Reports are that there are over 23 million Asian Americans living in the United States. Other reports are that over the past year, there are at least 4000 reports of various forms of harassment, including assaults, directed against Asian Americans in the United States. And tragically, during recent shootings in Georgia, eight lives were snuffed out, among them six Asian women. These are the facts.
So I begin this by introducing you to incredible Asian American women – Wei Wei Jeang and Lisa Ong – long-time friends of mine during the years I lived in Texas. Not only did I want to check in on the well-being of Wei Wei and Lisa, both outspoken and strong advocates of equality and fairness, I wanted to get their thoughts on what’s been happening to Asian Americans over recent years. I’ll begin with a little bit about their backgrounds.
Wei Wei Jeang is a member of Grable Martin Fulton PLLC, a law firm. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.
Lisa Ong, a diversity and inclusion strategy consultant, was formally a national diversity director at Price Waterhouse, Coopers, an HR director and a financial audit senior manager. She earned her BBA in Accounting from the University of Texas in Austin and her MS in Management from the University of Texas at Dallas.
Following are some questions I posed to them and their answers:
First, given the extreme nature of all the violence directed at Asian Americans, what measures have you taken to protect yourself?
Wei Wei: I feel fortunate to be mostly isolated from the anti-Asian sentiment and actions in my professional and personal life. But it pains me that Asian Americans are being targeted by this kind of violence and actions to the point of losing their lives. But I’m always mentally prepared to ready myself for potential verbal and physical assaults when I go out since the beginning of the pandemic. The anti-Asian American mentality just adds more burden to our psyche that’s already on-edge and on-guard. I am always on alert.
Lisa: I still wear my mask with a hat or visor and sunglasses and am highly aware of my surroundings when out and driving alone. I sadly realize this is attempt to “cover” is fruitless. I do not walk around alone and only go for walks with my husband or a neighbor or friends.
How do you explain why many Asian Americans may be reluctant to report acts of hate towards them?
Lisa: Often English language barriers, undocumented refugee status,
immigrant fears, cultural norms, fear of the police or retaliation,
lack of any action or legal support all mean that the numbers of
attacks in the Asian community often go underreported. I also feel that the “model minority” label placed on Asians – “don’t make waves” – has been a factor as well.
Wei Wei: I’m especially pained at the reality of Asian women being targeted for hate, probably because they are most vulnerable and less likely to speak up. But the fact is that we have a voice and have been speaking up more and more during these times. We also have learned from and been trying to support our friends in the Black community who have been at this civil rights movement before us.
What in your opinion has been missing from media accounts of what many Asian Americans have been experiencing before and during the pandemic?
Lisa: Many TV news reporters are not pronouncing the victim’s names correctly in the news reports. This infuriates and makes the Asian community hurt even more for the victims and their families. Understand that tears are flowing throughout the Asian community.
Wei Wei: For the last year, Trump elevated racist dialog to the national level. For the most part, at least from my perspective of a user of left-leaning or neutral news outlets, care and attention have been used to point out Trump’s use of inflammatory and divisive language. However, this practice is not universal, and certainly not by “news” outlets that still support Trump. I am especially frustrated and angered by Republican lawmakers who continue to fawn over or tolerate Trump’s racist use of “China virus.”
Can you cite a few examples – microaggressions perhaps – that you personally experienced over the years?
Wei Wei: I grew up with taunts about my appearance, name and language. Those things happened so often that they do not take up any space in my mind, and I chalk them up as just part of growing up in America as a minority and always seen as a foreigner. A common question upon meeting someone is always: “where are you from?” And they don’t mean California, Florida or Illinois where I have lived before settling down in Texas over thirty years ago. Just a few years ago I was on an American Airlines flight a flight attendant effusively praised how fluently and without any foreign accent I was able to speak English.
Lisa: Like Wei Wei, I also experienced taunts about my eyes in kindergarten. However, I was taught to not complain, not cry, and toughen up and show no emotion or they will taunt you even more and only make it worse. Suffering in silence was common because you did not want to bring trouble or shame on your family. I still often experience the “where are you really from?” or “What kind of Asian are you? “questions. And when you call them out on it, many well-meaning people say, “Oh, I am just being curious.”
What advice would you offer to allies desiring to be supportive?
Wei Wei: It is even more important now for everyone to add their voices to denounce any kind of anti-Asian language and action as well as any kind of violence against anyone of any color. Always be ready to step in to help if someone is being attacked verbally or physically. Write your elected public officials and hold them accountable for their discriminatory and inflammatory words and actions. This question brings to mind the recent story where members of a California neighborhood took turns to stand guard to protect an Asian American family that was continually harassed and robbed of their peace in their home. I hope all of us can recognize when injustice is being perpetuated Instead of the groups being pitted against one another,
Lisa: I am seeing allies coming together from both marginalized and oppressed groups and the majority too. They are using their power, platform, influence, and privilege for action. They are mobilizing people to register and go vote or run for office; highlighting personal stories that increase awareness; and denouncing bias and bullying when they see and hear it. They are texting hearts and prayers to let others know they care, and that they are not alone and are willing to be an ally and stand up to oppression.
Any parting comments or thoughts would you like to pass along?
Lisa: Many of us in the Asian American & Pacific Islander community saw the bullying, intimidation, and increasing attacks of violence rising but were not heard. I was heartbroken and mad that it took a mass shooting to get more national media coverage. It shows why allies amplifying voices and coming together united in solidarity is so important. I just hope that we all realize now that we all need to speak up against microaggressions, biases, bullying, violence, social media trolls and stalkers.
Wei Wei: Violence and injustice of any kind targeting anyone should not be tolerated. We need to strongly denounce language that foments violence and injustice. Racism and injustice targeting any group is a deadly virus among us that will weaken all of us as a community. All of us must work hard to keep politicians who incorporate racism and oppression of minority groups as part of their platform from being elected to any position of power.
I end with these words of wisdom from Lisa Ong:
“The world needs more beacons of light to shine brighter together to promote hope, healing and peace!”