Giving Voice to the Asian American Experience

Dear Friends,

“Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Does this sound familiar to you? Have you ever been asked this multiple times in your life by complete strangers?

Many Asian American friends know exactly where I (Hellen) am going with this. As a first-generation Asian American woman, I usually ignore these questions or redirect the conversation to talk about my family’s history. My answer of Baltimore, Maryland is rarely satisfying. I usually chalk it up to ignorance, and move on.  

Yet “moving on” at this particular moment is rather hard. Watching the attack on 84 year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai man who was forcefully shoved to the ground and senselessly killed, one cannot help but wonder what would make any human being act so brutally and heartlessly towards an elderly man. The recent reports of many similar stories — Noel Quintana’s scarred face from a stranger’s box-cutter knife, Iona Cheng mugged and punched — are heartbreaking. 

Anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are not new in America. Look up the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and you’ll learn about our country’s blatantly racist federal law that explicitly barred the immigration of an entire ethnic group. Look up the killing of Vincent Chin, the brutal Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, the Japanese internment camps during World War Two. The 1992 LA riots illuminated a tension between the Black and the Korean communities. The white media bestowed upon Asian Americans the reluctant crown of “model minority,” a burden and a reason for backlash not of our making. 

And look no further than this week. The Associated Press reported that Stop AAPI Hate (Asian American Pacific Islanders) has tracked 3,000 reports of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans in 2020 alone. While I hesitate to attribute this new coverage or wave of hate to a polarizing president alone, at the same time he knew what he was doing when he coined and repeatedly uttered the “Chinese Virus” phrase, baiting and exploiting the pre-existing undercurrent of hate and feeding the media (left and right) fodder to create what feels like a circus environment of incivility.  

So where do we go from here?

Last summer, activists who believe that words without actions are simply not enough frequently used the word “performative” to signal the need for more serious change. This week we had the pleasure of speaking with an Upper School mother who was concerned about why we were not speaking out against Anti-Asian violence and what the silence says. And she was right. 

While he was happy to pen a letter, Head of School Bryan Garman very thoughtfully asked whether or not thoughts and ideas might be more powerfully delivered by us—two women of color, one Asian American and one Black. Would our voices together in unity be more powerful than his alone?

Frankly, yes. The cathartic practice of writing in itself is healing, but the act of giving voice and speaking out loud as sisters in solidarity builds courage. Raising one’s voice or making a fuss is not culturally an “Asian” thing to do. Laying low is seen as a coping and survival tactic to the immigrant generations, especially those who count themselves as refugees in one sense or another. Thanks to the recent voices of people like Cathy Park Hong, Anne Anlin Cheng, Jeremy Lin, Daniel Dae Kim, Olivia Munn, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Senator Tammy Duckworth, and activist Amanda Nguyen, giving voice feels like the right thing to do. We were struck by Sharon Kwon’s recent article in HuffPost called “This is What No One Tells You About Being Asian in America in 2021.” Kwon is a psychotherapist with many Asian patients who describes the powerful hold guilt and shame have on the Asian psyche.  She says, “As we continue to practice anti-racism and work toward more diversity and inclusion, individually and collectively, I hope that we can do just that and involve all groups in the discussion. We can’t call ourselves anti-racists until we acknowledge all marginalized people, including Asian Americans.”

If we frame this in terms of our responsibilities as Quaker educators, where can we best effect change through teaching and learning? How can we inspire students to go beyond the caricatures and stereotypes that they see flashed before them on social media or Netflix, and seek—if not desire—to find humanity in others and themselves?

While there is no shortage of ways to do this, there is a shortage of time and energy. As communications and diversity/equity professionals, our jobs are to create understanding—one through media, the other through programs. The most powerful way to do this is through stories. The Asian American story is different from the Black story which is different from the LGBTQ+ story which is different from that of our Latinx friends and families. Our Jewish and Muslim friends have rich stories and traditions to share, as do our Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh friends. Creating an understanding that people are more than a face, religion, gender identity, or skin color is essential to fostering deeper respect for the cultures, emotions, histories, ideas, talents, and dreams that make them who they are and inform the complexities of this moment. Within the acts of listening and speaking we can discover the most precious seeds of all—those of empathy and love, which if nurtured over time, can sprout and ripen in the hearts and actions of the young people we teach. 

How do we build unity and understanding in this fast world of social media where people are reduced to a single filtered post? Can a community truly thrive without a strong and understood compact of mutual respect? Please send us your ideas. In weeks to come, we look to engage you in acts of listening, speaking, and the art of storytelling.

The promise of being heard opens a powerful path indeed.      

In unity and love,

Hellen Hom-Diamond, Chief Communications Officer
Natalie Randolph ’98, Endowed Director of Equity, Justice, and Community



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