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Words Matter

Words matter.

We are taught as children that our words matter, and words laced with anger, hate and jealousy cannot be taken back. We can apologize for it, but the message as soon as it left our mouth, had already pierced someone’s heart. I’m sure we can all look back on a point in our lives where we heard something said to us, about us, and it still stings, no matter how long it's been.

In raising my children, we say affirmations after prayers and books. We say, out loud, words to affirm our courage, our bravery and that we can “do hard things.” Words that I hope they will carry with them as they leave the nest. After all, the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.

A year or so ago, the then-president, a man who was in the most powerful position of the nation and arguably the world, and whose words carry weight, called the coronavirus, a “Chinese virus.” Those around him snickered at best, or worse downplayed the gravity of his words. While we can all make assumptions on his intentions, what is clear is that his words of anger, of putting the blame on one group, caught fire and now, a year later, the Asian-American community —not just in the United States but all around the world —are facing a reckoning. Never mind that Asian Americans are often lumped and constructed together like a monolith; attacks are happening to Filipinos, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and other Asian and Pacific Islander groups. According to those “not us,” we are all Asians, and all of us must come from China, and therefore to some degree, brought the coronavirus to American soil.

What comes as a surprise to many outside the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are the recent assaults. Assaults against an individual who is Asian American has risen to 150% within the last year. And these are assaults that have been REPORTED. Let me assure you, dear reader, that it has been happening for a while. I can give you history lessons about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization, or the Japanese internment camps established during World War II that said people of Japanese descent would be interred in isolated camps, or the exploitation of Filipino farm workers which resulted in the Filipino Farm workers strike in 1965. These lessons would be too long and raw, and I would barely be able to scratch the surface. Suffice it to say that perhaps the reason you are just now hearing about the attacks is because of the massacre that happened in Atlanta on March 16th, 2021.

In the early investigation period, “Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said it was too early to classify the shootings as hate crimes,” and that potentially it wasn’t a “race issue” but a sex addiction issue.The assaults on AAPI individuals, that exponentially grew just as COVID exploded around the world, were being rewritten as a different, and frustratingly not so new narrative.

Words matter.

For this leader in Atlanta, it is the disconnect and racist belief that Asian women are objects to be fetishized. There has been a long history of Asian women seen in submissive sex roles, and Rachel Ramirez’s piece, ‘The history of fetishizing Asian women,’ published on the Vox is a great read. It eloquently puts why the police chief’s wordsgutted me, and I’m sure, Asian-American women like me. We have, in our lifetimes, heard all about the innuendos and wanting to be “stricken” with “yellow fever.”

I digress with an eye roll. I will not name here, but the individual who murdered 8 people decided to take his guilt and addiction, and in —an “effort” to atone for his sins —opened fire on Asian-American women, a representative of his proclivities.

Words matter.

So, when Police Chief Bryant said it wasn’t a race problem, I froze and knew what he was going to imply next. If society would have us believe that white women are to be protected, that black women are angry, then by the same portrayals, Asian women, are sexualized tokens.

Not a race issue? If you paid any attention to how society as a whole, and to an extent –movies, tv shows, books, plays, etc –depict Asian American women, you would understand the implicit bias here. Until recently, Asian American women have never played heroines on screen; we are villains, mean shopkeepers; we are snakes, or tiger moms; or stereotypically working as masseuses at a spa, while giving happy endings. I, personally like the awesome Asian nerds but, we are more than math wizs, curve breaking sidekicks.

I’ll take anything so long as it’s not what the norm was. I think our “American” culture as a whole is hypocritical of itself. Be an individual, we are told, so long as it’s not “different.”

Because different from the norm then becomes bad and feared. It’sa predatory, insidious mantra that is passed from one generation to another. It doesn’t matter who or what or how you are different, just don’t be different. Don’t stand out. If you stand out too much, you’ll become a target and people are fearful of targets.

And fear is why hate exists.

This country was formed because of fear. Fear from religious persecution. Fear from being killed by the Indigenous people with hunting knives as the colonists, themselves, hug their muskets and guns. Fear from taxation and oppression from the British crown. Fear that the minority will become the majority. Fear that saying ‘hate crime’ is adding more fuel on an already burning country that has yet to absolve itself from the racial injustices towards African Americans, or redeemed itself from the genocide of the Indigenous people of this land.

I’d like to close on a hopeful note —and I have been looking for hope through this senseless tragedy—but as soon as I found it, another mass shooting occurred. This time in Boulder, Colorado. So, maybe it’s not enough to teach our children, my children, that words matter.

Actions speak so much louder than words. We can continue to report hate crimes, to wrap everything up in a hashtag, to write “I stand in solidarity,” but truly, our leaders need to be held accountable for their words and inactions.

I can keep my head down and not speak up about the injustices and cruelty happening toour elders, to us. Or I can begin to teach my children that being different should not equal fear. Toborrow a line from the great former First Lady, Michelle Obama, “You can’t hate up close.”It is simply not enough to enjoy Asian foods and look at our customs with curiosity. It is time you invite us to sit at the table.

Leila Tualla is an author. Find her work at and catch up with her on Twitter: @leilatualla and Facebook: @leilatuallam


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