“Go back to where you come from. You don’t belong here,” she calls out. I’m stunned. It’s March 6, 2020, and a stranger, out of nowhere, has just spit on me at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. There’s a virus in the news, something that came from China, but it’s still a few days before the country really starts buckling under the weight of Covid-19. Personally, I’m just trying to get to my flight to San Francisco.
I look around, saliva oozing down my cheeks, and I see a dozen witnesses look the other way. To them, it’s already never happened. Instinctively, I shrug it off: “Looks like I should have brought that umbrella with me!” This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I wryly smile and slink away. After all, I’m Vietnamese American.
I probably learned this approach—defuse the tension; blend back in—from my parents, who escaped Vietnam on a 12-meter raft and bounced around to different refugee camps before arriving in the United States in 1981 with nothing but hope. They, like many other Asian Americans from recent immigrant generations, believe the best way to succeed in America is to avoid attention and avoid causing trouble for others. If we just keep our heads down, the thinking goes, and focus on getting or giving our kids a formal education and a stable career, things will all work out. Eventually, we’ll be successful, respected, visible. We’ll no longer be foreigners.
There’s one more implicit part of the promise: Turning the other cheek is temporary, a kind of down payment on our spot in society. Once we get established, if we do it the right way, without rocking the boat too much, we’ll have power.
The past year has made it painfully clear, if it wasn’t before, that that last part is a lie.
The pandemic has shown just how little power AAPIs really have in American society. With shocking quickness, people who looked Asian to their neighbors went from a “model minority” to some kind of infectious threat, the kind of people you’d spit on in an airport. Filipino American nurses are dying from Covid-19 at an obscene rate; during the pandemic, Asian Americans saw long-term unemployment double, more than any other group. The Atlanta shootings last month, which targeted three Asian-owned small businesses and killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were a tragic boiling point, one that showed AAPI hate and misogyny have moved beyond subversion to become overt and brazen. Asian women have especially felt the brunt of this disturbing trend; they are the victims of at least two-thirds of reported attacks.
AAPIs have been the targets of a historic rise in hate crimes over the past year, and yet it took a horrible tragedy in Atlanta for the country to acknowledge that we are marginalized, actively targeted and fearful for our families and lives. And it took a viral video of an elderly 75 year-old Asian woman punching her assailant and donating almost $1 million dollars meant for her recovery to fight racism for the country to recognize that AAPIs are sick and tired of being quiet and suffering in silence.
How do we change a society that sees us as invisible? It requires the people in power to provide opportunities and enact inclusive policies, to recognize that AAPIs aren’t universally priviledged and are not simply white adjacent. Yes, it requires other communities of color to support AAPIs and lend allyship. It requires deep financial investment in AAPI civic and political organizations, professional networks and mentorship.
For almost two decades, I’ve worked in government and in the private sector, and what I’ve come to realize is that we’ll need to do something else next—something that might be uncomfortable, but is long overdue. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) will need to stop doing what our families have taught us about getting along. We’ll need to stop pretending that the rules are fair and that we’re all treated equally, stop hoping that one day we’ll no longer be taken for granted and we’ll be given credit for our work. Stop being happy with the little we are given after working so hard. Stop apologizing for who we are and start betting on ourselves.
Other communities of color, other historically marginalized groups have made meaningful gains and long-lasting progress after vocally challenging the status quo. Asian Americans must do the same.
Georgia, the state where my family runs their chicken farm and calls home, has been ground zero for an AAPI awakening—one that started even before the Atlanta shootings, and which helped Biden win the state. But even so, amassing real political power has proven difficult. The political parties still don’t perceive the AAPI community as having as strong a pipeline of political talent or as much influence as other groups. That’s despite, in the last election, record AAPI turnout, record AAPI elected officials and surrogates, record fundraising and engagement. At the highest levels of government, we are still unseen—without a single executive department head.
Amassing power is risky. It involves the kind of public conflict that many of us have been taught to avoid. But it’s also the only real way to change the political and bureaucratic structures that don’t take us seriously.
In my own life, this was a long and painful realization, learned after years of trying to climb the ladders of U.S. policy and global politics. It didn’t matter what grades I got; what prestigious internships, fellowships or jobs I held; the personal and familial sacrifices I made for the team, the organization and the mission. I found myself stuck, unable to reach the leadership roles others were promoted into. I wasn’t on a ladder. I was on a treadmill, working hard but going nowhere. Like the broader AAPI community, I was hiding within structures that weren’t working for me—that didn’t take me seriously. The challenge for me—and for the wider political community I’m part of—is figuring out when, and how, to say “enough,” and to fight those structures instead.
My first memory of politics was watching the1992 presidential debate between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with my mom. I was enthralled. So often, I would hear talk about the future first Black, Latino or woman president. But never once had I heard chatter about an Asian president. I asked my mom if I could run for president one day. She paused and whispered to me, “Being in politics is dangerous. And they don’t think we’re American. Just focus on school.”
I assumed she was exaggerating about the danger, but I soon learned she was right about the rest. The next month I thought about running for fifth grade class president at my suburban elementary school. When I told one of my classmates, he tersely explained that “no one would vote for someone who eats dog.” Later, I found a drawing on my desk of me devouring a four-legged furry friend. Kids erupted in laughter. I cried in the bathroom by myself until someone asked me if it was because of my math scores.
I never ran for public office. But I still wanted to get involved in public service. I thought that representing our country overseas as the son of refugee chicken farmers would best capture what makes America so special—the American Dream. In 2004, I got my first big internship, at the State Department in the Bureau of Public Affairs. The weekly intern brown bag lunches were the highlight of the experience, where we got to meet senior officials and political appointees. Our speakers would go around and ask us what we did. I was often the only minority there, and when they got to me, without fail they asked what part of Asia I worked on. I got the message loud and clear: the broader reaches of foreign policy and statecraft were not for people like me.
Recent reporting about the State Department’slack of diversity shows that progress hasn’t been made since. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Today, only 13 percent of the senior executive service comes from communities of color. For those who make it in the door, assumptions can cut both ways: Representative Andy Kim (D-NJ) recently said that when he was at State, he was banned from working on issues related to the Korean Peninsula. Can you imagine if the State Department banned its large proportion of employees with European descent from working on European affairs? Or assumed that any white employees must clearly specialize in Europe?
Personally, I came to a conclusion I know many peers reached as well: If I wanted to succeed in public service in the United States, I needed not just to distance myself from my Vietnamese American background, but to actively run away from it.
My winding career then took me to Capitol Hill, the United Nations, international aid work in Afghanistan and several global non-profits. In these jobs, I noticed three trends. First, every boss I had was white. Second, many minority peers ended up leaving because they didn’t think there was a promotion in their future. Third, there were zero mentorship opportunities for me. Being Asian American in this line of work was incredibly lonely.
Congress was particularly challenging. While 2021 has historic diversity among its elected ranks, the senior staffstill lags in diversity. Asian American staffers report difficulty in securing promotions because of “perceived meekness.”
In 2014, I moved to Sacramento to work in external and cabinet affairs for California Governor Jerry Brown. Overseeing a portfolio of policy matters and departments was challenging and fulfilling work in a state that has 40 million residents and the world’s fifth largest economy. But I also took a lot of meetings with unhappy organizations and associations, ornery lobbyists, and neglected elected officials and staffers. I found early on that many parties tried to take advantage of me. Perhaps it was because I was new to state politics. Or, maybe they thought an Asian would be more likely to cave. Many times, the promises we agreed on were broken. The meetings were often hostile, and sometimes, threatening.
That might just sound like hardball politics, but it was more than that. I know because I eventually instituted a buddy system. I started taking meetings with a non-Asian colleague sitting alongside me. It paid off. The meetings became less adversarial and agreements were respected. The people I met with were usually surprised that I was of equal rank to my colleagues, or that I was the lead on the given issue. I once told a retired elected official about my rules of engagement, and she nodded in familiarity and grinned in resignation: I was doing exactly what women like her had done in the 1980s, when they recruited men to accompany them to meetings as back-up.
There was another issue: Grassroots power. California, with almost six million AAPIs making up 15 percent of the population (and growing), is the largest AAPI state, accounting for almost one-third of all AAPIs in the United States. The state boasts two AAPI statewide constitutional office holders (likely soon to be three) and 14 state legislators. Yet my overwhelming sense was that people in power did not take AAPI constituents seriously.
This was partly because AAPIs as a group were seen as newer to politics and were more naïve about how to play the game. The AAPI community tended to be less vocal and more amenable to just being included on occasion. As a result, there was always another group ahead in line. I even declined some meetings with AAPI leaders or organizations largely because I didn’t want to be “the Asian person focusing on Asian issues.” I thought it was a sign of weakness, of not really fitting in.
Looking back, I’m ashamed I didn’t try to stick out a little more—to use whatever status or influence I’d gained to do more for my community then. Because “fitting in” wasn’t helping much. At work, I started to butt up against the same bamboo ceiling that other peers had. Feedback I received was often conflicting and included comments that I was too quiet, too loud, too eager, too aloof, too honest, too cagey. Worse, I was told I didn’t exhibit true leadership skills. I sought every possible resource to grow as a leader. But none led to deeper success in my field or the professional validation I was seeking.
Eventually, while in a job outside of the conventional corridors of power, I hit a turning point. Last August, my parents called me upset because some of their neighbors had told them they didn’t want to associate with them anymore. The neighbors blamed my parents for bringing Covid-19 to our country. Despite building a local business, actively engaging in their community and forging 20-year relationships, they were scapegoated for the ills of others.
The lesson for me: In trying to avoid standing out, in trying to fit in, Asians were giving up power, not gaining it. I had to do what was completely foreign to me: speak up, stop being apologetic about who I am, where I came from and what life experiences I have. After my parents received that awful message, I wrote my first op-ed in our local Georgia paper, the Albany Herald, highlighting the contributions immigrants had made for our country during this insidious battle against Covid-19. It was a rebuttal to my parents’ tormentors. After the piece published, I was surprised to learn that my parents had received an apology from their neighbors.
It was a start.
I found inspiration. In the following months, I spoke to Asian American media about representation. I wrote (or co-authored) 23 op-eds in regional and national publications on policy that affected vulnerable communities. I hosted fundraisers to bring together first-time entrants into politics. Being vocal about my Asian heritage was uncomfortable, but it was the only way to move forward.
Many of my AAPI peers also decided to get active in the 2020 election cycle, some for the very first time—historic engagment driven, in my view, by the combination of the economic collapse of AAPI-owned small businesses, the massive increase in AAPI targeted hate crime and the maturation of AAPI civic organizations. AAPI voter turnout increased 91 percent from 2016. And, thanks to our large and growing population in crucial purple states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, we helped hand the presidency to Joe Biden and the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.
There has been some acknowledgement from Washington elites that AAPI voters played an important role in the election and that this community has suffered during the past year. The Biden administration has condemned violence against the AAPI community, including with anExecutive Order, ordering flags flown at half-staff and meeting Georgia AAPI leaders following the Atlanta shooting, and supporting a Congressionalhearing on AAPI discrimination. In response to recent criticism for not doing enough, the Biden administration announced additional steps to combat anti-AAPI discrimination and violence.
But while these gestures are important signals, is there political teeth is behind them? Will this be a priority after the next news cycle? What the AAPI community needs is real power and influence. We need people at the table who are respected, have decision-making authority, and can act forcefully on behalf of our communities with unimpeded political access.
It’s shocking that in 2021 the president’s cabinet is without an AAPI secretary for the first time in nearly 30 years. The Biden administration has promised to re-establish and expand the White House Initiative on AAPIs but still has not appointed a director. And while it has agreed to appoint a senior AAPI White House official, following demands from U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI), there’s no guarantee that these picks will have resources and access or, most importantly, be taken seriously by the White House’s inner circle. (When the lack of AAPI cabinet representation was initially raised by the senators, a senior White House official replied that the vice president’s South Asian heritage meant that there was AAPI Cabinet representation, which didn’t go over well with Duckworth, who told reporters, “That is not something you would say to the Black Caucus—‘Well, you have Kamala, we’re not going to put any more African Americans in the Cabinet because you have Kamala’—why would you say it to AAPI?”)
Beyond the White House, I’d like to see politicians—including our newest senators, Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA)—prove they are allies of the AAPI community and not just political bystanders.
But Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have more power than they think they do to change the political structure that has excluded them. They are the fastest growing electorate in swing states like Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas. As elections get decided by fewer states and by closer margins, AAPIs could tip the scales of future presidential elections and the balance of power in Congress. It’s time for my community to embrace that power—to demand it.
That will require, however, that AAPIs challenge the cultural programming that tells them to be quiet. They need to embrace politics, to speak out about their heritage and be clear about what they need—even if that means running into conflict. Rather than try to blend in, they need to seek out high-profile, high publicity roles by running for office. (While the 117th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history, there are just 17 AAPI members of Congress, a little more than three percent and well below the AAPI percentage of the electorate.) They need to go out of their way to mentor future young leaders and forge durable alliances with other communities of color.
It’s not clear which party will benefit more from a new AAPI awakening. Because AAPI voters are so diverse, given their breadth of income, age, history and connection to the American experience across 50 ethnicities and over 100 languages, painting the AAPI tent with one brush isn’t just intellectually lazy, it’s dangerous for political parties. Some Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans have family lineages in the United States going back farther than most European-Americans, while newer AAPI communities arrived to the United States as refugees, and have fewer economic opportunities and shorter life expectancies than other communities of color. We’re diverse, not guaranteed to caucus with any one party.
We are, however, on the lookout for parties who will target, listen and cater to us. Just 30 percent of Asian American voters surveyed nationally last September said they had had at least some contact from the Democratic Party in the past year. Only 24 percent said they had had contact from the Republican Party. If parties can reach AAPIs with in-language tools, and speak to their problems, AAPI voters will respond. AAPIs, on the other hand, need to believe that they can dictate the terms.
If the hundreds of text messages I’ve gotten in recent weeks tell me anything, it’s that many of my Asian American friends are ready for a change. Even the most politically disengaged AAPIs are suddenly willing to fight. White peers and other communities of color are also starting to support AAPIs in their struggle to be seen as equal Americans.
For this energy to last, though, AAPIs need to reimagine who they are, what they want and what they’re capable of—to bet on themselves. It was only after I did so that I began to feel like I belonged.
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