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February 9, 2022

The Power in a Name

On January 5, 2022, Marian Chia-Ming Liu, a Chinese American journalist, wrote a powerful piece in the Washington Post in which she proudly reintroduces herself to readers using her full American-Chinese name.  In her essay, Liu shares her experiences being caught between two cultures as a child and explores how this continued through adulthood.

She explains how her name – the words she uses to refer to herself and how others refer to her – is emblematic of her struggle to reconcile two versions of herself.

As happens for most adults, Liu’s understanding of her culture and family heritage developed and deepened over time. She explains the two reasons being Asian became more significant for her during the last year. First, there was an explosion of racially motivated attacks, known as hate crimes, against thousands of Asian Americans motivated by misinformation about the cause of the pandemic. Second, she was harassed for articles she wrote to raise awareness about the attacks.

The National Institute of Justice defines hate crimes as “offense[s] against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity”. It is hard to know exactly how often hate crimes occur in the United States.  In  September 2021, the Department of Justice reported that rates of violent hate crime were relatively stable between 2005 and 2019. According to FBI data for 2019, there were 3,963 racially motivated incidents, nearly 1500 fewer than those reported in 2020.  An October 2021 FBI update states there were 7,759 criminal incidents and 10,532 related offenses in 2020. According to Statista, there were 11,472 victims of hate crimes in 2020.

What’s the real number? How many hate crimes are there in America each year? One hate crime is one too many.

Apart from the problem of inconsistencies in the official data, a second problem is that the majority of hate crimes go unreported. Further complicating the situation, state and local reporting of hate crimes is largely voluntary.  In the best of circumstances, it’s hard to get good data on hate crimes. In a pandemic, it’s going to be even harder.

Efforts to address race and status-based crimes date back to the post-Civil War period, with some of the earliest attempts focusing on eliminating slavery.  History shows us that these efforts were largely unsuccessful as racial discrimination against African Americans has persisted for centuries.

Data collection about hate crimes became a federal priority in 1989 with the passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. According to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, collecting data on hate crimes is “essential for effective policy formation and appropriate resource allocation in countering hate-motivated incidents”. Without accurate data, Americans will not have an accurate understanding of how pervasive hate crimes are in society. Accurate data can lead to more strategic investments in education programs, public information campaigns, and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Today we see there are many more subsets of individuals in American society who are targeted for their race, ethnicity, or gender.  As society has become more diverse, society’s willingness to embrace and respect differences seems to have diminished.

Being targeted and threatened with violence because of one’s personal characteristics is traumatizing. But hate crimes have a multiplicative effect;  not only do they harm the direct victim, they also harm others who have the same personal characteristics. The direct and indirect victims of hate crimes often experience anxiety, depression, fear, and anger. Being a victim of a hate crime is also associated with low self-confidence, negative self-concept, and constrained social interactions.

Better data collection is a first step to addressing hate crimes in America. Accurate counts of incidents tell public officials where to focus attention, invest resources and implement programs.

But improved data collection is only part of the solution. Additional efforts must include raising awareness across American society about aggression towards others that might not meet the legal definition of a crime but it harmful nonetheless. An example: microaggressions: “the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups”.

According to Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor, “if it hurt your feelings…it doesn’t really matter what we define it as”.

In America, there is no legal definition of “hate speech”. Logic suggests that it is intentionally directing hurtful language towards another. This includes using slang or colloquialisms that have negative connotations for certain individuals. For example, consider the statement, “Go back where you came from”.  Clearly, this is hurtful language; the dominant culture is asserting its power, telling those who are different than they are not welcome.

In her essay, Liu reveals that she was “repeatedly asked where she was from or told to go back there”. She was hurt by the statements and felt her well-being was at risk.  No one was charged with a crime for having said that to her. But should they have been? And, what difference would it make if that event was included in statistics that no one seems to be paying much attention to anyway?

Liu’s concludes her essay by affirming the unique characteristics that define her as an individual. She does so with grace and bravery – declaring her name and embracing the entirety of its cultural, ethnic, historical, and gender-based meanings.  In doing so, she offers society an example of a human being’s capacity to be both vulnerable and strong simultaneously. In affirming herself and clarifying her name, Marian Chia-Ming Liu celebrates her identity despite the risks she may face in a society where racism, bigotry and discrimination are tolerated.

I’m grateful to Liu for helping me understand more about her name, its symbolism and its meaning. She has provided me with a roadmap for asking questions of others who live in America but have important connections to other cultures and societies.

Every human being, irrespective of their nationality, has a right to be who they are without fear of violence, aggression, or intimidation.  One would think Americans would be quick to eradicate hate crimes from their society. It’s said, though I’m not sure how true it is, that America was founded on the principle that all men/women are created equal. But it seems, we do very little. We can’t even keep track of how often hate crimes happen.

If you have never been a victim of a hate crime, consider yourself lucky. But don’t consider yourself immune. Just because it has never happened to you does not mean it never will.

The injustice done to one of us is a wrong done to each of us.

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