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Asian Americans in N.H. face racist remarks

  • Victoria Chen on the St. Paul’s School campus on Friday.

  • Brinkley Brown graduated as valedictorian of Concord High and now attends Harvard University. Courtesy

  • State Rep. Latha Mangipudi takes a selfie with Veeramani Ranganathan of the Hindu Temple of N.H. in 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/27/2021 1:54:33 PM

Last year, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Victoria Chen was walking with a friend in Concord when a car going by slowed down.

“My heart began to pound,” she said, and her instincts told her something was seriously wrong. The car’s window rolled down, and a man inside shouted, “Ew, she’s going to give me the coronavirus!”

Chen, a senior at St. Paul’s School in Concord, said it was the first “blatant, overt” racism that she had faced. She spent a long time after the incident wondering if she had done something wrong.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “Is it wrong for me to not have defended myself? Was it wrong for me to just let it pass?”

She didn’t tell many people about it at the time, worried that it would make peers see her differently. Now, after the spike in anti-Asian American hate over the past year and the shooting in Atlanta that targeted Asian women, she’s found herself thinking about it differently.

“I think there’s no going back, especially because of all the hate against Asian Americans,” she said. “There’s no trying to fit in anymore.”

Chen is just one of many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in New Hampshire who have found themselves confronting racism and microaggressions. In the face of recent violence against the Asian American community nationwide, many Asian Americans in New Hampshire are starting to speak out, including at a rally last Sunday where over 300 people attended, organizers said.

For Chen, her previous experience with living in Maryland and Texas earlier in her life has shown her that New Hampshire’s racism is more overt. When she moved here, she said, she found it jarring to be around mostly white people – the state is 89.8% white as of 2018.

“I think that lack of culture sort of makes it easy for people to not understand or not even attempt to understand, because it’s not in their face or a part of their daily lives,” Chen said.

Cori Hirai of West Lebanon has also found diversity to be a factor. She grew up in New Hampshire and when she went to college in Ohio, she found herself surprised by the diversity she found, including other Asian Americans who grew up in communities with others of Asian descent. “I really got to see ... how that experience was different than my experience growing up in a white community,” Hirai said.

When Hirai came back to New Hampshire, she said she didn’t find overt racism towards her, but recounted certain experiences that had given her pause. On dating apps, she was often confronted with white men asking her where she was from before anything else, “and that was just exhausting,” she said. When canvasing for political causes, she found that people’s reactions to her were different than their reactions to her older, white canvasing partners. But the most racism she faced, she said, was when she was on the playground as a kid.

“I would get made fun of all the time,” Hirai said. Fellow students would sing racial taunts and pull the corners of their eyes back, she said.

Facing racism at school as a child is a common issue. Melinda Chen, of Bedford, said most of the racism she has seen in New Hampshire was through her children, who she said have faced “forms of othering since elementary school.” These centered specifically on stereotyping her kids based on Chinese stereotypes and asking about China, even though the family is Taiwanese.

Chen’s response was to go into her children’s classes and teach them about the Lunar New year every year, as an attempt to educate. “It dawned on me that a lot of kids didn’t know any other countries other than China,” she said, which “revealed a kind of ignorance and lack of exposure” that she hoped to correct.

Recently, Chen has started thinking about racism more, due to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. She said she started to understand more of the way racism occurs in New Hampshire.

“It’s really subtle, and it’s more in the form of people who think that because they don’t see themselves as judging other folks by their race, that it’s all a matter of just treating people with respect.”

Additionally, she said, she has run into the “myth of the model minority,” which she described as being “alive and well in Bedford.”

This myth centers around the stereotype of Asian Americans being economically prosperous and exceptionally hard-working.

Hirai said it’s an issue that consistently annoys her.

“I realized as an adult that I have been telling people that I’m lazy my entire life,” she said, which was her way to downplay people’s expectations of her.

Brinkley Brown, Concord resident and senior at Harvard University, said being put into boxes by others’ assumptions is frustrating. Adopted at six months old, she said that her identity has been so separate from her race that she gets frustrated both by racist microaggressions and those who, even with good intentions, try to box her into Asian American stereotypes and groups.

One of these instances was in her freshman year when at a fair for various campus clubs representing Chinese and Asian American students that tried to recruit her. Having people point out “parts of my identity that I don’t find salient” was strange, she said.

On the other side, she has faced microaggressions when white people repeatedly ask her where she is from and made assumptions about the difficulties she had faced in life. One such instance was at a summer job, she said, and it stuck out to her afterward. “Again, that was an example of someone imposing their idea of what your experience is on you,” she said.

Brown is using her senior thesis to focus on English Language Learners in Concord schools, and through both her experience and her research, she has seen Concord’s “overwhelmingly white social profile and make-up,” which can lead to people making assumptions and committing microaggressions.

The Concord school board voted to condemn the recent acts of violence in Atlanta and elsewhere, saying they were “deeply saddened” by such acts. The vote was also to stand in solidarity with the Concord Asian American community and to reaffirm its resolution passed in January to stand up against racism and bigotry.

Racism in New Hampshire can be more over, even violence.

In 2019, Asian Americans were the victims of 18 violent crimes in New Hampshire. During the same year, 129 African Americans were the victims of violence crimes, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics. Those totals equal 8% of all violent crimes in the state that year, while Black and Asian Americans make up about 5% of the state’s population.

Facing adversity in a majority white environment is something state Rep. Latha Mangipudi has faced in the state legislature. Mangipudi said she feels silenced by other lawmakers, to the point where when she once tried to speak out in a session after she was ignored for a few hours. She was told to “tread lightly” instead of being given a chance to speak.

“What is really hurting me the most is such divisive, visceral hate that my colleagues show,” Mangipudi said. She vowed not to give up or be silenced. “I can only answer to myself, my actions and my thoughts,” she said.

She spoke at the rally in Concord on Sunday, and said it was good for her to show up and speak out.

“You can’t silence us,” she said, “you can’t ignore us, you cannot hate us.”

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