When my great-grandfather journeyed to America from China in the 1800s, he was cast as a job stealer and disease carrier as he and other immigrants searched for work after laboring on the Transcontinental Railroad. Hateful taunts like “Go back where you came from!” were commonplace.
Fast forward to today, and Asian Americans of all generations and ethnicities are once again being demonized, and physically and verbally assaulted in the wake of COVID-19 after the world’s first case was reported in China. Since then, 3,795 incidents of anti-AAPI hate were reported between January 2020 and March 2021, punctuated by the killings of six Asian American women in the Atlanta area last month.
I am a fourth generation Asian American with multiple degrees who has worked closely with leaders at the highest levels of the nonprofit, political, and corporate worlds. My parents, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Chelsea for nearly 50 years, named me after Leverett Saltonstall, the former US senator and Massachusetts governor who, as my mom recounted, helped her family from China reunite in the United States in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act — one of the darkest incidents of government-sponsored discrimination in US history — which suspended Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States for 10 years. In spite of all this, I’ve also spent my life hearing phrases such as: “Your English is remarkably good!” or “Where are you really from?”
While different in intent and vitriol from other insults, these words carry an insidious message that regardless of our accomplishments, education, or family backgrounds, Asian Americans are at face-value seen as somehow being “less American” and as perpetual foreigners.
In the weeks after the Atlanta-area killings, numerous civic groups, community organizations, and large corporations have asked me to speak on how to respond to anti-Asian hate. I’ve been struck by how little people know of these perceptions. As stunned as people seemingly were at the surge in anti-Asian violence, people were also largely shocked to hear about our history of being ostracized and vilified.
None of this, however, would have been a surprise had our voices not gone unheard, and our stories not been ignored or outright erased, through the decades in books, classrooms, media, and other outlets.
This is a seminal moment for the Asian American community, and we must act with urgency.
Rendered invisible for too long, Asian Americans must loudly share our stories — complete with setbacks, celebrations, shortcomings, and accomplishments so that others can no longer ignore them or define our narrative. We must eradicate the false stereotypes of the silent, passive, monolithic “model minority” and replace them with more accurate, nuanced representations of our diverse populations.
We must also intentionally and proactively work across communities so we may educate each other about our various communities’ shared struggles and bonds as well as our perceptions and misconceptions. Asian American communities’ ties to social justice movements run deep. From the Farm Workers strike in 1965, to the March on Selma, to the Black Lives Matter movement, Asian Americans have long stood side-by-side with BIPOC communities, fighting for equity and the dismantling of systemic racism.
Steps must also be taken systemically. Corporate America must make knowing our stories part of their diversity, equity, and inclusion and professional development efforts. Also, with statistics showing Asian American, white-collar professionals the least likely minority group to be promoted into management positions, corporate America must also proactively seek to elevate more into these decision-making and board-level roles.
The Asian American community is the fastest growing population in both Massachusetts and the United States and is on track to become America’s largest immigrant group by 2055. It behooves corporate and business America to know the complexities of the country’s fastest growing community and to elevate managers who reflect this growing diversity.
Our educational systems must incorporate accurate Asian American studies into their curriculums. Properly taught, these lessons will help build empathy and find common ground, allowing us to lay the foundation for an anti-racist society.
Decision-makers in the media must include Asian Americans at the table. The industry must also be conscious of, and more deliberate in, reporting the full breadth of AAPI efforts and experiences. All communities deserve, and will benefit from, this type of more thorough representation.
The Asian American story, past and present, is unique, complex, and proud, but it has rarely been fully explored and conveyed. It is integral to the narrative of this country and deserves to be told, understood, and appreciated.
Leverett Wing is the executive director of the Commonwealth Seminar, which has been partnering with NAACP-Boston and Higher Ground-Boston to engage BIPOC communities cross-community conversations.