End the silence, share the burden of Asian American racism

Amy Kuo Hammerman


Recent tragic and scary events in America have raised awareness of anti-Asian racism in our society. The history of anti-Asian discrimination, exclusion and exploitation is easily found through a Google search. I have found, however, that we learn and understand complex issues better when we can connect it to a personal story, to see the humanity in it instead of just the abstract.

Rabbi Angela Buchdal, one of few Asian American rabbis in the United States, suggested that one way to start dealing with anti-Asian hate is to listen to the stories of Asian Americans who are treated as perpetual strangers in this land. She teaches us that this radical act of empathy can be transformational. I invite you to make that radical act.

Let me share some thoughts as a Jewish Asian American today.

I am the daughter of Taiwanese and Japanese immigrants. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., and grew up on Long Island and in Chesterfield. I graduated from Parkway Central, for those wondering about that quintessentially St. Louis question. I was not raised with any particular religion and came to Judaism as a young adult.

Growing up, I noticed a lot of similarities between Jewish culture and my Asian heritage. Good humor about Jews enjoying Chinese food on Christmas Day is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While I see similarities and feel the affinity between these communities, the fact is that there are differences. As a part of both communities, I have felt those differences. I have felt “othered” and, at times, erased as an Asian American within the Jewish community. Friendly and well-meaning congregants at my temple have asked me who I was with when attending services, as though I was not there because I am Jewish or because I’m a member of the congregation.

On the other hand, I’ve been in meetings of Jewish organizations to discuss race where participants have said some version of, “We need to do better, I mean we don’t even have any people of color here.”

I’ve been asked myriad times, “Where are you from? [Creve Coeur] No, I mean, where are you from from?” It’s been assumed that I or my children are not Jewish based only on our faces. When asked whether I speak Japanese or Chinese and I respond that I don’t, I’ve been told that “it’s such a shame.” Shame is a heavy label. I choke back a snarky instinct to respond, “Do you speak Yiddish?” because I know what the pressure to assimilate does to immigrant cultures.

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Sometimes, there are “compliments.” My English is so good. They wish they had my hair – people even touch it without asking. I must be good at math. Of course, I went to a good college. Stereotypes and assumptions are hurtful, even if they superficially come with positive intent. They limit the depth and breadth of humanity.

Other times, it’s the “jokes.” Last year, when the pandemic first started, there were a few COVID-era seders going around on the internet. A popular one included the Wicked Child stating, “I’m too young to worry about Kung Flu. It’s a Chinese plot!” People have used variations on the label “China Virus” in my presence. Last summer, I asked someone not to use the phrase because its use perpetuated it in popular culture. I was chastised that because it was used in the context of ridiculing former President Donald Trump’s use of the term, that I had no cause to complain.

And finally, there’s the overt racism. From within the Jewish community on social media, I have seen Asian Americans referred to as dog eaters and read excoriations that Asian Americans should “go back to China.” While that is hurtful, even more so is the fact that those comments were minimized and excused in the name of freedom of speech. 

On Twitter, I posted a message of solidarity with an Asian American woman speaking out about anti-Asian hate. A few people looked at my profile, in which I proudly identify myself as a Taiwanese-Japanese-Jewish American woman, and replied to me with variations of: “You’re not Jewish.”

I have a child who experienced teasing within the Jewish community about needing to stay away from him because he might have coronavirus. No other child in his class was teased in this manner. He tolerated it for days before he even told me about it because he didn’t want it to be a big deal. 

I have no illusions that sharing my story will change anything immediately. This hate and “othering” have existed in the United States since the 19th century. I’m asking for empathy and solidarity so we can start the change. 

If you’re in a situation where you notice that anti-Asian discrimination or perpetuation of stereotypes is happening, speak up. It is exhausting and demoralizing to repeatedly be the one who’s going to deal with these issues.

No one wants to be That Person all the time, much less the only one. That Person who can’t take a joke. That Person who is “playing the race card” or is being a downer. 

While I appear to carry the burden of racism well, it’s still really heavy. When I speak up, it is because I care about the community we share. I want to believe that my burden is your burden, your burden is mine, and that we both want a world where that burden is not as heavy. Please don’t be silent; your voice strengthens us all.

Amy Kuo Hammerman lives in Creve Coeur with her husband, two school-aged sons, and a Bernedoodle. She is the State Policy Advocacy Chair of National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis, a member of the board of trustees at Congregation Shaare Emeth, and a member-at-large of the Jewish Community Relations Council St. Louis.