As a proud Asian American, I am tired of reading article after article of Asians being portrayed as fearful victims or terrified bystanders to increasingly violent attacks of hate and xenophobia. Yes the attacks are chilling and appalling. But we are not just fearful or terrified. We are proud. We are strong. Despite our diverse ethnicities and histories, we each come from a powerful lineage of people who have survived brutal wars, famines, generations of pain and suffering. We know what it’s like to overcome, to work so damn hard on behalf of a dream – the dream of freedom, prosperity and a better life for our children. We have worked so hard and achieved so much.
Just this past February, our community celebrated new heights of representation as the South-Korean movie “Parasite” won multiple Academy Awards – including the venerable Best Picture award. America also had a viable Asian American presidential candidate in Andrew Yang. How far we have fallen from those heights…
Within a month, Asians have been attacked around the globe, seen by xenophobes as the primary carriers and cause behind COVID-19 – the global pandemic that has been sweeping the world. I don’t need to go into the detestable details of eerily similar incidents of Asians being spat on, physically and verbally attacked. The growing number of reprehensible attacks have taken place all around the world – from New York to San Francisco, from London to Paris, from Toronto to Sydney. In the United States, the rise of hate crimes has become so concerning that the Attorney General of New York has launched a hotline specifically for hate crimes against Asian Americans.
There is no doubt that the coronavirus originated from Wuhan, China and that serious governance failures and missteps by the Chinese government led to the global spread of the virus outside of China. But the rhetoric of the “Chinese Virus” by President Trump and his administration are only increasing the vitriol and xenophobic attacks on fellow Americans. As some experts rightly point out, stigmatizing and ostracizing an entire people group is “misleadership” – diverting attention, scapegoating and making matters worse. And there is no question that Trump and his administration have fumbled and mismanaged the spread of COVID-19 in the United States so badly that they are in desperate need of a diversion or scapegoat; Trump has deflected blame for his administration’s inability to properly test Americans openly claiming, “I don’t take responsibility at all”.
As an Asian American, it is beyond comprehension to continue reading about these hateful attacks against Asians when it is the complete mismanagement of the pandemic that now has the United States leading the world in confirmed coronavirus cases. It is unfathomable that in the country, considered to be one of the world’s wealthiest in the 21st century, there is such a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), that private citizens and small businesses have had to step up to voluntarily sew hand-made masks. It is heart-wrenching to hear stories from the front lines of our healthcare system about the added mental stress of being on the front lines of a “war” when, unlike the US military, they are going to battle without the appropriate armor or ammunition. Not to mention the crippling shortage of test kits and ventilators.
So where is the outrage, the vitriol, the demands for accountability against the Federal government and policymakers who have brought us to this point of utter failure in a time of true crisis? Where is the ironic acknowledgement that, despite all of the racism and xenophobia, so many of America’s frontline healthcare workers are Asian American?
Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in the United States. And the global Asian community prides itself on having some of the most successful entrepreneurs, some of the most talented entertainers, and truly some of the wealthiest and most influential individuals in our world today. The Oscar victory of “Parasite” coupled with the growing number of rising Asian American stars and influencers may have made us, even for just a fleeting moment, forget the ugly history of concentration camps and “yellow peril” in the United States. Perhaps some of us felt like we had finally “arrived” and were no longer seen as a “perpetual foreigner” or “model minority”.
But our rapid decline and the quick global turn against us – we who look “Asian” no matter how fully American, Canadian, Australian or European we are – is a good wake up call for those of us who pride ourselves in our hybrid identity. Those of us who claim to be both wholly Asian but fully American.
Part of this wake up call is to first understand the importance of having allies and how often we have failed to be allies for other communities of color. The coronavirus and its backlash of xenophobia may pass but the underlying racism and bigotry will not. History has shown us, time and time again, that when people feel fear and desperation – it is all too easy to pour our frustration, our anger, our hate on a scapegoat – even if this scapegoat is an entire ethnic group. We must critically examine ourselves and how many times we may have missed the boat on being good allies for our Jewish community, our African American community, our Native American community, our Muslim community, our Hispanic community. When white supremacy rears its ugly head, communities of color must unify and stand in solidarity. No matter how perfect of a model minority we may have seen ourselves – we will always be seen as a “minority”, the “other”, and must seek fellow allies to truly achieve justice and equality.
Another critical part of this wake up call is to realize that Asian Americans have the potential to become a political force to be reckoned with. But we have consistently failed to reach this potential and have continuously been excluded from regional and national policy conversations when those very policies impact our communities. Why is it that the fastest growing population in the United States is also seen as the least likely to complete the 2020 census? Or that too many of my friends and family still refuse to vote, don’t see the usefulness of the census or have no idea who their local representatives are? What my fellow Asian Americans may not realize is that no matter the strides we make in Hollywood, tech or finance – we will never have true representation in this country without reaching our political potential. If you have felt outraged by the growing incidents of racism in your city or county, then click here to find your representative and take five minutes of your day to write and express how this makes you feel as an American. When we say we must rise up and take a stand – this is all it takes: a five-minute email to let your representative know that no, it is not okay for our community members to be spat on, attacked and chased down.
Lastly, we must speak out wherever and whenever we can. I know not every industry allows for an open conversation about racism and representation. But so many of us are not utilizing our existing platforms to speak out and condemn acts of hate and xenophobia. So many of us still hide our Asian American pride hoping that our hard work and achievements will speak for itself. But as Queen B says, “Power is not given to you. You have to take it”. And it is past time for Asian Americans, and frankly Asians globally, to leverage and “take” the power of our growing demographics, our many achievements and our numerous privileges in order to advance our communities and protect the most vulnerable within our communities.
As a mother of two, it has been difficult to talk to my kids about what it means to be Asian American in a time where we are getting spat on, attacked and chased down. As my son wore one of his favorite shirts today, the one with the Sandra Oh quote of “It’s an honor just to be Asian”, I knew I needed to write this article. I want to show him that I am doing my part in speaking out. That no matter what crazy times we live in, I am a proud Asian American. And that he should be proud of his heritage and lineage too.
It is truly an honor to be Asian. Let us stand up and fight for the honor and pride of being Asian and show our children – and the next generations of global Asians – that when we see fellow Asians who are spat on, attacked or chased down – we speak out. We rise up. We fight and overcome – just as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have done for generations.
About the Author: Sylvia Kim is an award-winning human rights lawyer and former nonprofit executive who is now working in venture capital to promote technology for good.
Feature Image (left) Getty, (right) via @IamSandraOh