As a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes swelled around the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a number of questions arose: Why had the art world, despite the abundance of Asians and Asian Americans working in its ranks, remained largely silent? There had not been an active Asian American arts network since Godzilla disbanded in the early 2000s, so who could reprise their role to brandish the political potential of artists? As many hesitated to provide answers, a group of artists, organizers, and arts workers from around the United States began to talk and—shortly after President Donald Trump’s first xenophobic tweet about what he called a “Chinese virus” in March of 2020—took up the gauntlet under the name Stop DiscriminAsian (SDA).
The group’s earliest members united to disrupt the marked lack of concern they observed among institutions, publications, and the communities around them. Among the first actions they undertook on their website was to invite followers to “become an ally” against racism and sign their name in support. “Don’t be a silent bystander,” read a plea that remains open for new signatures even today. “Be an anti-racist advocate in words, action, and through social media, locally and globally.” Names were listed with allegiances to hundreds of familiar institutional affiliations, from prestigious museums to blue-chip galleries. SDA members designed posters that translated such slogans as “Viruses Don’t Discriminate/Neither Do We” into languages from Chinese to Tagalog, and posted them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Asian Americans. The graphics were also offered for download free.
The volunteer-run coalition, which now boasts an expansive national reach and an Instagram following numbering more than 10,000, came about as anti-Asian sentiment spread across the country. “Some members had experienced anti-Asian attacks,” said Lee Painter-Kim, a writer, activist, and active SDA member based in Los Angeles. “A lot of us came together to support each other as friends.”
Artist Anicka Yi and Christine Y. Kim, a curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, activated their connections through GYOPO, an L.A.-based collective of diasporic Korean cultural producers and arts professionals that also includes Kibum Kim of the gallery Commonwealth and Council. Jon Santos, a designer and founder of Common Space Studio in New York, helped create a logo and website. Working on his own, New York–based artist Kenneth Tam circulated a Google spreadsheet, under the title “We Are Not COVID,” that collected testimonials of racist incidents ranging from verbal harassment to property damage. Excerpts from the document comprised SDA’s first Instagram posts—starting a messaging campaign that, for an antidote contesting the conflation of Asian Americans and the coronavirus, ironically went viral.
SDA’s focus on community-building abides by the group’s original intentions to extend solidarity and support during a time of emotional unavailability. In an essay titled “Stop DiscriminAsian: Asian and Pacific Islander Art Worker Futures” for the nonprofit studio Monument Lab, Painter-Kim wrote that the collective aims to be “inclusive and post-oppositional.” While community anchors like museums and galleries were slow to address anti-Asian violence provoked by governmental figureheads, SDA commanded spaces for assembly and social solidarity.
The process of pressuring institutions to seize the moment was guided in part by SDA members like Kim and Yi, who were already embedded. Utilizing her platform at LACMA, Kim collaborated with GYOPO and members of SDA to organize a panel series titled “Racism Is a Public Health Issue.” Combining the aura of pop-culture celebrities like comedian Bowen Yang and seasoned academics like Jeff Chang, the first event alone assembled thousands of netizens to learn about—or, maybe more accurately, to grieve—the rise of anti-Asian racism. The collective reputation and the allure of the names involved brought a kind of glamour to unglamorous issues, compelling the journalistic ecosystem to pay attention as Asian American activism took on what critic, writer, and SDA member Anuradha Vikram called an “art world gloss” that gave it marketable appeal.
In the run-up to the contentious 2020 presidential election, SDA enlisted modest donations from members to commission videos by Asian American artists Asif Mian, Jesse Chun, and WangShui. While much of the country engaged in extremes of argumentative debate or total complacency, the artists made work (curated by Kenneth Tam) that responded with relatively introspective, poetic messages. Mian’s minute-long video Non, in which a camera surveils a subject named Non through solid walls and barriers, captured the unease of Muslim bodies in the U.S. in the aftermath of Trump’s Muslim ban and histories of war with Muslim-majority countries. Chun’s a score (for unnaming) transposes archival Yellow Peril posters with jumbled news broadcasts on anti-Asian hate crimes before closing out with the high-pitched sound of a bleep censor, giving voice to internalized anger that has been muted and repressed. WangShui’s Shotgun Sunset served as what the artist called a “16mm non-binary [queer Asian] anthem I never had” while playfully transforming the romantic movie trope of riding off into the sunset.
The stakes were high in an election that could ostensibly oust the loudest and most visible mouthpiece of racist rhetoric and policies, but SDA never officially endorsed a candidate. Instead, they focused mostly on matters related to voter suppression in communities of color, as if to suggest that which candidate to support was obvious or perhaps leave room to consider what could not be resolved by an election.
For all the popularity that SDA amassed, it was often not enough to leverage basic demands at institutions that were slow to rise to the occasion. Institutions ultimately took very few measurable actions in response to the group’s initial pledge—a show of indifference similar to that which followed George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in the spring of 2020. That summer, as the national turmoil deepened, SDA widened its purview and shifted focus to anti-Black police brutality. “When the murder happened, we threw ourselves behind one of the largest civil rights movements in history,” said gallerist and activist Margaret Liu Clinton. “We were very critical of statements that museums were issuing at the time and their failure to understand the race war that has, frankly, represented the United States since its founding.”
SDA also took aim at Asian American complicity with anti-Black state violence. In a post to the collective’s Instagram account, Lumi Tan, a curator at the Kitchen performing arts center in New York, reflected on the fact that one of the police officers standing idly by as Floyd pled for his life was an Asian American named Tou Thao. “It says so much about our need to assimilate and protect the status quo—and how it has enormous ramifications,” Tan wrote. “While being an accomplice to murder is an extreme example, I know that I have employed tactics of white supremacy professionally and personally at many points in my life for the sake of respectability politics, being a good worker, and just generally making my life easier while sacrificing others.”
In July 2020, SDA’S panel series presented a collaboration with For Freedoms titled “Racism Is a Public Health Issue: Examining the Impact of Police Brutality on Black Communities in the Age of Covid-19,” featuring an interdisciplinary mix of speakers, among them Eraka Bath, Ava DuVernay, Rashid Johnson, and Naima J. Keith. Work with For Freedoms went further a year later when they collaborated to adapt stills from Kenneth Tam’s video Silent Spikes for display on a billboard over a Los Angeles freeway. With a title referring to Chinese men who constructed the Transcontinental Railroad, the billboard—featuring three figures wearing cowboy hats and swinging imaginary lassos amid the words asians have been here longer than cowboys—sends unexpected opponents into the ring to compete against the Marlboro Man archetype that romanticizes the lone white patriarch.
While the spirit of collaboration showed that many in different communities saw the value of interracial solidarity, Liu Clinton also remembers others who could not handle engaging with more than one political issue simultaneously. “We can’t support you and Black Lives Matter at the same time,” she recalled hearing from some who thought that Asian American demands to end racism did not corroborate the intersectional demands of Black liberation, feminism, and the prison abolition movement.
A common presumption was that any attention given to #StopAsianHate would be at the expense of #BlackLivesMatter—a notion that Liu Clinton found infuriating. “I just want to point out the white-supremacist stinginess of a response like this,” she said.
As an Asian American in the arts, I admit that I harbored a degree of skepticism upon first encountering the moniker “Stop DiscriminAsian.” I thought its cheeky branding might be interpreted as a call to pay attention to discrimination that begins and ends with those who are Asian. To make this kind of calculation risks reinforcing what scholar and theorist Anne Anlin Cheng calls the “privilege of injury,” or otherwise to support the presumption that Asian Americans suffer abuses that are too minor to warrant serious consideration.
For people scattered across different cities, however, there have been few alternatives other than to let Asian American artists disappear into history as members of the silent model minority. And as I followed SDA’s messaging from the start, I shared their hope that one day there could be a sort of Asian American radical practice to challenge the idea that merely identifying as such connotes a vanity that undermines our ultimate ambitions.
On March 16, 2021, the horror of the Atlanta spa shootings seemed to allow the pendulum for Asian-American activism to swing back into social acceptability again. Shortly after, SDA published an open letter titled “Asian American Arts Workers Against White Supremacy: A Statement Against Xenophobia and Racial Violence.” Kenneth Tam remembers the group’s website receiving so many signatures that it reached capacity and needed to be reconfigured. “From what I had seen in the arts,” Tam recalled, “no statement like that had yet been released that explicitly called out white supremacy and xenophobia. Unfortunately, it took the murder of eight people to clarify that.”
The open letter was a turning point for the group, which until that point had kept key members’ identities hidden to prevent personal reputations from figuring into complex social dynamics. Signed by 16 members who formally identified as Stop DiscriminAsian for the first time (including one anonymous member), the letter sought to comfort readers by revealing all those who surrounded them during difficult times. “We are your colleagues, your neighbors, your friends,” the letter stated, while describing the recent events in stark terms: “The mass murder in Atlanta is the culmination of the United States’ vicious history of racist misogyny and racial capitalism.” For those seeking accountability for the racialized and gendered nature of the murders, which the gunman, detectives, and many media outlets had denied, the directness of the letter’s language offered validation.
As was characteristic of other messages from SDA, the letter did not make concrete demands or call out any institutions for lack of support. Instead, it resonated with members of the group as an inventory of grievances that were at risk of being forgotten. “It’s an incredible index of people who are working across the country at various scales of institutions: educators, curators, thinkers, writers, et cetera,” said Jerome Reyes, an artist and faculty member at the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. “The letter was for ourselves, a much more expansive Asian American world that we’re still trying to figure out, and also for a public record. I don’t want to make it about getting institutions to just get what we do.”
In the 1990s, SDA’s predecessors in Godzilla laid crucial groundwork by demanding equitable representation in the art world, with the hope that more Asian Americans in positions of power could transform institutions. But given the extent to which institutions welcome visibility but not opposition, Godzilla found that seemingly simple desires required constant negotiation. In his recently published anthology Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network 1990–2001, curator Howie Chen writes, “Even when opportunities are granted, the quality of visibility is more important than the sheer amount of exposure—to be on display is not as valuable as the ability to appear on one’s own terms.”
Stop DiscriminAsian is now tasked with figuring out how to help define those terms for the future. History shows us that radical beginnings tend to be dulled into repressive states (Hollywood movies with newly diverse casts but still-racist scripts, idle chatter about inclusivity without calls for structural change), and the young SDA faces a daunting challenge, but also a real opportunity to avoid being subsumed in the same tradition. As Christine Y. Kim put it, “How do we ensure this is not just a moment?”