Last week, Andrew Yang published an op-ed in The Washington Post highlighting the growing racism against the Asian community.
The piece, published on April 1, was met with immediate backlash from the many Asian Americans, including celebrities like Simu Liu, Eddie Huang, and Steven Yeun. While the post touched on Yang’s personal experiences dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, many took issue with him commenting on Japanese Americans who joined the military during World War II to “demonstrate that they were Americans.”
The following paragraph he wrote in the op-ed drew heavy criticism.
“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.
Demonstrate that we are part of the solution. We are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure.”
Many interpreted this as Yang telling the Asian community that in order to stop being attacked and discriminated against, they need to show how “American” they are.
In order to find some answers, I reached out to the former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate — and my former boss — to see if he could set the record straight and reflect on his campaign for the presidency that put him on the map.
What motivated you to write the op-ed?
Andrew Yang: This is a devastating time for our country. People’s lives are falling apart. For Asian Americans, it’s compounded by the fact that racism toward us has increased due to the fact that many Americans wrongly blame us for the virus. Asian Americans are often cast as “the perpetual other,” even if we were born in this country and have never known another home. It’s been hurtful because the idea of America is as someplace where we all belong. I’ve heard from dozens of friends and family members who are afraid to show their faces. I thought I could both raise attention to the hate being directed toward our community and highlight that we are some of the people who are on the frontlines trying to keep people safe and healthy.
It seems many are taking issue with how you used the word “America-ness” in the piece. Could you explain why you worded it as you did?
I realize that the op-ed fell short. I did not mean to suggest that we as Asian Americans needed to do anything more to prove that we are Americans. We’ve been here, we belong here and will continue to be part of the fabric of America.
To me, patriotism means things like volunteerism, acts of kindness to neighbors, serving others and leading by example. The reference to “wear red white and blue” was very specific to an initiative that we’re launching to help coronavirus relief. In hindsight, I really don’t begrudge folks for taking some parts of the op-ed at face value and being like “Andrew Yang thinks the way to fight racism is to lean into proving you’re American by wearing a giant flag.” So I get it. But ultimately my call to action was that it was time for us to step up, to lead, and to serve. Not because we have to in order to somehow prove we are American, too, but because our country needs us more than ever and we have so much to offer.
What have you personally learned about the Asian American community after this experience and interacting with so many of us from all walks of life?
Right now, I’m stuck in my house like everyone else. So I guess you’re asking about the presidential campaign. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Asian Americans everyplace, from Iowa to Los Angeles to New Hampshire. I feel like I’ve seen people from every walks of life, from the rural shopkeeper to the media executive. It’s been phenomenal. I’ve learned that we have an incredible range of experiences, but we all want better for our families. I’ve also seen an increased sense of Asian American pride across many different communities, which was tremendous. It’s likely one reason why this time is so painful.
I think we are all aware that a key challenge in our community is representation. You see it across the board — in media, in politics. I wasn’t impervious to it even at the highest level of politics. My supporters were literally counting the number of times the media got my name wrong, left me off graphics and even mixed me up with other Asians. How much did the media blackout and #letyangspeak have to do with the fact that I’m Asian? I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that to fight invisibility, first you need to show up. Do things that matter and stand for more than yourself in ways big and small.
My run for president has been the greatest undertaking in my life so far. I did it to advance a set of critically important ideas, but I also ran in part to elevate Asian Americans and our collective perception of what was possible. I said countless times in my speeches to thousands — we are just as capable to lead as anyone else, we love our country just as much, and yes, we are just as American. My brand of “American-ness” may not be the same as yours, that’s the point, isn’t it? I am calling for Asians to lean into their patriotism, make it your own. It’s far from conforming. It’s about doing what’s unexpected as much as doing what’s expected. Maybe it’s surpassing expectations. I felt the same about my campaign.
I’m actually reflecting now on how I spent most of my campaign early on talking very little about the race. But then I ended up being the last person of color on the national debate stage, de facto representing not just Asian Americans but perhaps all people of color. I said then that it was both an honor and disappointment to be the last one standing, so to speak. But that it was also impossible to represent such a diverse population. I feel similarly now in that the AAPI community is so large in its diversity that it’s impossible for me to say I speak for all of us. But I do feel a responsibility towards being one of those voices. It’s why I needed to speak out about the unprecedented racism our community faces today. It’s also why it weighs on me, that at least for some, I fell short of their expectations of me on this front. I hope this interview will give them a bit of the insight and depth that they are looking for.
Many Asians across the country are currently subject to alleged racism and attacks against them. There seems to be a lot of fear and uncertainty in our community right now, how are you and your family feeling about the situation?
It’s heartbreaking what is happening to Asians around the country. I receive a lot of notes and messages. Just yesterday an Asian shopkeeper told me that she wasn’t sure if she should show her face. My boys are too young to understand many elements of the coronavirus except that they are at home with Mom and Dad. Evelyn and I are doing all we can not just for them but also for trying to help others. My non-profit, Humanity Forward, has donated more than $1.2 million straight to people’s hands to help them get through this crisis, with more on the way. We are also going to work on the mental health crisis aspect of this pandemic. We’re losing too many lives not directly related to having the virus itself. We’re trapped at home like everyone else but feel like we have to try to do more. You have a tendency to feel helpless about this situation if you’re not a healthcare professional out there physically on the frontlines, but there are other things we can try to do to help with a broader reach.
What are your thoughts on how Trump has handled the COVID-19 epidemic and his rhetoric of using “Chinese Virus” up until recently?
I thought he was using the term to distract from his administration’s failings and to divide Americans. His administration has mishandled the pandemic from the beginning, and not just in his communications. The term Chinese virus is toxic and dangerous and should never have been used.
What do you think of the backlash that you have gotten from the piece?
First, I believe that we all understand what’s going on and want the same thing. It goes without saying that we’re all as American as anyone else and racism needs to be called out and combated in any way possible. I’ve experienced racism, as we all have. Second, I was deeply struck as a young person by both the oppression and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the courage displayed by Japanese Americans who were members of the 442nd. It’s one of the greatest untold stories in American history. I feel terrible that people saw that reference as anything other than reverential and equally terrible if people feel that their incredible sacrifice and selflessness did not have a positive impact. It certainly impacted me positively when I read about it in high school and stuck with me ever since, as did the national shame of the imprisonment, unfairness, and racism experienced by the Japanese during that time. But this goes to show that situations can’t just be looked at through one side — there are many. And we have a responsibility to know them and present them holistically. I was wrong to not represent that better given the complicated nature of the topic.
On a personal level, it pains me that some people took the piece negatively as it was meant to highlight the racism Asian Americans are experiencing and the fact that we are some of the people who are on the frontlines of this crisis. It’s interesting reflecting on how I faced critics every day on the campaign trail. Eventually, I felt bulletproof. There’s no other way to keep pace. But with the criticism around the op-ed, I’ve tried to take it in. On the one hand, I’ve been impressed — genuinely grateful for the conversation and even entertained (some of the content is really creative). But on the other hand, I’ve also been unexpectedly struck by the sting. I think it’s because I imagine it coming from people who have similar experiences as me, growing up as a scrawny Asian kid. The suggestion that somehow I’m more pro-White than pro-Asian — it’s obviously ludicrous if you look at any part of my life. I’m pro-people. And for anyone who would actually question that seriously, I’d hope they’d give me the benefit of the doubt.
There are some who unequivocally disagree, but some also say that your message was misinterpreted. Would you word it any differently if given the chance again?
So in retrospect, I would have made sure to reference that my op-ed was just part of a larger awareness campaign that some of the greatest voices in our community are getting behind, as a show of solidarity and leadership. Not to give too much away but when it launches I think it will be a lot clearer where my head was. But I am just one voice of many that will offer distinct experiences and perspectives. Hopefully, it will have the impact that we intend, so stay tuned.
Some were upset by my use of the word “ashamed.” I suppose a better word could have been “powerless” or “marginalized.” I pointed it out to acknowledge that anything I felt would be overshadowed by the experiences of others because if I felt it, I know others would be feeling something much more intense. Most people I encounter either recognize me or something familiar about me, though the mask changes that.
As far as the rest of it, I think the fundamental ideas are things we can all agree on. The racism being visited on our community right now is vile and wrong, and this crisis is tearing our country apart in multiple ways. We need to do all we can to help each other right now. That’s true of all Americans, Asian or not, which was something that was, unfortunately, not clearly conveyed in the op-ed. I’m encouraged that Americans of every background are being made aware of the harm that the virus is doing to our community specifically. That was the main idea of writing the piece for a mainstream publication like the Washington Post.
What’s your personal message to Asian Americans currently living in fear because of all this anti-Asian rhetoric?
This is a terrible time for everyone. It’s even worse when you are being made to feel like you are not welcome in your own country. As hard as it is, we can’t let fear and hatred win. We have to find productive ways to be engaged. I’ve been so proud of the activity from the Asian American community in COVID-19 relief. Last week, we were over 25% of the new volunteers to the Crisis Text Line. We are shipping PPE and donating meals; our platforms are enabling folks to better connect in a world of social distancing and more. I think it goes to show that doing more for other people is the best way to act in tough times. This is going to take all of us, so we’d better do this together.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Thanks for this opportunity, Benny! I appreciate the support I’ve gotten from the Asian American community a great deal and am very proud to be a small part of it. I hope that I’ve helped people feel that more things are possible for us in this country — I was told many times on the trail how excited folks were for their kids to see me. As hard as this time is for us, I know that by coming together, our community will continue to help shape America’s history and its future.
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