AAPI Representation and Words Matter

I was hesitant to write this post, because it’s difficult to so publicly share vulnerability. But as an Asian American woman, I felt a sense of responsibility. A responsibility to do my part in shedding light on what the AAPI community is experiencing. I (electronically) met Vicki from Teneral Cellars when I reached out a few weeks ago to discuss a third-party image displayed on their website. The image was well intentioned and meant to be inclusive of all marginalized and/or potentially vulnerable communities. It was one of the more inclusive lists of marginalized groups that I’ve seen, including even parents and pregnant women along with different races and sexual orientations. However, I felt a familiar pang as I scanned the list and saw the AAPI community was not listed. This was yet another instance in which I was invisible. I did not count. This image was intended to be inclusive and supportive of all, but I was not included. I know this feeling well and have dealt with it my whole life, growing up Asian American in this country.


There were direct, obvious forms of racism I experienced (kids pulling up their eyes at me; being spoken to in “fake Chinese”; being asked if I spoke English; being asked if I was the 60 year old partner’s wife at a client dinner; various anti-China comments post-COVID; etc.). But the invisibility I felt was present every day. I rarely saw myself represented in films, shows, news, literature, or even sometimes i§n check boxes asking for my race. And upon seeing this list that was meant to be inclusive, yet excluded my community, my first instinct was to ignore this pang. I wanted to bury the feeling and tell myself this is nothing compared to what is happening in the world. Because this is what every marginalized person does with the vast majority of the micro and macro aggressions they face. Because it would be all consuming if they confronted every single ignorant, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or transphobic comment or action they faced. But almost every day for the last year, I’ve seen stories of our community being called racist slurs, spit on, shoved, punched, kicked and now murdered. And this was all happening with very little coverage for the better part of the year. So, I couldn’t ignore this example of how something even so well-intentioned could yet also have a harmful impact. This was another example of our community being invisible yet again. I dug deep in that moment of vulnerability, and reached out to Teneral Cellars about the image, and Vicki held space for the genuine discussion we had. And that discussion led to this opportunity for me to write this post. Because in order for us all to “do the work,” it means we have to continue listening and learning from each other. There were three points that came out of this encounter, that when I reflected on it, I thought worth sharing.


The first point I would like to make is when a person of color speaks up against racism or xenophobia, please realize it’s because they reached their breaking point. Please realize it took immense courage for them to do so. When I have spoken up against racism, it was almost always met with anger, defensiveness, and ignorance. I’ve been called names, cursed at, and screamed at in response to speaking up against it. These knee-jerk defensive responses are examples of white fragility and white centering. When a person of color calls out a comment or action as being racist, xenophobic or offensive, please do not reply with "are you calling me a racist?" This is not about you. Do not center yourself. This is about a person of color calling out how something you said or did was harmful based on their lived experience as a member of a marginalized and oppressed community. If you don't understand how it was harmful, listen and try to learn. Then do your own work and look into the wealth of existing resources that you can leverage to educate yourself on how to be anti-racist.


This leads to my second point: we live in a society in which racism and sexism are deeply embedded in every aspect, from representation, opportunity, and justice. I have been a practicing attorney for a decade. Many of my closest friends are diverse attorneys. But even now, when someone mentions a "lawyer," the first image I have (for a split second) is that of a white male. None of us are immune to the racism and sexism that is deeply ingrained in our society. But we all need to do the work to identify the racism and sexism we have internalized so we can root it out. We have seen time and time again what happens when it is not rooted out. Almost as shocking as the knee-jerk defensive response filled with rage, is when white people acknowledge the racism but (sometimes, even politely) ask me to be silent in the face of racism, because it makes them uncomfortable. In these instances, their white supremacy is so deep-seeded that it is matter of fact to them that their discomfort should trump my own. They do not see me as their equal, which is why my discomfort at facing racism should be less important than their discomfort at being called out for racism. We are not seen as fully fleshed out people in our own right. We are seen as someone who should be playing a supporting role. Because in the relatively few instances that AAPI members are represented, this is how we're depicted. The supportive friend with a minor speaking role and character development. Or the submissive sex worker. Or the nerd with no personality. Or the comic relief with broken English. 


My final point is representation and words matter. You may say there are bigger issues in the world, but the bigger issues are tied to these fundamental ones. Why did a white home-grown terrorist go on a killing spree targeting Asian American women, and justify it with his sex addiction? And why did the white police officer say the murderer had a "bad day" and effectively victimize the murderer instead of his victims? It's because they did not see Asian American women as full people. They did not see loving mothers and grandmothers with full lives and dreams and hopes of their own. They were only sex objects. They were only supporting roles in the story of this white man, who was "at the end of his rope." And after our prior president adamantly and repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the "China virus" and "kung flu," people across the country have blamed the AAPI community for a global pandemic. There have been almost 4,000 recorded instances of hate, xenophobia, and racism towards the AAPI community in a year. I'm sure the unrecorded number is much, much higher. Our babies are getting spit on and stabbed. Our elders are getting shoved, punched, and murdered in unprovoked attacks. Our community is being verbally and physically assaulted, violently, on a daily basis. The anti-Asian hate is so prevalent that my husband and I now consider which parks would be safest and least likely to result in harm to us and our children before we leave our home. Almost every single Asian and Asian American family member, friend, and colleague I've spoken to has expressed this same fear and anxiety about leaving their homes. This is where we are collectively as a community. And it took almost a year for our stories to deemed newsworthy by major news networks. For a year, these stories were only covered by Asian American owned news platforms and activists. Our pain and suffering was not important enough for mainstream coverage. And as it became clear that no one cared, the violence became worse and worse. It wasn't until we had a streak of horrific anti-Asian hate crimes towards grandparents in their 80s and 90s, some of which ended in death, that enough social media buzz was generated for mainstream news to pay attention. This has led to, finally, elected representatives paying attention to the AAPI community and taking steps to curb the violence. Representation matters. Words matter. 

 Jeena Moon

Here are two great resources to learn more about stopping Asian Hate. 



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