Ms. Donna Walker-Kuhne
Standing in Solidarity to Stop Violence Against Asian-Americans
Ms. Donna Walker-Kuhne
On May 16, 2021, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) sponsored an important virtual panel discussion about the epidemic of hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and the need for allyship.
The program was another installment of NJPAC’s Standing in Solidarity, a series of initiatives and events promoting racial equality and social justice. The series was launched in June of 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd to offer greater understanding of current racial disparities, as well as offer a forum for learning about the actions all citizens can take to advance the causes of equality and justice.
NJPAC’s Social Justice Planning Task Force recognized that the resurgence of anti-AAPI violence was a critical issue to discuss and there was a dire need to help the broader community understand how they can become allies in the fight against this surging injustice. The panel was convened just as the results of a survey conducted by a new nonprofit, Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH), found that 80 percent of Asian Americans “don’t feel respected and say they are discriminated against by their fellow Americans.”
The evening opened with virtual remarks from U.S. Representative Andrew Kim of New Jersey. Congressman Kim, a third generation Korean American, acknowledged that there was bias, discrimination, racism, and violence against the AAPI community before the COVID-19 pandemic. But he described the recent political and social climate as “gasoline poured on the fire,” resulting in a year of horrific attacks, such as the recent shootings that targeted Asian-owned businesses in the Atlanta area. He also shared personal stories about having his loyalties questioned while working as a diplomat at the U.S. State Department and how his 5-year-old son was being harassed and called derogatory names by an older boy at school.
Congressman Kim cited federal legislative action, such as the COVID-19 Hate Crime Act to address violence and discrimination against Asians, as a first step. But, he said, “legislation alone won’t stop the violence.” He encouraged everyone to take steps to become engaged and build allyship. He also urged everyone to check out the 2020 PBS documentary series on Asian Americans to better understand the AAPI community’s history.
The panel was skillfully moderated by Rose Cuison-Villazor, Vice Dean, Professor of Law, and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers University where she is an expert in immigration, citizenship, property law, and race and the law. She is a nationally regarded scholar with an active record in social justice issues and is the founder of the Rutgers Center for Immigration Law, Policy, and Justice.
Dean Cuison-Villazor engaged each panelist with thought-provoking questions that provided opportunities for them to share their experiences and offer important insights for the audience.
The following are the key takeaways I got from the panel’s discussion:
From Jamie Lew, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University, whose work explores intersections of immigration and race, particularly as it relates to education for migrant youths in urban spaces, I heard the ways Asian American history in the US is marked by the legacy of exclusion, racism, and even internment. She discussed how the term “model minority,” used to describe the AAPI community, was a white supremacist construct in 1968 used to drive a wedge between communities of color, prevent the formation of alliances, and undercut the Civil Rights movement. The implication of this construct was that despite racism, the AAPI communities had used their values of hard work and family cohesion to “overcome” racial bias and find success. Consequently, according to this construct, they were “good” or “model” minorities and the other communities of color were seen as “bad minorities.”
Despite this history, it’s important for us to build coalitions across racial groups—to find our issues in common, as well as recognize the differences. Working together makes us stronger.
Panelist Lucia Liu is co-founder of Rock the Boat, a platform for Asian Americans to organize around important issues and a community-first podcast focused on telling the diverse stories of Asian Americans charting unique paths and challenging the status quo. She discussed how the AAPI community has many differences based on their respective histories of how they arrived in the U.S. and generational standing. The differences in their migration and generational stories are reflected in how they think, whether they became bilingual, their cultural identity, and their interactions with other communities of color.
Ms. Liu acknowledged that she did not personally know any Black people until the Black Lives Matter movement. She then set out to meet them and have dialogues on her podcast.
Yoland Skeete-Laessig, whose diverse heritage includes Chinese, is the author of the book When Newark had a Chinatown. She also is a multi-media artist and co-founder of the Sumei Multidisciplinary Arts Center in Newark, one of Newark’s leading artist-run alternative spaces. A pioneer in the study of the Chinese community in Newark, Ms. Skeete-Laessig talked about the discrimination, harassment, and experiences of that community as it initially put down roots in the city.
She later noted how some Asian communities were slow to join the Civil Rights movement. And she discussed the divergent perceptions of levels of suffering within communities of color and how some racial groups are afforded more opportunities than Black people.
Ms. Skeete-Laessig also was critical of the federal COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which was opposed, according to an NBC news report, by more than 85 organizations. The groups argued that the legislation failed to provide resources to address the root causes of anti-Asian bias and, in turn, ignored police violence against Black and brown communities. (Since the panel discussion, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act has been passed by both the U.S. House and Senate and signed by President Joe Biden.)
Dean Cuison-Villazor mentioned the importance of utilizing the arts as a tool for understanding. She then screened the short film “Beyond Orientalism,” which depicts how the arts have been used to both perpetuate and combat stereotypes about the AAPI community.
I also believe the suggestions for building allyship offered by the speakers are very important to share. These are actions we all can take to better understand each other and to stop anti-AAPI violence, and include the following:
- Learn more about the community’s history. A great place to begin is with the PBS series on Asian-American history.
- Be sure to include discussions of AAPI in diversity and inclusion training.
- Take the online bystander intervention training.
- Build bridges, recognizing that coalition building takes time.
- Look broadly at all facets of white supremacy and how it has impacted all communities of color.
You’ll find additional information and suggestions about building allyship located at the bottom of the Standing in Solidarity Resources page.
I learned a lot during this panel discussion, and I urge readers of this post to check it out at this link. It’s important that our arts community build allyship with communities of color to advance the causes of racial equality and social justice.