The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silences passes over into forgetting.

– Cathy Park Hong From Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

When I first started to plan for this month’s blog post, I wasn’t quite sure about what I wanted to write. Coincidentally, the month of May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) and Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month (APIHM), where we honor, highlight, and celebrate the diverse cultures, narratives, and histories of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the U.S. As a Korean American, I feel overwhelming joy and love for the history, language, and culture of my parents, family, and ancestors. Moreover, I feel lucky to be part of the larger AAPI community. Yet as I write this, it feels rather bittersweet at a time where we’ve seen in the past year such a dramatic rise in AAPI hate and violence in the U.S. But quite honestly, I feel disheartened to say that it’s not surprising given the long history of racism against Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in this country fueled by white supremacy.

Since the start of the pandemic last year, I had this uneasy feeling that went beyond the public health implications of a contagious respiratory virus spreading in the U.S. and around the world. As the first case was identified in China, I began to worry about how it would be perceived and the narrative framed around the origins of COVID-19. Subsequently as cases spread in the U.S., deaths rose, and States locked down, we heard the rhetoric from the then-U.S. President and his cohorts that seemed to lay blame and anger against a specific country and people, which I believe helped to fuel anti-Asian sentiment and violence against anyone who looked Chinese or East Asian. Now, we’ve seen the impact of that rhetoric. According to Stop AAPI Hate, 6,603 hate incidents were reported from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021. Verbal harassment (65.2%), shunning (18.1%), and physical incidents (12.6%) were the largest category of reported incidents. Further, 64.8% of incidents were reported by women, and Chinese individuals reported more hate incidents (43.7%) than other race or ethnic groups, followed by Koreans (16.6%), Filipinx (8.8%) and Vietnamese (8.3%).

Seeing the unrelenting violent attacks against Asian elders and in Atlanta where a white man took the lives of eight people, in which six were Asian women, I have been experiencing moments of sadness, despondency, grief, fear, and enormous amounts of rage. I’ve cried a lot, and found comfort from my friends and colleagues. A Korean-American friend of mine reached out after years of us being out of touch, and we just processed the pain and anger together. I felt safe in that moment because of that unspoken understanding between us of our shared experience of being Korean-American in the U.S. But most of the time, I feel both sad and angry. Not just because I constantly worry for my 85-year-old father who has now informed me that he plans to carry a cane outside as a way to protect himself. Nor because of my sister who suggested that always carrying a cup of hot coffee to fling at potential attackers on the street. Nor how my daily walks, which is I do for my mental health, now has become more of a frenzied activity where I anxiously monitor my surroundings, see every person as a threat, and rush back to my apartment. I feel this anger because I know that this hate against the AAPI community is not a new phenomenon. I understand that this hate doesn’t sit alone in isolation, as a result of one pandemic. Rather, it is rooted in white supremacy and thrives in the racism that structures our country. In the three pillars of white supremacy, the AAPI community often sits as the “other,” both seen as foreign and inferior, therefore in difficult moments such as war or a global pandemic, xenophobia kicks in, and we’re perceived as a threat. The manifestation of this is seen in our history filled with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Rock Springs Massacre, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982, and after 9/11 South Asians and Muslims being attacked and categorized as terrorists, to name just a few.

I won’t go further into AAPI history here because I could never do justice to its long, diverse, and complex history. Also, I admit that I’m probably not as well-versed or educated about it as much as I would like to be. But I want to highlight that AAPI immigrants also contributed significantly to the building of this country, and the AAPI community has been in solidarity with and part of movements working for social justice and fighting for the dignity of the most marginalized and oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world. It’s important that our history also be included and taught as a part of the American story. Further, our story is not a one-dimensional story, as we are not a monolith. We are also complicated individuals who live lives full of contradictions. And of course, there are those whose views with whom I may completely disagree. The AAPI community consists of an incredibly rich mix of people that ranges from Central and South Asia to the Pacific Islands, filled with different cultures, food, languages, and religions. In fact, the majority of Muslims in the world are Asian.

In the U.S., we often see the term “model minority” applied to Asian Americans as a way to commend us as a whole group for academic and economic success. However, this idea of the “model minority” is a myth because it obscures the nuances of the AAPI community and the inequities that exists among and within the different groups. We often see this in the data around health, where aggregated data seem to indicate that Asians have better health outcomes than most of their counterparts. However, when we disaggregate the data, it reveals hidden health disparities among the AAPI community. Further, the myth of the “model minority” helps to reinforce the arguments for meritocracy and “pulling yourself up by the boot straps” and serves to pit Asian Americans against other people of color, who are then blamed for not being able to rise above without taking into account history and the impact of structural racism. It can also play into the notion that this “model minority success” transcends white supremacy and racism. Yet we see that this is untrue because when a government or respected societal institution decides to vilify or assign blame to one country, people, or religion, then that group easily becomes the “other.” In the case of COVID-19, we are currently experiencing this with all the AAPI hate and violence. Yet I do want to acknowledge that although the problem of white supremacy and structural racism is harmful to us all we don’t all experience it the same way. There still exists a certain hierarchy and privilege that many in the AAPI community enjoys in comparison to our Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Someone like myself, a light-skinned, Asian American woman, in general doesn’t worry that I will be racially profiled and killed by the police.

The pandemic has made this an even harder year, but last summer we also saw the anti-racism and social justice work that BIPOC activists and community organizers have been doing seemingly forever gain tremendous momentum as the call for racial justice received massive support, and nationwide protests filled the streets. It’s still too early to know if we’ll see real systemic change and the dismantling of these structural factors that continue to uphold racism. But we can’t go back to where we were before. We have to continue to learn, analyze, discuss, speak out, take action, and work in solidarity while following the lead of the BIPOC folks who have been doing the work. In moments like this, we need to take care of ourselves and of others. I believe that the struggle for justice and liberation is a responsibility of us all, because in the end, we’ll all benefit from a more just society.

If you want to support the AAPI Community, here is a starting point:

By Senior Project Manager Sonia Lee for HOP’s series of monthly staff blog posts.