It’s been a month since I read Eric Toda’s article in Adweek. Within minutes, I shared it on my LinkedIn page and donated money to several organizations that are fighting “Asian Hate.” And then I had my own personal meltdown.
The assaults on Asian Americans trigger my past experiences, and I relive my assault on the streets of New York.
My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was seven months old. It was only three years after the full repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. My sister and I grew up in upstate New York as the only Asian kids in our school. We experienced a lot of racism in Rochester. I’ll never forget the first time I heard someone call us a derogatory term, and my dad rushed us into the car.
After college in New York City, I was either fetishized by men, or assaulted verbally and physically because of my race. Some didn’t like Asians in general, and many thought I was Korean. (In the 1990s, Koreans were often attacked for “taking over” the corner grocery stores all around Manhattan.) I left shortly after I was assaulted by three men of color who called me “c—- b—-” as they attacked me. I remember feeling fraught and confused because we were all minorities. I imagine that their violence toward me stemmed, at least in part, from the racism they themselves experienced. Trauma begets trauma.
In San Francisco, due to the high percentage of Asians working in tech in the Bay Area, I have felt safe here for 25 years. But that sense of belonging has now been shattered. Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, was murdered in San Francisco on Feb. 2, and four other attacks happened in the Bay Area in one week. My first thought was, “That could have been my father.” My second thought: “I’m doing all this DE&I work to support diversity and I stand against social injustice, but what am I going to do about this?”
There are days when I feel like we’re not making progress fast enough. How can I protect my colleagues, my daughter and my community from senseless violence and racism? The answer is that I can’t. I’m feeling disheartened about the state of our country, because people with racist leanings are more emboldened. What’s more unacceptable is what’s been happening to predominantly Black men and women for hundreds of years. The system is broken.
Black Americans have been waiting for change a lot longer than Asian Americans have. Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” founded Negro History Week in 1926, which has evolved into Black History Month. One only needs to read the work of James Baldwin from the 1950s and 1960s to understand the complex plight of Black people in the U.S. The strength of the Black Lives Matter movement has finally summoned the corporate world and those in positions of power to be accountable and act on behalf of Black people.
On the other hand, Asian Americans historically have not been strong activists. We have spent well over a hundred years since we came over to build the railroads, trying to blend in by keeping our heads down and staying quiet. We should celebrate our differences, learn from Black History and the civil rights movement, and stand with Black, Latinx and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups who have been marching for social equality for decades. We will be stronger together.
As Time’s Cady Lang pointed out, the intersection of African-American and Asian-American race relations is very complicated. The history and narrative around interracial conflict in the U.S. has not been written by these communities. We should take control of the narrative and promote healing and partnership. Grassroots events in San Francisco and Oakland took place in February, calling for racial unity.
The path forward requires a practice of radical inclusion, along with multicultural community engagement. Right now, this is only happening at a grassroots level. In the way that W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America shines a light on communities of different colors on the broad platform of CNN, we need a unifying force and a national platform to amplify our joint mission for racial unity and social equality for all people of color.
In the meantime, we can promote change by practicing as much inclusion and empowerment of marginalized people as possible in our workplaces. We can change by creating outreach, education and mentorship programs for BIPOC students and young talent in underserved communities. We can change by lending our voices, as the recent Adweek DEI Town Hall suggested. We can change by electing officials who support social justice and reform. And we can change by not giving up. We are continuing the civil rights movement of the 1960s, 60 years and counting. Literally and figuratively, we need to keep on marching.