Chinese laundry’s in the American South

The murders of 8 people in Atlanta last week, 6 women of Asian descent (4 of whom were Korean-American), appear to have been the result of a multi-faceted, murderous toxic stew in the gunman. Misogyny. Xenophobia. Racism. Objectification of Asian women as sexually available. And guilt-driven Christianity that viewed other human beings as a temptation–rendering human beings as only existing in relation to this killer’s mind–may have been the tipping point that led to these pre-meditated murders.

The pain expressed by Duke students and faculty colleagues who identify as Asian or Asian-American has been palpable, heart breaking and long-coming. This event seems to be a breaking point of sorts, and I realize the many common tropes related to the “model minority” have been accepted by me, especially in the context of a world class University, causing me to not take as seriously as I should have, the Racism, Bigotry and “Othering” that some of my students and colleagues have experienced.

The Duke Office of Faculty Advancement hosted an event yesterday in which four of my Faculty colleagues provided their insights on Asian and Asian-American culture informed by their scholarly pursuits, shared personal reflections and discussing what things they believe need to change at Duke. One thing that came through clearly to me was the sense that “Asian” and “Asian American” and “Asian descent” are overbroad terms, that depending on definitions could include one third to one half of the people alive today. These terms mostly have meaning in the way that people identify individuals who look different from them, labelling folks as “Asian” based on a casual glance. This is not a term of choice, but a term of the reality of simplistic Racial categories applied to people from myriad backgrounds in the United States.

The reason that I commonly use the phrase “White Supremacy” instead of “Structural Racism” even though they could be thought of as synonyms is the degree to which the application of much of the hate and discrimination in our world is applied to individuals based on nothing more than a cursory glance. Our brains are amazing devices that process billions of instructions per second, and shortcuts or heuristics are necessary or we would not even be able to get out of bed in the morning. A glance of how someone looks categorizes them in many ways, often leading to harm for those who are not viewed as White.

A key takeaway from yesterday’s event was the necessity of humanizing people by learning and telling their stories for their own value and worth. We can overcome biases if we work at it, and understanding people as people, and not as members of a group falling under an umbrella term like “Asian” is a start.

That leads me back to the title of my post. In my hometown of Goldsboro, N.C., there was a laundry started in 1910 by a man who had immigrated from China. He was known as Sam Lee, but it turns out that there was a Sam Lee laundry in most every State in the United States by the early 20th Century and that was probably not his name, though he cannot be found in the 1910-1930 Census.

As noted in a prior post, Sam Lee was a common name for a Chinese laundry.  A small sample of Sam Lee Laundries is shown in the photograph below.  You could find one in virtually every state, but the Chinese men who operated them were not necessarily named “Sam Lee.”

I did not know this history from my small town, Eastern North Carolina home, until I did a bit of research. The blog Chinese Laundry is excellent, written by John Jung, whose family opened a laundry in Macon, Georgia in 1885. This blog uses the device of the Chinese Laundry to tell some of the story of the United States, one small town and city at a time, one person and family at a time. In doing so, he brings to life some of the immigrants who helped to make the United States what it is today.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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