Working for equity and social justice? Know what your Asian colleague is experiencing

This week we have a guest post by Diana Huynh.

When I was in my master of public administration program, there was an LGBTQ student group meeting to discuss speaker ideas for a panel they were hosting. On the agenda was how to diversify the line-up. When a member suggested an expert who was Asian, a white leader of that group dismissed the idea because “Asian people are basically white.” 

I was not there; the exchange was later shared with me by a close classmate who was present. The dismissal of Asian identity, including of Asian queer identity, made me feel incredulous at first, then angry, and then disappointed. Here we were, in a program for public servants in one of the most “progressive” cities in the country (New York), and yet such casual racism was accepted. 

That moment stuck with me throughout my decade of working in nonprofits. With the recent attacks against East and Southeast Asians in the Bay Area, New York, and elsewhere, this moment from grad school still holds as an example of how anti-Asian racism shows up in the work for equity and justice. 

What Black, Indigenous, and other people of color know all too well is that this country is practiced at finding innovative and different ways to dehumanize each of our communities. If you care about racial justice, I hope part of your learning is understanding what anti-Asian racism looks like. You can’t advance the work if you don’t, and you can’t see your Asian colleagues for who they are unless you do. 

The recent cycle of conversations on anti-Asian racism began at the start of the pandemic, when Chinatowns began to lose business and when mask-wearing was still so racialized that the Asian American Journalists Association had to ask the news media to be careful when covering it. But these examples, the attacks, and the misguided discourse that followed, are the direct result of the longtime interplay of two common and harmful perceptions about Asian people: that we are the perpetual foreigner and also the model minority.

As perpetual foreigners, Asians will never belong. Anything about us that doesn’t fit into white-dominant culture is evidence of our alien-ness. Our food is gross, smelly — or as recently described in this case — dirty. For those of us with monolid eyes, our faces are unreadable. (If you didn’t know, it was white Americans who helped popularize eyelid surgery in Asia because they couldn’t trust people with “slant eyes.”) And just look at how “Minari,” an American film about a Korean family set in Arkansas, is considered a foreign film because half of the dialogue is in a non-English language. 

Today’s nonprofits, with their stated values of diversity and inclusion, are more skilled at avoiding these more overt acts of anti-Asian racism. In fact, they are so skilled that they manage to not acknowledge Asian people and communities at all. The model minority is a convenient myth that allows others to invalidate our experiences and pit us against other people of color, especially Black people. In short: the perception is that as a racial group, we enjoy universal socioeconomic success. 

Because our sector is obsessed with measuring disparities by race and “closing gaps,” Asians barely register as worthy subjects for justice. Policymakers and practitioners look at one aggregate data point — that combines a vast continent of Asian ethnicities and experiences together — deem we are not oppressed enough, and don’t give us much thought after that. Even more egregious, as in the recent example of North Thurston Public Schools, Asian students were combined with their white peers as a racial category — in a report about education equity of all things. 

If you don’t understand how anti-Asian racism works, you will likely not know about the experiences that have molded and shaped us. A Chinese person whose family has been here for generations might have different successes with the education system than a Laotian person whose parents arrived in this country not too long ago as refugees. The broad category of Asian and the even broader Asian and Pacific Islander are not very meaningful. 

Over the last few weeks, check-ins with my East and Southeast Asian friends revealed the complexity of the moment. We are grieving, and day-to-day interactions feel worse when it’s clear others don’t register our existence as an Asian person. And it’s not limited to us in the nonprofit sector; a New York Times report about diversity and inclusion in their own newsroom showed that Asian women often felt “invisible and unseen.”

My friends and I also talked about how to show up at this moment. We are watching in frustration as narratives working to divide Asian and Black communities take hold. This is especially so when we see other Asians — some close to us and some with big platforms — play into the hands of the system by calling for more police or offering bounties. People of color have long known that cross-racial solidarity has and will continue to keep us safe. History has proven this, but we know these stories often get erased. White supremacy benefits when we are pitted against each other. Addressing anti-Asian racism does not mean resorting to anti-Black racism. 

I decided to write this piece because I recently realized what I was working through when I watched Pastor Erna Kim Hackett’s video about grief and solidarity after the Bay Area attacks. Talking specifically about Asian people’s tendency to self erase, she said “we make these choices because we feel like our story is not valid. One of the ways we might love on people and hold space for people is to go quiet and move to the back.”

This is another lie of white supremacy: That I have been made to feel that by talking about my own experiences, I am taking away from someone else’s. As Erna said, “Part of our healing and liberation is amplifying our stories.” And it’s not just amplifying my story, but the story of my community and elders. 

So this is what this post is. An amplification of our experiences. Some might be disappointed by the lack of advice on how to engage with Asian people right now. That was by design. If you have been more transactional than relational with your Asian coworkers and other colleagues of color up until this moment, then a starting point for you is to examine why that is. 

Diana Huynh is a communications professional living in Seattle. Her dad is from Bến Tre and her mom from Duyên Hải. She was born and raised in south central Pennsylvania. 

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