Lia Rivamonte, Beloved Community Communications Team
Recently, I found myself standing elbow to elbow in a local brewery teeming with Asian Americans grateful for the opportunity to be in community for a joyful cause — to drink beer and talk theater. Among them I recognized people whose ethnic and cultural roots were Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian. This only includes the people I actually know. “Asian American” serves as an umbrella term for a fast-growing 22 million people from more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It was Theater Mu’s Open House at the BlackStack Brewery. We were all ages but mostly people in their 20s and 30s engaged in Twin Cities’ theater-making.
Also, there was a smattering of white people, funders and longtime advocates of local theater. But they weren’t the focus of the event. They were there to support the future of Mu and its 30-year legacy of art centering on the lives of Asian Americans. This Minnesota arts organization is now the second largest Asian American theater in the country.
I spotted Rick Shiomi, one of Mu’s founders, who after the first 20 years relinquished his role as artistic director to make room for new leadership and has moved on to form the Full Circle Theatre Company. We reminisced about those early days of Mu and the thrill of discovering a community of Asian American artists in the Twin Cities.
Rick and I joked about all the times we’ve been questioned about our origins, “No, but where are you from, really?” In fact, on a recent flight back from New York City, the woman sitting next to him queried him. “I’m from Minnesota,” he said. The woman kept drilling, uninterested in hearing where he was actually born and raised. It was only when he told her his grandfather was from Japan, that she could rest her case. She knew he was a foreigner!
Yes, many of us make light of it but we all recognize the deeper implications of being constantly regarded as alien in the country in which we were born and raised, and often where our parents were born and their parents before them. When we are continually asked where we come from, however innocent the question, we understand the answer may not satisfy the need to separate us from those who “belong” here. Our physical appearance alone is enough to spark suspicion, resentment, fear, and hatred. We need not even open our mouths to speak. Historically referred to as the “Yellow Peril” it is fear rooted in xenophobia and racism and the belief that the dark forces of the East will subsume the West. To extend that further, if we identify as Asian — regardless of citizenship —we cannot be trusted to hew to our American identity at the same time.
This and the long, sordid history of systemic racism and public violence against Asian Americans are the reasons why the recent spate of violence against us has unleashed in us such tremendous anger, fear, and sadness. The murder of a Chinese man in 1854 by a white person sparked the California Supreme Court ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a white person. Seventeen Chinese men and boys were lynched in Los Angeles in the Chinese Massacre of 1871. Racism was put into federal law by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, 28 Chinese miners were killed, and 79 homes burned down. This is just the tip of a very, very large iceberg. Most are familiar with the Japanese Internment during WWII, and the barbaric acts that our military perpetrated against citizens during the Vietnam War.
In 1966, the stereotype, “model minority,” first appeared in a New York Times article. This myth perpetuated the idea that after WWII, despite internment and the wholesale destruction of their homes and businesses, Japanese Americans had quietly accepted their fate, and simply started over, refraining from asking for government aid. Instead, they worked hard, assimilated, and were “model citizens.” It was the “Why can’t you be like them?” attitude obviously directed at other nonwhites — specifically Black people that successfully pitted one group against another.
In 2020, a new epidemic of anti-Asian harassment and violent acts arose in tandem with the pandemic as the President and conservative media pinned the origin and spread of the virus on China. Over 2,500 incidents of harassment and/or violence were reported in that year alone, and anti-Asian racism continues. A few of the reported pandemic induced anti-Asian racist incidents were initiated by Black men, a stark example of how the “model minority” label has served the dominant culture, sowing mistrust and envy between nonwhite groups. These examples illustrate not just individual or interpersonal racist acts but stem from the direct result of historic institutional and structural anti-Asian racism.
There are more questions to answer and deep reflection is warranted, as we peel back the layers about what constitutes Asian-ess, and as we wonder how to break through the narratives imposed on us by others who want to de-humanize, demonize, and label us as “other” on one hand, and at the same time persuade us that we are somehow more “equal” or “like” the dominant culture in order to gain us as allies.
One antidote to anti-Asian racism is education. There is a long, complicated history of the Asian American experience — a large, diverse, ever-evolving story — that deserves our exploration. Thirty years ago, when Theater Mu was first begun, it was rare in Minnesota to hear Asian American stories told by Asian Americans. Fortunately, much has changed since the 1990’s — we are rich in these stories and in the people who can tell them. It’s time to seek them out.
Note: This is the first in a series exploring Asian American identity and anti-Asian racism.
For more information on Asian Americans, find these in the Anderson Library:
America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee, 305.8 L
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, 305.4 H
Beloved Community Resources
Unity Justice Database
Team Dynamics House of Intersectionality
Anti-Racism Resources in the Unity Libraries Collection
Creative Writers of Color in Unity Libraries
The History of Race Relations and Unity Church, 1850-2005
Beloved Community Staff Team
The Beloved Community Staff Team (BCST) strengthens and coordinates Unity’s antiracism and multicultural work, and provides opportunities for congregants and the church to grow into greater intercultural competency. We help the congregation ground itself in the understanding of antiracism and multiculturalism as a core part of faith formation. We support Unity’s efforts to expand our collective capacity to imagine and build the Beloved Community. Here, we share the stories of this journey — the struggles, the questions, and the collaborations — both at Unity and in the wider world.
The current members of the Beloved Community Staff Team include Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, Rev. KP Hong, Rev. Lara Cowtan, Barbara Hubbard, Drew Danielson, Laura Park, Lia Rivamonte and Angela Wilcox.