An Open Letter to President Biden
Dear Mr. President,
First, congratulations! I cannot begin to express my relief in the wake of your election and safe installation into office. As deeply worried as I remain about our weakened democracy and the encroachment of far-right extremism into the political mainstream, I also have hope that the country may experience transformative change under your presidency — toward social, economic, and environmental justice. I’m rooting for your success on all these fronts.
I write today with a narrower concern, however — namely, the spike in anti-Asian hate incidents, which I was grateful to see you speak out against in your recent executive action.
I am an Asian American of Korean descent, born in the U.S. to parents who came here as students in the mid-50s, not long after the Korean War. I was born the year Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1965), so I like to think that my life runs parallel to the arc of post-Civil Rights Asian immigration and integration into the American fabric.
As your memorandum and now a few media outlets have begun to spotlight, an alarming number of Asians have been verbally harassed, spat on, physically attacked, and even killed since the arrival of COVID-19 on U.S. soil.
We all know, too, that Trump’s peddling of language and rhetorical cues — “China virus” and “Kung flu” — helped fan the flames when he should have been tamping down on them, instead signaling to his base and the public at large that it was fine — encouraged, even — to direct blame (and mockery) toward China as the source.
But there is another trend line that I think Trump also helped feed, and I worry this could dovetail with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment and take on a life of its own, if not called out and kept in check.
It is the growing identification of China as America’s principal adversary on the world stage, supplanting the old Soviet Union from Cold War days as THE Communist nemesis of the United States. I see hints of this within various segments of the political right — from anti-government libertarians, to evangelical Christians, to neocon hawks, to full-blown White nationalists. While their roots may vary, they all have in common an ideological or religious core, which adds a disturbing, zealous tone to their rhetoric.
My worry is that this type of hostility — toward a country already feared as a rising economic superpower and increasingly seen as a threat to American global hegemony — could have explosive potential if fused with an anti-Asian backlash based on race and cultural stereotyping (bat-eating, disease-carrying foreigners).
Most relevant to your administration, however: I am concerned that a tough-on-China Biden foreign policy stance could add fuel to the existing backlash, if not handled with extreme delicacy and clarity. This is the main reason I am writing.
Even before Trump, the groundwork for negative American public perceptions of China were laid. The country has long been accused of engaging in unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, and intellectual property theft — areas of conflict that you yourself have articulated.
Trump, of course, amplified this anti-Chinese sentiment with his America First platform, making clear in the way he enunciated “ChYYYY-na” that he was depicting the country as an unequivocal foe: thieves and untrustworthy cheaters, whom we should make pay for their deceit through a trade war. Already, in his characterization, there were hints of Asian stereotyping.
In the early months of his term, however, Trump’s nativist targeting at home was more directly aimed at Mexican and Central American migrants crossing the border, and at Muslims and Middle Easterners, characterized as terrorist threats to be banned from entering the homeland. African Americans, too, it almost goes without saying, were the object of his bigotry, although their long and specific history didn’t permit him the rhetoric of keeping them out, so much as, perhaps, down. (Or dead, if we remember his history with the Central Park Five and his rash of last-minute executions.)
While I expressed solidarity with these targeted groups and anger at the injustice inflicted on them, I felt less directly threatened as an ethnic East Asian, even as I knew this could change with the flip of a switch. Asians — the way I put it at the time — seemed to occupy a space just to the side of the bullseye.
It was only with the outbreak of COVID that I began to sense with alarm that Asians were about to become the next racial scapegoat. My fears were compounded and confirmed when Trump insisted on calling it the “China Virus,” going so far as to cross out Corona in his notes and write in CHINESE in his signature Sharpie.
And yet, it was only hearing clips from QAnon-steeped MAGA rallies throughout the 2020 election and since — together with pronouncements by Mike Pompeo, and offhand comments I’ve heard from self-identified libertarians — that an even more ominous worry began to crystallize in my mind.
I have been struck by hearing the refrain of “the CCP!” — repeated with a kind of jingoism that reminds me of the early 80s, at the beginning of the Reagan years, when I lived in a very Red state (Oklahoma) and heard regular denouncements of “commies,” “the Kremlin,” or “Godless socialists.”
I am hearing these same shouts today, except that in place of “THE KGB!!,” it’s “THE CCP!!”
Of course, what complicates this picture is the reality of Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism, which warrants critique and even condemnation on certain fronts. There was a lack of transparency in relation to the earliest days of the pandemic. The crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong and signs of military aggression in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea region are alarming, to say the least. Worst of all are the ethnonationalist policies and human rights abuses being carried out against the Uighur population.
Yet what frightens me is the potential for anti-China sentiment here to take on racial overtones in a way anti-Soviet sentiment never did, because Soviets were essentially equated with ethnic Russians in the American mind (despite huge actual ethnic variation). And Russians are essentially perceived as White.
In fact, it’s not incidental that to extreme White nationalist ideologues like Steve Bannon, a post-Soviet Russia no longer under Communist rule has come to symbolize the last bastion of White European Christendom. This view (in a classic fascist move) mythologizes a (fictional) medieval past and glorifies a pre-schism, unified, crusading White Christian empire.
Based on the behavior of most of the GOP under Trump, the Right’s historical beef with Russia appears to be a thing of the past.
The more obvious historical analogue for an East Asian world power viewed as America’s enemy is Japan during the Second World War. And we know what happened to Japanese Americans in 1942, and at the hands of a liberal hero, no less.
I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that what happened to Japanese Americans under FDR could ever happen to Asian Americans under a Biden administration. (In fact, internment aside, I personally hope for an FDR-like presidency from you on the Build Back Better front!).
But what I do worry is that you may not have an instinctive feel — which only those on the receiving end really can have — for how deeply ingrained some of the racial and cultural biases against East Asians are in America, and in the West generally.
They’re present in the culture like a steady undercurrent, lying dormant at times, but leaving us vulnerable to being otherized at a moment’s notice, and easily bullied, because many of the tropes revolve around physical size, or being seen as docile, passive, and feminine or feminized.
You might not realize how easily some Americans — already pre-disposed to think of China as an adversary, and now hostile toward an entire global region because of COVID — might misinterpret your words in relation to foreign policy; or how easily ideas about American exceptionalism can turn into an ugly form of American chauvinism. I can imagine a confluence of these impulses catching fire.
So, besides continuing to speak out against explicit anti-Asian hate, I would ask you to consider the following:
- When and where you do take a tough stance on China, please make a special effort to clarify that by “China” you do not mean the Chinese people; nor Chinese culture; nor anyone of Chinese or Asian descent.
- Please make it crystal clear — in language a simpleton can understand (as I’m afraid there are many among us) — that no one should confuse criticism toward a foreign competitor or adversary as license to scapegoat an entire ethnic population, here or there.
- Speak as much as possible in terms of governments, heads of state, regimes, and administrations, rather than the country itself as a monolith. But, as an exception, consider avoiding references to the CCP as shorthand, since this has already become a slogan on the Right and is being used toward inflammatory ends.
- Please think twice before making casual comments like, “China is going to eat our lunch” — as if our desire to re-establish primacy in the areas of science, technology, and infrastructure must be in direct competition with China alone. We absolutely need to rebuild and transform ourselves. But, as Journalist Robert Delaney recently put it, it’s not necessary to make China a bogeyman in relation to our internal affairs.
- When speaking about our NATO alliance, avoid rhetoric suggestive of Western chauvinism and an East-West dichotomy. (I appreciate that you did just that in your recent foreign policy speech!) Help make clear that Western democracies (including our own) are as much in danger of autocratic backsliding as non-Western these days. Help Americans understand the difference between pride in country and cultural chauvinism.
I am again reminded of the complexity of Japan as a precedent.
While American perceptions of Japan today are almost entirely favorable (sometimes to a fault: the ultra-nationalist, anti-constitutional leanings of the Abe government were largely given a pass), the fact is that Japan at the time of WWII was a fascist imperial power and military aggressor, responsible for launching a first strike against the U.S.
Yet historical hindsight makes it so obvious that this should never have led to the critical misstep of associating Japanese Americans with the Japanese Empire. German Americans were never rounded up and sent wholesale to internment camps, despite Germany’s enemy status.
Eleanor Roosevelt was more clear-sighted than her husband about the wrong committed under Executive Order 9066. She tried to persuade FDR not to sign it. How is it possible he himself could have been so indifferent? I’ve often wondered.
But then I am reminded of the reality of the America I myself grew up in.
Not ten years ago, I used to complain that Asians were still the last butt of the joke — whether on TV or in the movies or in pop culture. Somehow it was okay for even such revered comedians as Joan Rivers or Carrie Fisher to mock Asian physical features (both did in comedy specials they performed around that time). Somehow it was fine for a Steve Harvey or Amy Schumer to make fun of Asians on the basis of physical traits, in ways that went beyond cultural joking. It was okay for people to casually speak of Asians as if we were “taking over.” It is still okay to speak as if there are too many of us, or to maintain tacit quotas that keep our numbers in check at certain institutions.
And when the leaders of North Korea — from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong-un — have been ridiculed for their outlandish dictatorial excesses, there has often been a thin line between mockery of them as individuals, which they’ve rightly deserved, and a generalized Asian mockery that we are all familiar with. It is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” And all too often that line is still crossed.
Looking back at the World War II era, I find it illuminating to revisit the political cartoons of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), whose critique of the original America First movement re-surfaced when Trump was first elected, becoming a cautionary tale in the wake of his caging of migrant children and his child separation policy. This one, in particular, went viral:
Geisel also exposed the truth about America’s hero of the day, Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh, whose embrace of isolationism and the America First platform was little more than a thinly-veiled support of Nazism:
But while Geisel — himself the son of German immigrants — never confused German fascism with Germans as a race, his mix of blatant anti-Asian racism with anti-Japanese fascism was of a shockingly different order.
Here was Geisel portraying Japanese Americans as squinty-eyed, look-alike masses, loyal to the Japanese Empire:
And here, he depicts them as a teeming swarm of alley cats, about to overrun Uncle Sam:
Even when his critiques were aimed at the alliance between Germany and Japan, his portrayal of Emperor Hirohito was infused with a racial mockery that made his Hitler look dignified — even endearing — and certainly more human, by comparison:
Seeing these cartoons, I am reminded how recently it was that Asians were seen as invading Mongol hordes. And how fragile is our acceptance and inclusion today. It’s this that reminds me how quickly America could fall back on its old patterns. That, in fact, a segment of the country already has.
Mr. President, I understand your desire to overcome division in the country, but it may be that you are more able to look past the divide to those on the other side because you’ve never known the feeling of being demeaned on the basis of race by those very people. You haven’t felt that particular sting.
And yet, I know you are someone with a great capacity for empathy. I know, for instance, that your own experience of being bullied because of a stutter gives you an ability to understand.
In that spirit, please tread ever lightly when you speak about China, or Asia, or those here (and everywhere) of Asian descent. Think continually of our humanity when you do.
Finally, please know that while I want to look forward to the next four years with optimism, it’s hard to do when you don’t have the luxury of forgetting your racial identity at a time of radicalized politics and racialized danger.
Growing up in America, my earliest years were a time of seeing hardly any Asian presence other than my own family in the places I lived; when being Asian was a constant source of friction. Over time, the perception and reception of Asians in the U.S. improved as our numbers grew. And my sense of identity became less of a cross to bear. It became easier to think of myself casually as American in a way my earlier circumstances hadn’t allowed.
But now I see the clock turning back. And I can’t help but draw comparisons with assimilated German Jews who lived through the Weimar period, only to come face to face with Kristallnacht and what followed. I hope beyond hope that we won’t see America devolve in that same way. But I am fearful.
Now in my mid-fifties, inching slowly but surely toward my twilight years, I don’t know what America is going to be by the time I get there. I don’t know if I can feel safe here, waiting it out and hoping we can avoid another Trump, or worse.
I consider whether I may have to find some way to move to Asia — a part of the world no more culturally or linguistically familiar to me than parts of Europe — but where I would be less of a visual target, at least.
And it’s not just the immediate backlash that I fear (although this certainly scares me). I’m afraid because I believe real fascism is gaining traction in America. It will undoubtedly outlast your administration and will remain a threat for years, if not decades, to come.
Trump may be gone, but the damage has been done.
I’m aware that you are a man of unwavering optimism. I wonder if that comes from your faith and belief in an afterlife — something I can’t say I share. Or perhaps you believe in the long arc of justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of.
There may indeed be such an arc (although I tend to think of historical progress as more cyclical than linear). But sadly, what vulnerable groups cannot shake is the awareness that any one of us might become a casualty to the dips in that arc along the way. And that leaves a terrible sense of insecurity.
With the events of January 6th still fresh in my mind, and the knowledge that Trump’s Senate acquittal will be seen as a victory by his cultish followers, I am afraid for ALL people of color. But it’s undeniable that, having become a more direct target myself, I live with a more elevated sense of anxiety.
These days, whenever I hear critical remarks about China, from any quarter, my heart skips a beat. Even when I’m in agreement on the particular issue, I feel a defensiveness — especially if I detect even a hint of cultural chauvinism in the attack. I don’t feel a particularly strong cultural attachment to Asia myself. Yet I have friends and relatives who do. I have former co-workers in China, relatives in Korea, and friends and acquaintances throughout the region. And I feel a defensiveness toward their humanity, and against any attempt to diminish theirs, or mine.
America has long had a problem with dehumanizing Asians, whether over here or over there. Even when it purportedly fought on behalf of (half of) us. No Gun Ri. Mỹ Lai. Agent Orange. It starts with seeing the ones over there as human. For how can America see those of us here as human, if it can’t see the ones over there as the same?
Perhaps that is the root. And the solution. If we can find a way to embody that seeing as a nation. It would apply to all people of color — each of us different (i.e., not White) in our own way. We all must figure out how to embody, and thereby humanize, one another.
Mr. President, if you can help convey this message, and remind us of it often during your time in office, it would go a long way.
With hope and very best wishes,
February 21, 2021
 Memorandum Condemning and Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance Against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/26/memorandum-condemning-and-combating-racism-xenophobia-and-intolerance-against-asian-americans-and-pacific-islanders-in-the-united-states/
 See https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/04/16/why-far-right-nationalists-like-steve-bannon-have-embraced-russian-ideologue/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/08/22/americas-neo-nazis-dont-look-to-germany-for-inspiration-they-look-to-russia/