Journalists are said to be the ones who write history’s first draft. The fallibilities of the chroniclers mean that history can be incomplete.
One person who crusaded through his life to ensure the complete story — as he understood it — was Corky Lee, who dubbed himself the “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate.” One of Lee’s major projects was to mark the 145th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Lee, a friend I met through the Asian American Journalists Association, told NPR in 2014: “History — at least photographically — says that the Chinese were not present.”
When Lee was in junior high, he saw an 1869 image of the railroad’s completion, yet he didn’t find a single Chinese face in the crowd. He knew that nearly 15,000 Chinese immigrants had toiled on the tracks, with a symbolic spike placed in Promontory Summit, Utah.
Decades later, Lee brought together descendants of those laborers, once in 2002 and again in 2014 to reimagine the scene, both times with Chinese American faces front and center.
Journalists need to follow Lee’s example of questioning what’s missing from the picture. Do our reports feature all the people who live in our communities? Do we include multiple generations? Do we seek out people who might not be fluent in English? Do we capture the humanity of the victims, or is coverage “othering” them and reinforcing the audience’s unconscious bias?
In recent months, seemingly random attacks on Asian American elders have occurred throughout the United States. Pulitzer winner Nick Ut was punched in Washington, D.C., the night after he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. Three Asian women in New York City were assaulted in two days; a 52-year-old, who needed stitches for a forehead gash, had her case elevated by actors Olivia Munn, Awkwafina and Gemma Chan.
Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu drew attention to the attacks on Asian Americans when they announced a $25,000 reward in early February for information leading to an arrest after a 91-year-old man who was shoved to the ground in Oakland, California.
Community organizers and in-language news outlets were among the first to raise the alarm. A reporting center to Stop AAPI Hate, using the abbreviation for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, emerged nearly a year ago to combat anti-Asian sentiment traced to biased phrases such as “China virus” and “kung flu.” A United Nations report last year noted 1,800 racist incidents against Asian Americans from March to May.
One of the issues with tracking attacks against Asian Americans — particularly seniors for whom English might not be their first language — is whether they trust law enforcement enough to report incidents. What starts as verbal harassment one day can escalate to physical violence another day. A survey of Asian American voters in 2016 disaggregated ethnicities to show varying degrees of trust in police to treat racial and ethnic groups equally.
Complicating the issue of whether Asian elders or their families might report an incident is the public tendency to connect the behavior of an individual with the group. After George Floyd’s death, the Hmong in the Twin Cities felt vulnerable because a Hmong officer had not directly intervened on behalf of Floyd.
Asian Americans have been seen as outsiders for generations. We just passed the 79th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which forced Japanese Americans to be detained during World War II. Every day, microaggressions are committed against Asian Americans as people praise our command of English (for some, it’s the only language they know) or without merit accuse us of being responsible for the pandemic.
The challenges — and joys — of being Asian American are my lived experience. But what about the challenges — and joys — of people I don’t necessarily identify with? Everyone’s story matters to someone. As journalists, it’s our role to uncover these stories for our audiences. It’s essential that we provide the thread to connect disparate communities in their shared humanity.