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A Path to Solidarity with Asian American and Pacific Islander Women

Nora Boles

Becoming a proud Asian American

When I was first asked to write this article about Anti-Asian hate crimes, I experienced a moment of doubt and hesitation. I asked myself: Am I really the appropriate person to speak on this topic, given that I’ve never personally been the victim of a physically violent hate crime? But when I stopped to dig a little deeper, I realized that I have indeed experienced Anti-Asian hate under varied structures of violence and discrimination as an Asian American Women.

Like everyone else’s, my identity is complex. Sometimes, it feels overwhelming: I am a transracial adoptee from China, adopted at the age of 10 months by a single White mother who returned to China two years later to adopt a second daughter—my younger sister—from another province. My sister and I grew up in the United States as fully naturalized American citizens, speaking English, eating fish sticks and hot dogs, and enjoying all the privileges of a middle class life.

When we were young, I remember my mother bringing us to Chinese New Year dinner and the occasional playdate with our playgroup of other girls adopted from China. My mom even signed us up for Chinese classes a couple times. But as we got older, my sister and I became busier, my mom had to work longer hours to support us, and those activities that provided even the tiniest connection to our heritage fell by the wayside.

I admit that some of this pulling away from my heritage was by choice. During my elementary and middle school years, I distinctly remember being embarrassed to be and appear Asian. Instead, I wished I had blonde hair and blue eyes with the name “Emily” or “Sarah” or maybe “Sophie.” When we learned about Ancient China in 2nd grade, I looked down at my desk for the entire unit. I can recall the feeling of my face burning with embarrassment in 7th grade social studies when we learned about the vital role Chinese immigrants played in building the Transcontinental Railroad.

As I grew into myself during high school and college, I eventually overcame this unwarranted embarrassment and embraced my identity as a Chinese American adoptee in transition from a girl to a woman. The summer before my freshman year of college, my family and I attended a heritage tour back in China with our adoption agency, during which I fell absolutely in love with the country where I was born. Following that experience, I opted to study a year of Chinese language, began writing my research papers about human rights issues and Chinese history, and attended Chinese celebration events hosted by the Asian heritage organizations at my school. For the first time in my life, I felt proud to be a Chinese American woman.

AAPI Legacy in the United States

I am proud to be an AAPI woman because there is a lot to be proud of. Alongside a rich and unique heritage, the AAPI community has made significant military, economic, political and cultural contributions to the United States over hundreds of years, and continues to do so today. Most people know about how 20,000 Chinese immigrants struggled through back-breaking labor to help build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, many losing their lives due to accidents and disease. But there is a wealth of AAPI history and contributions to America that have been overlooked and erased.

For example, Chinese soldiers fought for the Union during the Civil War. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino soldiers served with distinction in the American Armed Forces during both World Wars. As early as the mid-1800s, Chinese students arrived on American shores, while Filipino and Japanese students arrived to attend American universities in the late 19th-to-early 20th centuries. And in the late 20th century, a new generation of Asian Indian immigrants brought technological expertise in medicine and information services to America.

The importance and contributions of AAPI individuals in all aspects of American society continues today, as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise five to six percent of the US population. In higher education, 10% of all 2018 students enrolled in an undergraduate program identified as Asian American or Pacific Islander. Politically, AAPI voter turnout has been rising since 2008 and spiked in the 2020 election. There are also over 600 AAPI elected officials throughout the government at all levels. Economically, the AAPI community contributes nearly $1.1 trillion total to the economy every year, and AAPI-owned businesses employ 3.6 million Americans across the country.

In addition to these important contributions, I have seen a sharp increase in recent years of Asian cultural legacies in American culture and everyday life, whichever way I turn. These legacies can be found in sectors from health and wellbeing (acupuncture, yoga, meditation) to pop culture media (K-pop, anime, and Crazy Rich Asians), to food (sushi, boba/bubble tea, Korean BBQ), and more. For me, the disconnect is that although individuals in the United States, and indeed around the world, seem eager to adopt AAPI popular culture contributions, they are often just as eager to erase or diminish the political, economic, labor, and educational benefits that AAPIs have contributed and continue to do so today.

It is clear that the AAPI community significantly impacts the productivity, culture, politics, and economy of the United States in a positive way. I’ve come to feel strongly about the importance of AAPI representation, especially in light of all we’ve given and done to make America the beacon of success and hope that it is today. From our contributions in culture to economy, the AAPI community has much to be proud of. Now is the time to stop overlooking and erasing AAPI contributions to this country and begin recognizing and celebrating them.

Violence and discrimination against AAPI women

Although I have never been the victim of a physically violent hate crime due to my ethnicity, I’ve faced my share of harassment and still feel the pain of the larger AAPI community in response to the recent rise in Anti-Asian hate. In my own very liberal and relatively accepting hometown of Arlington, VA, a local Pho restaurant was vandalized, prompting my younger sister to quit her job at the nearby boba tea shop in April 2021. I avoided my frequent nighttime walks around that area and even weathered some hateful comments about the shape of my eyes one block from my own house. Most frequently, however, I have been the target of catcalling and sexual remarks that fetishize my Asianness, leaving me feeling victimized at the crossroads of my identity as an Asian American and as a woman.

Fetishization, sexualization, and exocitization are indeed some of the most common structures of violence that AAPI women face at the intersection of race and gender. There is a widespread stereotype of AAPI women as submissive and hypersexual that can be traced through history. Harmful perceptions of AAPI women as temptresses, diseased, submissive, and sexual have been memorialized in American popular culture on screen and in books ever since the United States’ imperialist history in Asia.

However, discrimination against AAPI women is not limited to the harmful stereotypes, catcalls, or fetishization that I have experienced in the past. Many AAPI women are also the victims of physical violence involving physical assault, most frequently reporting race, ethnicity, and gender as the reasons for experiencing this hate.

One of the most widely reported and tragic incidents of AAPI hate was the Atlanta-area spa mass shootings in March 2021, during which a man went on a rampage at three spas, killing eight people, six of whom were women of AAPI descent. The suspect told the police he he had a “sexual addiction” and committed the shootings to eliminate his “temptation,” according to the New York Times. The AAPI individuals slain–Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng–were daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, employees and they were targeted because they were sexualized; their dynamic and complex identities were reduced to a fictitious, harmful, and predetermined stereotypes.

As acts of violence against AAPI individuals have continued into 2022, clearly demonstrating that disparaging stereotypes and fetishization are more than just harmful words. They establish and spread false ideas about AAPIs, and when people internalize these views they can manifest in serious, lived consequences like the shooting in Atlanta. As a community of women, we must speak out and condemn these acts of hatred and highlight the voices of the survivors. Any sort of violence against AAPI women should not be normalized, condoned, or brushed aside: these causes and incidents should mobilize us all.

A path to solidarity

Trend of racism and xenophobia affect all minority groups, not just the one being targeted. These trends sustain the perpetual foreigner stereotype, in which individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in this country are not seen as full members of American society. Although two groups of minorities, such as AAPIs and Latinxs, are diverse within themselves and between one another, we may experience common struggles that can act as a springboard to find solidarity.

The United States and its people have a lot to gain by welcoming diverse individuals with open arms and being willing to learn from them. It is my hope that we can commit to fighting against discrimination in against any culture or peoples, especially after capturing a better understanding of others’ struggles. Again, these are causes that should mobilize us all.

The number one way you can support the Asian American community is by continuing this conversation and awareness. Reach out to AAPI individuals you know to offer support. Empower and uplift AAPI voices in your school, workplace, or community. Continue learning, and most important of all, try to identify similarities in experiences that can be used to build a bridge and offer a hand.

There is an undeniable beauty in contributions, presence, and traditions from any and all identity groups. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with this in the context of my own Asian American identity, but I am a proud AAPI woman who believes the only path forward is one of solidarity. I hope you will join me in forging this path.

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