EmbraceRace

Asian Americans, racism, and antiracism in the COVID Era

At once "model minorities" and "perpetual foreigners," Asian Americans communities have long occupied an uncertain status in the landscape of race and racial justice in the US. The xenophobic framing of COVID crisis at the highest levels of US public life has sparked a fresh wave of anti-Asian American bigotry. The STOP Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate site receiving over 1,100 reports of harassment and abuse in the first two weeks after its March 19th launch. 

Watch the video of this conversation about how "COVID-19 racism" is reshaping political sensibilities within the very diverse Asian American community and between that community and other communities of color. This conversation took place on 5/14/20. A lightly edited transcript and resources follow.  

EmbraceRace: If there's one thing that some folks know about COVID and the Asian American community or communities, it's that a lot of racism and bigotry are being directed at members of those communities. And it starts, unfortunately, at the highest levels.

What you may not know, of course, is something about the context in which those attacks/assaults come, that bigotry comes. It certainly lands on a ground that has been paved already. And, you may not appreciate or you may not be in a position to know about some of the responses from within the community, political and otherwise, to what folks are going through. We have two people here who are in the business of and in the life of living that, exploring that, helping to shape those responses.

Cynthia Choi, Co-ED of Chinese for Affirmative Action

We're really, really glad to have them here. Let me give a brief introduction first. Let me start with Cynthia Choi. Cynthia is the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA). A community based civil rights organization based in San Francisco. Chinese for Affirmative Action was founded in 1969, 50 years ago. Congratulations on entering your 51st year as an organization. To protect the civil and political rights of Chinese Americans and to advance multi-racial democracy in the United States. Thanks for doing that work. We have a long way to go.

Today, CAA is a progressive voice in and on behalf of the broader Asian American and Pacific Islander community. They advocate for systemic change that protects immigrant rights, promotes language diversity and remedies racial and social injustice. Cynthia, we're really glad to have you here. Thanks for coming.

Cynthia Choi: Thank you for the invitation.

Manjusha Kulkarni

EmbraceRace: And Manju Kulkarni is the executive director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of over 40 community based organizations that serves and represents the 1.5 million Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs) in Los Angeles County. Manju began her career working at the Southern Poverty Law Center (hooray!) in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. She has received the White House Champions of Change Award for her dedication to improving healthcare access for Asian American communities. Again, welcome to you both.

Manjusha Kulkarni: Thank you.

EmbraceRace: Manju, I'll start with you. Tell us a little bit about how you got into this work.

Manjusha Kulkarni: Sure. Again, I want to just thank both of you for hosting this wonderful forum and thank Cynthia as well for joining me. We get to talk all the time, but we've never been on a panel together. This is a first for us. I just love to hear her wisdom, so I really appreciate the chance to do that tonight.

EmbraceRace: No pressure, Cynthia, no pressure.

Manjusha Kulkarni: So just in terms of my own trajectory, I'll just start off with sharing my own personal background, as opposed to the professional work. My parents and I came from India as part of the post-1965 immigration wave of many Asian Americans to the United States. We came in 1971. They happened to get a professional visa. They were both physicians. Within a few years, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama. That really I think shaped the way I view race and my own views of identity and how race plays out in the United States. 

I just wanted to share very quickly one incident that I think exemplifies how people unfortunately view race, or did at that time. I was in my AP American History class and the teacher asked everyone whether I should be interned along with another South Asian student in the class, if we were to go to war with India. Every single person in the class, except my best friend who was African American, voted to intern us. It was an example that the teacher used not to actually explain that internment was not a good thing, but in fact America had made the right decision.

It was illuminating for me, especially given that she was my favorite teacher, of sort of how people view race in America, and specifically at that time South Asian Americans, I think too in terms of that xenophobia and perpetual foreignness that a lot of us have. I think really those type of incidents propelled me to work at the Southern Poverty Law Center and then to pursue a career in civil rights law and what I do today.

EmbraceRace: That's a powerful impetus. Yeah, that was a great story. Cynthia, how about you?

Cynthia Choi: Yeah, well first I just want to echo thanks to Andrew and Melissa. I think this is a great opportunity to talk about this work, and especially how we talk to our children. Manju, let me just express. Now I know why you're such a fierce and fearless advocate. It's really great to be doing this work with you. Like a lot of members of our community, I'm a daughter of immigrants. My parents came actually pre-1965. They were part of a really early wave. And [my parents] struggled.

I learned this, not at the beginning, but over the course of the years of just me asking questions of my parents. So, I learned that financially that they struggled. My father couldn't get a job because of racial discrimination. Also, that we were undocumented for a short period of time. But also I think moments of joy, which is we grew up in a multicultural community. For me, that was normal, and it was something that we celebrated.

I have so many stories of my mom coming home with new recipes from our neighbors that she wanted to learn how to cook and make. Like ham hocks and collard greens and salsa verde. It's bittersweet, in terms of our experience, but it definitely has shaped me in terms of what this multicultural democracy could be. It's always been an experiment, and it's always been an aspiration. That's really our life's work.

EmbraceRace: Thank you both. I know there's so much more that could be said there, but it's always good to just have a little piece of where you're coming from, and your investment to this work. So, we're here in a moment, what we're calling the COVID era. Obviously, Asian Americans have been facing a lot before the COVID era and historically in this country, discrimination, that both of you spoke so eloquently in your personal stories. In this COVID era, what are you seeing in regard to Asian Americans and discrimination?

Cynthia Choi: I think as it's been reiterated, this is not new to Asian Americans or APIs. It's been a part of our history since our early migration. Of course, hopefully by now many people know about the Exclusion Act of Chinese Americans and other Asians. The fact that throughout our history, whether it's a public health crisis or an economic crisis, there has always been an attempt to blame immigrants, to blame Asians. It's a reminder of our conditional status.

This [COVID] is an example of, of course, nothing like any of us have experienced in our lifetime. It's a new recurring wave of discrimination that Asian Americans are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. We can see that it has to do with how the Coronavirus has been racialized, how elected officials and others have used this moment, this crisis, this time of fear to point blame and to really, that's really creating this backlash against Asian Americans.

We have lots of moments in our history where we can point to that, whether it was trying to challenge the Japanese economy, and the effects on the auto manufacturing to the perceptions around Asians taking jobs, or coming here as undocumented or taking resources. These are all things that are happening now, and contributing, I think, to that backlash. I'll allow Manju to speak to the numbers and the data, just to bring her into the conversation.

EmbraceRace: Manju, in responding to that previous question, you have a project where people are alerting you to the incidents of abuse and harassment that they're suffering. We have some questions about the demographics of that data. Where is discrimination against AAPI happening most? Are there particular groups within the very diverse Asian American community to whom it's happening to the most?

Manjusha Kulkarni: Sure. We launched Stop AAPI Hate on March 19th. It's been almost two months now. In that time, we've gotten 1,700 incident reports from 45 states and the District of Columbia. What we know from that is unfortunately this problem is really widespread. That right now, almost 50% of the incidents are taking place at private businesses. What that tells us is, while we're sheltered in place across much of the country, the places that we can go to are unfortunately sources of some of that hostility and hate.

So our grocery stores, our pharmacies, our big box retail. Sadly for a lot of people, it's just walking in their neighborhoods. In terms of the demographic question, about 40% of the folks who've reported to us are Chinese American, but most of the rest fall into other categories of Asian Americans. We don't have high numbers of Pacific Islanders or South Asians who reported. What that tells us is much of this is based on perceptions around being Chinese, specifically, or being East Asian.

But again, no one is immune from this, and it's happening all across the country. Really concerning for us right now, on top of what we have is, just that challenge of dealing with the disease.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. There's this question of politics within the larger Asian American community. You mentioned East Asian Americans, South Asian Americans. There are certainly national origin groups that don't neatly fit into either of those. So wondering how it's shaping the politics. But more immediately, can you say something about how you're responding to what's happening? So, organizationally, for both of you and for the coalition, what kinds of things can you do?

Cynthia Choi: Yeah. From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure that we documented these incidents, because there is a tendency to downplay our experiences and to try to minimize. We wanted to document it to understand it, to provide analysis so that we can develop appropriate responses. One of the things that we, why we joined together, why the three of us, the partners, was that we had an agreement that we wanted to make sure that we helped to strengthen our community, that we did not want to criminalize other communities, and that we were really focused on advancing racial and social justice.

What that has meant is an effort for us to continue to do public education around this issue. That it is happening, we should take it seriously. That there should be a government response where appropriate, in enforcing civil rights protections and informing our community members of their rights. But that we really need to, as a community, come together to really address community safety issues and to really use this moment to do intra solidarity building, as well as cross community solidarity building, which is really, really important during a time where our country is divided, and there's a tremendous amount of fear and uncertainty of the future. I know we'll talk about how this pandemic has exposed a tremendous amount of inequality, and those are the things that we really need to start addressing as well.

EmbraceRace: Manju, did you want to weigh in on this point too?

Manjusha Kulkarni: I think Cynthia's covered most of it. For us, it really is about, as she stated, those different levels of response. So, how do folks address this if it happens to them? How do they handle it if they're bystanders and they're witnessing? We've tried to provide those resources on our website. We also hope to have more in the coming days. Are there opportunities for us to provide assistance? Whether it be in the form of legal clinics, or even counseling. Looking at opportunities for the provision of mental health services or referrals.

Because, I believe right now there was a survey actually that came out earlier this week from Harris that found that 75% of Asian Americans are worried that something like this, these incidents of hate and discrimination, might happen to them. That's huge. That means when they're trying to meet their daily needs, they're met with fear and trepidation about what's going on. Then that last piece she talked about around advocacy. Because we all really need to come together to find some policy solutions, because this is bigger than any one of us.

EmbraceRace: One of the comments [in the chat box] that confirm some of what you're saying. "As a Korean American, I have experienced intense incidents since COVID, all perpetuated by white people who assume I'm Chinese, and not from America. Looks of disgust. Fear." That's really awful to hear. 

Yeah, and not surprisingly, we got a bunch of questions during registration, and a number more here already in the course of this 20 minutes about, how do we support people? How do I support my children? How do I support others who might be affected? We'll get to those in just a moment. You were both talking a bit about the opportunity, also, that this provides. I'd like to hear more about that. Like how we build those multi-racial coalitions, and what's working? It really is a moment where, wow, who's safe? We have such a big interest in connecting the dots. How do you do that for people?

I wonder actually if I could elaborate just a little bit on the context. We were talking about this, Manju, I think when we talked for the first time. I think it's fair to say that Asian Americans have had a very uncertain place as a group of people, an uncertain place in the landscape of race, racism, anti-racism work. Lots of different opinions within the Asian American community about whether and how they show up in those conversations.

Especially for the two of you, doing the very political work you do, talking about solidarity within the community and between the community and other communities, at least other communities of color, just to emphasize that point about opportunity. I'm wondering if it can even be generalized. Where were you, broadly speaking, before in regards to AAPI and anti-racism work? What are you seeing now? What do you think might happen as a result of this work? I know it's a very big question.

Manjusha Kulkarni: I can start on that one. If you just look at our two organizations, and it's right there in the title of CAA, Chinese for Affirmative Action. I think you see how they've stood very clear and firm about their mission and their origins, which were about supporting other communities of color. I think we've also tried to do that at A3PCON. I think one of our big successes was during the LA uprising, and trying to serve as a conduit for dialog between African American and Korean communities after that.

Obviously, that was a time of great tension, great upset and really trying to bring people together for that. I think if you look at incidents and really phenomenon around the post 9/11 backlash, and today around issues of ICE and detentions and deportations, these are two places where Asian Americans I think can really build solidarity with our African American and Latinx sisters and brothers 

We know that African American communities have long been and continue to be targets for racial profiling and surveillance. Even today, seeing what happened in Georgia and other places, in terms of police activity and private activity against African Americans. Then you see the detentions and deportations against Latinx communities. And with both, you have key pockets of the AAPI community. With 9/11, you had Muslims, South Asians, Sikhs and Arabs who are targeted, not only by private actions but by government policies.

Right now, too, Cambodian and Vietnamese community members are targeted by the Trump administration alongside our Latinx community members. When one looks outside their individual communities, there's plenty to see, unfortunately, but I do think it gives us an opportunity to build solidarity and work together for some of those policy solutions.

EmbraceRace: Yeah, Cynthia and we want to come to you of course. I want to throw another small wrinkle in this. In my experience doing race work for a long time, it's often the case that the small key political leadership in communities, like folks like you who lead these organizations, are often in a somewhat different place than the community members you lead. With sheltering in place in California, are you seeing signs that grassroots folks might be shifting a bit?

Cynthia Choi: Yeah. I do want to pick up on the themes around connecting the dots. Manju had mentioned all the different ways in which our communities have really tried to connect that any state violence directed at one group puts all of us at risk. That's one of the reasons why Chinese community had stood up with the Muslim ban to say we know what experience was like. We knew what "temporary" meant. It was like 60-plus years of banning an ethnic group from immigrating to this country. The same arguments that were used to say that this community was a threat, that they could never be assimilated. That they had different values.

These are all the same racist tropes and otherizing that happens in our communities. The things that we can do are conversations like this. How do we understand our history? Our own history, our own self-discovery, the history of others. I was on a panel today talking with Native American healthcare professionals, and what is happening on the reservations. The most important thing that I think we can do is to think critically about what is happening.

And, as we said before, there's been so many issues that have been uncovered and unveiled that we shouldn't accept. Just as a fact, that communities of color are dying at a higher rate. That they are likely to be the essential workers. That Asian Americans are the new target. These are all things that we should be questioning and challenging, especially in the age where there's so much misinformation and conspiracy theories that are out there that have been accelerated because of social media.

We're more connected, but it also means that we have to be vigilant about these kinds of conversations that we need to have with our friends, and our neighbors and within our own family.

There's been so many issues that have been uncovered and unveiled that we shouldn't accept. Just as a fact, that communities of color are dying at a higher rate. That they are likely to be the essential workers. That Asian Americans are the new target. These are all things that we should be questioning and challenging, especially in the age where there's so much misinformation...We have to be vigilant about these kinds of conversations that we need to have with our friends, and our neighbors and within our own family.

Cynthia Choi, Co-ED of Chinese for Affirmative Action

EmbraceRace: With that in mind, thinking about how we as adults in this world and in this situation are building our capacity to have these conversations. How do we raise kids? How do we help kids and talk to them about this, and help them connect the dots as well? What are you seeing in your own families? Manju, do you want to start?

Manjusha Kulkarni: Sure. I actually asked my teenage daughter this. I have two daughters. One who's 16 and one who's 20. I said, "Well, what are you asking?" And whatnot. She said, and I quote, "I feel like I know everything." So those of you with teenagers may understand that response. What I think it does speak to, and I'm going to pat myself on the back for a minute here. We really tried, I think, in our family, to talk about these issues early and often. So, from the time that they were very young.

I think sometimes for kids of color, it happens when they're very young because they can't avoid it. It comes to them. They don't come to the issue. I think, for us, it's also just drawing the parallels wherever we can to what's happening to other communities. How does this feel, if they were to experience it? Then really, I think the key for us is that conversation about where injustice happens, where inequity operates and finding ways in for them to disrupt that.

Do they do that in their individual lives? Are they going to work at that on a systems level? I think too, we do it in different ways. Because, I don't know that my children want to be social justice activists. They have their own path. But I think in whatever path that is, and I've seen it with my older daughter, for example. She wants to be a writer. A number of her short stories have been about race and gender. Really, the last thing I'll say is just sort of trying to have as wide a circle of empathy as possible I think helps to stimulate that conversation and gain greater understanding.

EmbraceRace: Thank you. Cynthia?

Cynthia Choi: Yeah. I have to admit, I was definitely one of those parents that said, "I'm going to do ethnic studies, because I know that the school system is not going to do its job." Just inundated my children with social justice books about people and understanding our history. I have made some mistakes, including introducing literature that might have been premature for my kid's age. Talking about political prisoners with an eight-year-old, maybe I could've held back on that.

But, I think what's been really important, I think as Manju has stated, is that it's just part of our family life. We talk about it at the dinner table. We sometimes go to marches. You also have to listen to your children too. Because, while my kid was born at a time when we had a black president and we almost selected a woman president or a female president, she's also grown up in a time of great fear with gun violence. So she shared with me that she didn't want to go to these protests, even though she knew it was really important.

I think these are the things that we have to navigate as parents, being age appropriate, but making it a normal thing that you talk about. Even now, when we talk about how scary it is that so many tens of thousands of people are dying, we talk about what's important around that. We talk about what we need to be grateful for as a family. There's just a tremendous amount of fear, I think, that we have to really, really listen for, and to make sure that we balance that with hope and what we can actually do. That's what we always say. Everybody can do something, and I think that's kind of what we live by.

Not everyone's going to be an activist. Because, my daughter says that my job is very sad, because of the things that I work on. She wants to be a therapist, and talk to people and help people. I think that's what we're trying to develop, are children that are compassionate and feel a sense of wanting to do something to make this world a better place.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. We totally can feel that. We get a lot of, "What does COVID have to do with race?" We're like, "Well, let me tell you." It sort of has everything has to do with race, and that can be a little exhausting for kids. But, yeah. Telling them to be hopeful as well that the upside, the resilience, the incredible things people are doing. The alliances people like you are making and we're making are really just make a body feel good. You know?

I want to ask a question about the intergenerational, cross-generational relationships you may be seeing. Here's what I'm thinking. On one hand, a large part of the uncertainty about race or the place of Asian Americans in the racial landscape here has to do with people of your parents' generation being a significant portion having immigrated here. Immigrated from places where certainly race, if it had a significance as such, as opposed to other identities, certainly had a different one.

They were coming into a place in the United States where race operates very differently. Suddenly you're an Asian American, as opposed to whatever. On the other hand, your children, who by and large, identifies as Asian American now was born 9/11 or after 9/11, which is to say at a time when Asian American identity has been super politicized to an extent to which perhaps it wasn't before. That feels to me like a significant generational shift.

It's about the meaning of Asian American identity, and again its politicization. I'm just wondering, again I know it's a very big, broad question. Then you get into the whole cultural hybridity thing. To be a 15-year-old, let's say, interacting with maybe your 60 or 70-year-old grandparent. What sorts of intergenerational differences are you seeing within Asian Americans?

Cynthia Choi: Sure. I was thinking a lot about your question. There's so many different aspects of it, including the tremendous amount of diversity within our community. Ethnic, generational, immigration status, class is a huge factor within our communities. Also, our histories of immigration and migration. When I think about a fourth generation Japanese American or a Korean American, and the experiences of the Bangladeshi population or Southeast Asian refugees who came over after the war, you really have to take all of that into account, and why certain parts of our population are more conservative, or may have different views about what a democracy should look like.

There's so many different aspects of it, including the tremendous amount of diversity within our community. Ethnic, generational, immigration status, class is a huge factor within our communities. Also, our histories of immigration and migration.

Cynthia Choi, Co-ED of Chinese for Affirmative Action

I think about my parents, and they definitely were of the generation where you just worked hard, proved yourself, you got a good job and you tried to make your life better for your children. To my mother, in particular, she's always thought that it's very odd the kind of work that I do. "What is this? What is this work?" I think it's really important conversations that we're having, and I think it's important that we recognize that every time that we advance civil rights for our community, every time we do that in solidarity with other effected communities, every time we challenge anti-blackness or xenophobia or Islamophobia, we're making our country stronger, and better.

I think those are the ideals that I think I want to impart to my children. That, again, not only can each of us do something, but we can be more effective when we do it together. As I've always said before, I grew up knowing that there were injustices to my community, but I never knew about the side of how we fought back. How it's always been a part of our DNA. How we have benefited from women who fought for suffrage, from African Americans for leading the fight, from Filipino farm workers. Every time there has been advancements, we have all benefited from that. Certainly Asian Americans have contributed to that as well.

Every time that we advance civil rights for our community, every time we do that in solidarity with other effected communities, every time we challenge anti-blackness or xenophobia or Islamophobia, we're making our country stronger, and better.

Cynthia Choi, Co-ED of Chinese for Affirmative Action

Community Q&A

EmbraceRace: "What information do you have about the impact of racist acts on API mental health?"

Manjusha Kulkarni: I'm going to put my professorial hat on for a minute. I've also been teaching in the Asian American Studies Department in UCLA, and teaching a couple different classes. One on healthcare access and one specifically on the South Asian community. But one thing we know and have known for a long time is that racism is a stressor on all communities of color. That's been well documented in public health. We see some of that and have been having really good conversations of late around the impact. There's a phenomenon called weathering.

Even in terms of African American women and unfortunately high infant mortality rates and even maternal mortality rates, are due to some of this weathering. Even when we can't identify it or understand what's going on, it's impacting our psyche. If we look to some of that research from other communities, we know that this is having an impact on Asian Americans, and I think our role will be to help document what that is going to be on their mental health.

One thing we know and have known for a long time is that racism is a stressor on all communities of color... If we look to some of that research from other communities, we know that this [COVID] is having an impact on Asian Americans, and I think our role will be to help document what that is going to be on their mental health.

Manjusha Kulkarni, ED of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council

EmbraceRace: One thing that I'm sure you're anticipating is, of course as restrictions get lifted and we see ... It's remarkable those numbers. The 1,700, many of those coming after restrictions were imposed. It's a good bet that lifting those restrictions will lead to more incidents of bigotry and overt discrimination directed against Asian Americans. I imagine you're anticipating that. What can you do? I know, Manju, I think you were the one who spoke early about bystander training. We have a slew of questions, both about what can I do as someone who's a potential bystander, whether in this context of school or outside school in public spaces? How do you work with children, with adolescents, with adults who may find themselves targeted by some acts of discrimination?

Cynthia Choi: I'll start with the school systems. I think that you're right, Andrew. We are anticipating that once schools start to resume, once people start to return to work, in some form or fashion, and shelter in place orders are lifted, that we're going to see a surge as well as the long term effects, even after we have treatments and vaccines, because of the impact that COVID has had globally.

I do want to mention that the anti-Asian hate is a global phenomenon, from what I'm learning from other organization leaders. That there's a responsibility that schools have to prepare for potential bullying and physical attacks against Asian children.

We knew that this was happening before schools were closed. There's already an issue of Asian children being bullied in school. I know in our district here in San Francisco, it's been a major issue where there's been mass violence and Asian immigrant students being targeted. This is something that really requires the school leadership, school therapist and counselors to be ready. It really takes leadership from the top, and they need to be taken very seriously.

At the same time, as parents, we need to prepare our children in talking about these issues and to listen for signs, because the mental health stress on children, it might not be easily recognizable. Signs of depression, not wanting to participate. Some of the more heart wrenching stories that we received were parents saying that their kids were depressed and didn't want to be Asian. These are really important things as adult that we can take initiative and really lean on. We're having conversations with school districts now saying, "We need to prepare." And as well as parents, who are very, very concerned.

There's an issue with, especially immigrant parents, of not wanting to rock the boat, of deferring to teachers and principals that they know what is right and they don't want to create problems. We also have to support immigrant parents who have already shared that they're very fearful of what their kids might encounter.

EmbraceRace: I want to just thank you for that Cynthia, and Manju I'm coming to you of course. We have a couple of questions about resources for this, sort of mental health support resources. Cynthia, as you say, of course, teachers, counselors, educators and schools hopefully will be prepared and ready to support and forestall these things happening in the schools. Parents, of course, will have a role to play. For folks who don't know what those local resources are or aren't happy with the way schools are responding, are you aware of places they can go online and find some resources that might be helpful?

Manjusha Kulkarni: I have one that I have used, which is from the National Association of School Psychologists. It's called Countering COVID-19 Stigma and Racism: Tips for Parents and Caregivers. Really, this is a nice document that gives those how-tos on what parents can do, what teachers, what caregivers can do in this moment. I think there are so many opportunities right now because this is such a widespread phenomenon.

I just want to say very quickly, the first incident that we learned about and that really started us down this path was of a child. A middle school child who was physically attacked and verbally assaulted, simply because he was Asian American. He was accused of having COVID-19 and told to go back to China. When he responded that he was not Chinese, he was punched in the head 20 times. This happened before we had a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in Los Angeles.

What we were able to do is work with the school district to make sure that the child's and the family's needs were met, but also encouraged them to do trainings for faculty, for staff and administration. I think we all need to try to push our school districts moving forward to engage in these kind of conversations. Because I think once kids go back [to school], we are unfortunately going to see I think far greater number of incidents than we have up to shelter in place.

I think we all need to try to push our school districts moving forward to engage in these kind of conversations. Because I think once kids go back [to school], we are unfortunately going to see I think far greater number of incidents than we have up to shelter in place

Manjusha Kulkarni, ED of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council

EmbraceRace: A lot of great conversation going on in the chat about knowing our history and uncovering history, and lots of resources for kids to use around history. Teaching tolerance, various book, preschoolers through high school.

What do you do in terms of informing, educating yourself or others in this current situation we're in if people don't have internet resources? That's sort of a hard question. But if you don't have access to all of these resources, what would you recommend? Obviously people on this call right now do have access.

Manjusha Kulkarni: One thing I can share is on our website, we have two infographics or graphics in terms of what you can do if you are in this situation where you're experiencing hate, and also what you can do as a bystander, or what I like to think of as an upstander. This is not a time that we need bystanders anymore. We need folks to really support us emotionally to, if possible, help challenge what's going on.

We've put those resources on our webpage, and hope to get more up there. But really, I think for any one of us, if we're in the moment, what's key is making sure we get to safety. If there's an opportunity, not of course to engage the attacker, because we want to make sure that we're safe. If there are individuals who are there who can provide that support. Also, getting the support afterward. Talking with family, and friends and if appropriate with mental health professionals, because this is such a difficult time.

This is not a time that we need bystanders anymore. We need folks to really support us emotionally to, if possible, help challenge what's going on

Manjusha Kulkarni, ED of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council

Manjusha Kulkarni: Were under tremendous stress, and we don't want folks to go without those resources. 60% of Asian Americans have witnessed someone blaming someone in our community for COVID-19. That's a pretty significant percentage that, again, we do something about it and try to seek resources, whether it's a manager in that situation providing support to the individual who's been targeted. Those sorts of things. It's only if we handle this together that we're going to come out of it. No single person can take this on by themselves.

EmbraceRace: What makes COVID so devastating is in part that it's so multifaceted. It's attacking in so many ways. Of course people talk about health and of course people talk about economics. Let's talk about that for a moment. One of the remarkable things that was new information I think to a lot of people is the sort of simultaneous designation of a lot of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants as essential workers. Significant parts of essential industries, like food, both restaurant positions and agricultural workers.

At the same time, still being subject, if they are undocumented, to deportation. Are there opportunities on the other side of that particular crisis and designation? Certainly it seems to have met with some outrage from some folks that this could be true. You're supposed to show up to work, but we still reserve the right to deport you if you do. Are there any opportunities coming out of that, so that this doesn't happen again?

Cynthia Choi: Yeah. I think that what you're pointing to has been a hostile environment for immigrants, and in particular those that are noncitizen or are undocumented. I actually think it's wonderful that we've reframed these workers as essential workers, because I think in the past we have always considered them disposable, nonessential. Of course, COVID has exposed the fact that we are all relying on these essential workers, which also includes our nurses, our doctors, but also home healthcare workers and those that are taking care of our elderly who are exposed. This has been a moment of reframing of who we consider to be essential in our society, as in many crises.

One of the things that we're doing as an organization is, because there is recognition that we have members of our community that do not qualify for federal relief programs, is that we are part of a network that's trying to provide cash assistance to help with rent, to address food insecurity issues. There is a growing sense that, "Hey, we need to look at the most vulnerable members of our community if we're going to get through this."

It doesn't make sense to any of us to have people who are providing these essential services to be sick, to not have protections and to not show up and do the work without those basic rights as workers and to have those protections. This is an important issue that we need to continue to be vigilant about, and I think it's really important that we continue to do so.

Manjusha Kulkarni: Could I just add one quick thing? I think this is an opportunity for us to really reframe our thinking on so many issues, really bringing back to the table a path to citizenship for everyone in our community who's undocumented. Universal basic income. We've seen the first step in that direction, but we need much, much more. A single check of $1,200 is not going to be enough for most Americans, I think, moving forward. Student loan debt. There's a great opportunity to erase it.

Finally, our mass incarceration system. We are seeing now a number of jurisdictions allow prisoners to go free, and I think it speaks to the fact that they maybe should not have been there in the first place. For a lot of the, especially the nonviolent offenders, individuals who are very elderly. So that it should not simply be Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen who get to go free, but many others who are imprisoned and are unfortunately especially vulnerable right now to COVID-19.

EmbraceRace: We have a question about a statement. "Some folks in my university system say that racism," this is Jamie talking, "racism is a white person's problem. Do you agree with that statement, and what specifically do you think that white people can do to lessen the racial tension that we're seeing and experiencing?"

Cynthia Choi: I'll let Manju take that one.

Manjusha Kulkarni: Thanks. I'm not sure, I guess, what is necessarily meant by that. Except that I would just say that racism is about power structures. It's not simply about individual instances of bias. I think what we've tried to do today is make those connections back to the structures and these institutions. Because, simply my having a bias against anybody has mostly limited impact, unless I'm your boss, or unless I'm your landlord or things like that.

But where it has tremendous impact, of course, is on our educational system, on our, as I mentioned, our system of incarceration, in terms of wage inequality. I think that's where, for us too, it's about connecting these dots back to what the institutions are and what role do we have in disrupting how they operate right now.

EmbraceRace: Well done, Manju.

Cynthia Choi: Yeah. I also wanted to add that our main challenge has always been about white supremacy and white nationalism. Because again, it points to institutionalized state sanctioned discrimination and privilege that that upholds. But, I will say that there is a tremendous amount of work that we need to do within our communities and across our communities, because we are harming each other. But I do feel like we have to make a distinction between racism and again bias, because they play out in different ways.

There's a tremendous amount of work that we need to do to really unpack racism and the history of racism, and how we are all affected by this. I think that's a tremendous issue that I think we have to struggle with, because I think there is a sense that if we all just learned about civil rights, that we will somehow understand the importance of unity.

There is so much to unpack, in terms of colonialism, capitalism, classicism within our own communities that affects our perceptions and worldviews.

EmbraceRace: Yeah, Cynthia. This is probably our last question. This is an elementary school teacher who's talking about how she, it's Becky, talks to her second and third graders. I'm remembering you were saying in a sense like you have a child who must be right around that age, maybe a little bit older. But you talked about how in retrospect you might have introduced some topics perhaps a little prematurely, given her age at the time. In retrospect, though, any advice for this teacher?

Again, we have several questions from even preschool teachers who are wondering how do you begin to talk to some of the things you both just mentioned? Colonialism and racism, these pretty heavy issues, structural issues, systemic issues. How do you begin to introduce those to let's say seven to eight year old's in the case that she's talking about? How do we prepare children, especially in this case Asian American children, prepare them without frightening them? Again, big issues. But anywhere to start?

Cynthia Choi: Right. First, I can't start without saying big shout out to all the teachers who have just risen to the challenge during this unprecedented time, and who are continuing to teach our children. As I have three of them upstairs distance learning. I think this is such an important question. Again, I think it's really vital to be age appropriate. I've seen some wonderful graphic magazines that talk about acknowledging how scary this is, and then really getting to the heart of the issue, that the Coronavirus doesn't discriminate, and that any one group is not the cause of the Coronavirus.

I think also at the same time, we have to give our kids credit that they really understand a lot more than we make them out to. I think that that's really important. Being honest. Also sharing that, yes, this is a fearful time. Again, I think the fact that there are already tools out there that help you explain to your child, whatever their age is, just again acknowledging this frightful time, but also the fact that they can really understand facts, and the truth and building empathy for one another. That's always a starting place, for me at least.

I think children are also more resilient than we all can give them credit for. Sometimes, I think it's our own fragility on these issues that we don't want to face.

Andrew Grant-Thomas, EmbraceRace

EmbraceRace: Yeah. I think that's a great answer. Kids understand more complexity than we give them credit for. They also understand "not fair." Like you've been talking about it, it's such a great moment to talk about how we're positioned differently, and how something that might be a disadvantage for us in one instance could end up being an advantage when we're upstanding for someone else in another instance. It's a great time to have conversations about privilege.

I think children are also more resilient than we all can give them credit for. Sometimes, I think it's our own fragility on these issues that we don't want to face. We sort of pull up in front of us to give us an excuse, I think, for not engaging children in conversations actually they can handle perhaps better than we think they might.

Thank you both so much.

EmbraceRace: Thank you for your work.

Cynthia Choi: Thank you for what you're doing.

Manjusha Kulkarni: Yes. And thanks for everyone participating. So many of you I know are experts, and so I hope this will be more of a conversation moving forward, because I want to learn as much from all of you and really appreciate this opportunity.

Resources

Act to Change - Resources for countering bullying against Asian American and Pacific Islander Youth, which was high long before COVID. 

Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) - A3PCON is a coalition of over 40 community based organizations that serves and represents the 1.5 million Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs) in Los Angeles County.

Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) - CAA was founded to protect the civil and political rights of Chinese Americans and to advance multi-racial democracy in the United States. Today, CAA is a progressive voice in and on behalf of the broader Asian American and Pacific Islander community. They advocate for systemic change that protects immigrant rights, promotes language diversity and remedies racial and social injustice. 

Countering COVID-19 Stigma and Racism: Tips for Parents and Caregivers - from the National Association of School Psychologists

Stop AAPI Hate - Report or see statistics on recent hate incidents against the AAPI community.

Cynthia Choi

Cynthia Choi the Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a community based civil rights organizations based in San Francisco. She has led local, state and national community based organizations working on a range of issues from reproductive justice, gender based violence, immigrant/refugee rights and environmental justice issues in both the nonprofit sector and in philanthropy.

Manjusha Kulkarni

Manjusha P. Kulkarni (Manju) is the Executive Director of Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of over forty community-based organizations that serves and represents the 1.5 million Asian Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles County. In 2014, Manju received the White House Champions of Change award for her dedication to improving health care access for Asians American communities.
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