparity in the United States. What I’m trying to say is, there are enormous gaps in my narrative that I have neglected to fill. However, I want to make it clear that racism against Asian people isn’t anything new and that this article isn’t all encompassing. 

I should also mention that I’m mixed. I don’t have many ties to Korean culture, and this makes my experience separate from that of other Asian Americans. My mom was born in Seoul and raised in Long Island, New York, and my dad was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Sidenote: strangers would tell my mom that her English was surprisingly good. It’s her native tongue. This probably won’t come as a shock to most people, but this has never happened to my dad. 

I think in the minds of most U.S. citizens, if you conjure up the image of an American, that person ends up being white. When people see someone who is ethnically diverse, they might ask where you’re from. Answering with a U.S. city is never enough. What they might want to know is your ethnicity, but the question comes out like it’s the denial of one’s belonging. It feels like alienation, as if what it takes to be a “real American,” in the eyes of some, is whiteness.