A Conversation With Nadia Kim

With anti-Asian hate crimes increasing across the United States, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked Nadia Kim for her take on the current manifestation of anti-Asian racism. A professor of sociology in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, Kim focuses her research on migration, immigration, Asian American studies, and race-gender-class intersectionality. She is the author of “Refusing Death: Immigrant Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in LA” and “Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.” 

Attacks on Asian and Asian Americans are reported to be more prevalent since the start of the pandemic. Have attacks been occurring all along but only now being acknowledged?

Attacks have been going on, but COVID-19 is what makes this moment unique in terms of frequency of occurrence. In some cities across America, the highest rates of hate violence have been against Asian Americans.

Would you say, then, that hate violence is ever-present, like a disease in remission that can flare up when inflamed by events?

Yes, hate violence often has flared up in response to events — such as wars or the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic — but also laws and policies. For example, the notion that Asian Americans are contagion, disease carriers, flared up when federal exclusion laws were passed. The Page Act of 1875 prohibited immigration of Chinese women, painting them as prostitutes and carriers of sexual diseases. 

Due to recent events, White America is taking notice of hate violence, but would Asians and Asian Americans say that for them it is a fact of life in America?

We have never seen the rates of hate violence this high and sustained for so long. At the same time, we have long experienced race-gender-class assaults, microaggressions and sexualized violence. In a white/black-focused country, Asian Americans battle a sense of erasure: Maybe we aren’t important, maybe this discrimination we’ve experienced isn’t really discrimination. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that we shouldn’t absorb the messages from society that make us think, “Oh well, maybe this isn’t discrimination,” or “Maybe this isn’t as important as racism against other groups.”  

Have you experienced abuse directed at you, and was any of it overtly gender-oriented?

Yes, I have. This is the stuff that is pedestrian among Asian Americans. All of us have been told “Go back to your country” —I was born in New York City. That’s standard. I have also experienced sexualized assault based on the notion of an exotic, erotic Asian woman. For example, when crossing a street outside my home during the pandemic, a man in a car came within inches of running me over. It was as if he knew he wasn’t going to actually hit me but wanted me to think that he would. That rattled me. In terms of physical violence, that hadn’t happened to me before.   

So, how should we understand the particular mixing of gender and race when it comes to abuse of Asian American women?

Asian American women are imaged as passive, as sexual objects, as meek, as quiet and as vulnerable to domination. On the other hand, Asian American women are seen as a threat. A lot of that comes from constructions of the “dragon lady” notion — an emasculating femme fatale who will impose her sexual power over you such that you lose. That’s also a cause for violence, because that threat has to be stamped out if you’re going to maintain white American power or white American dominance.

You’re a sociologist — how does your expertise help you understand this phenomenon?

Sociologists were at the center of critical race theory. Legal scholars picked up on what sociologists have been saying for decades about the importance of policies on racism, such as the Muslim ban. Sociologists also have been at the center of intersectionality. Intersectional paradigms have helped us understand that the Atlanta massacre in mid-March, for example, was not just about the women killed being Asian women. It was about their being sexualized Asian women, but it was also about class. These were workers in the massage industry.

What are people doing — and what can we all do — to counter the rise in anti-Asian attacks and racism?

Educate oneself about the history and present condition of racism against Asian Americans. China-bashing, for instance, fundamentally affects people who look Chinese in America. Joining with community groups, church and interfaith alliances for justice, and multiracial and multiethnic coalitions makes a tremendous difference. Doing what Asians With Attitudes are doing in Oakland matters — escorting elders safely to the market, the doctor’s office, to home. Donating to Asian American organizations is helpful. But we also must have a stronger understanding of intersectional racism.