A foreboding reminder

The tragedy still changes the way we perceive each other.

Leah Lancaster

Before 9/11 I thought I was white. This might sound ridiculous to some — how could I, with my black hair and slanted eyes, possibly forget about these obvious physical differences?

It was easy while living in a tiny town in Michigan that consisted almost entirely of Caucasians. I was one of maybe five ethnic minorities in the entire junior high and one of three that was adopted. For the most part, I was accepted, and my inclusion was rarely questioned. My family being white and active in the community certainly helped. The worst I ever got was the occasional “Chinese eyes!” jab and questions like “Are you a Japanese foreign exchange student?” or “Do you speak English?” I knew racism against African-Americans in the area was prevalent. At the time, I believed that was the only type of racism that existed. I didn’t consider any slight acknowledgement of my ethnicity offensive because none of it was explicitly violent. All I wanted was to fit in, and somehow, I did.

When my fourth-grade social studies class was halted by the news of a terrorist attack, everyone stood riveted in front of the TV. After maybe two hours, the teacher turned off the TV, and we resumed the school day as normally as possible. 9/11 inevitably had an impact on me, but what made the truly lasting impressions were its aftereffects.

About a month after the attack, a friend of mine and I were at the grocery store. A man in a turban walked by, and immediately my friend pointed and said, “Look! It’s Osama bin Laden!” These types of comments weren’t new at that point. They were rampant in the school hallways and on TV — but the fact that my friend was saying them made me feel a type of discomfort that was unfamiliar to me. I felt a certain unspoken trust between us dissolve. What did my friend really see when she looked at me, and how easily could that view be altered?

9/11 was the beginning of my realization that despite my white family and culturally “white upbringing,” I was still considered foreign. Eleven years later, I continue to carry this knowledge. Despite my current, more metropolitan setting, I still get asked the same questions I did in junior high. In the media, I still see Asian-Americans absent from the discussion of racism in America, though they were and are affected the most by the 9/11 attacks. According to an audit by the Asian-American Justice Center, there were 507 hate crimes reported against Asians and Pacific Islanders in 2001 — an almost 23 percent increase from 2000 — many of them targeting South Asians, specifically the Sikh and Muslim communities. A 2009 survey supported by the U.S. Justice and Education Departments found that Asian-Americans are bullied at school more than any other demographic — 54 percent of Asian-American teenagers compared with 31 percent of white teens and 38.4 percent of black teens. 

These are the voices that need to be heard in the mainstream media. It would help eliminate the xenophobia that still runs rampant in today’s politics and the stigma that is still unfairly attached to all Asian-Americans since the 9/11 attacks. The foreign threat status is not specific only to people from the Middle East — with North Korea’s nuclear power, the enemy can shift accordingly —and you only need to witness one Osama bin Laden-death party to understand how powerful and dangerous it is to be — or be perceived as — a foreign threat in America.