It’s no secret that navigating life as Asian American women in this nation comes with challenges. While some of these are different depending on our upbringing, many are rooted in insidiousness of white supremacy and patriarchy and cut across communities of color—i.e. the sting of hearing “well, you know you all look alike” when we are, in fact, two very different women.
One of us lives in the Midwest and the other hails from the West Coast. One of us holds a master’s degree in education; the other is a lawyer. And yet, when we first crossed paths at the White House in 2009 while one of us was a national advocacy leader and one of us was a senior White House official, we were connected by the shared experience of being highly visible while simultaneously being rendered invisible. The two of us have been mistaken for each other in four states, at the White House, in restaurants, while waiting for a cab, waiting in line at the airport, and even during meetings where we were both speaking. Well-intentioned fans of Tina’s work have shared selfies taken with Jeannette on social media and tagged Tina as the woman in the photo.
Some would remark on how we really do resemble each other or justify their error by claiming that it’s a compliment to be mistaken for someone so high-ranking and successful. Others would say: “You speak English very well,” “you are assertive, not like most Asian women,” or “you have the same hint of an accent.” (Our only accents might be Oregonian and the Midwest twang.)
We would joke about and cope with it together afterward, but these mistakes aren’t just personally insulting—our experiences are a salient reminder of the ways in which our society fetishizes, otherizes and marginalizes Asian American women.
Sadly, our stories are not isolated occurrences. Asian women have been overlooked, dehumanized and ignored by American society. When we are seen, we are often stereotyped as the “China Doll” or the “Dragon Lady.” We have been reduced to our perceived race and stripped of our individual humanity and identity. If this can happen to two Asian leaders in the White House, from those who see themselves as friends, allies and supporters, then what is happening elsewhere across our country to Asian women with fewer resources?
These are not just amusing anecdotes—the inability to see and recognize the individual person is what underlies the racism that allows anti-Asian bigotry, hate and violence to occur. If you see the Asian woman in front of you as a caricature rather than an individual person, then you don’t feel any inhibition to calling her by a different name, pushing her down on the street, hitting her with a hammer, or shooting and killing her in the spa she owns.
The dramatic rise in Asian hate over the past year has made it clear that it’s time to end the marginalization of the Asian Americans and start taking personal responsibility for our own blind spots. And it is the responsibility of our leaders across business and government to act now to ensure we can live safely, with our full humanity intact. In particular, we need better data on hate crimes against the AAPI community, targeted support for our most vulnerable communities, and fairer representations across all industries.
While the pandemic magnified the pervasiveness of anti-Asian violence, we need more data to track and report on violence against Asian Americans. This would ensure we understand the scope of the problem and respond with adequate policies. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which President Biden signed into law, is an important first step toward changing our narrow definition of a hate crime. This legislation will assign a Justice Department official to review COVID-related hate crimes and will require the Justice Department to provide reporting guidance for regional law enforcement.
But we also need to provide more support to the people who need it most, especially Asian American women and elders, who are disproportionately impacted by the spike in anti-Asian violence. Asians are the most economically divided group in the country, and many Asian American immigrant women are part of the low-wage workforce—making them particularly vulnerable to racist and sexist harassment and even physical violence, as they are more likely to work in jobs that require them to work alone and in isolated areas and at night. Asian women are also disproportionately in jobs on the front lines of the pandemic response and disproportionately concentrated in the care economy—all industries that are severely underfunded and underpaid.
Finally, we need to fight for better AAPI representation across all industries. While we celebrate Vice President Kamala Harris as the first person of Asian descent to occupy the second highest office in the land, as well as the leadership of Senators Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono, there are still only 10 AAPI women in Congress and only one in a Cabinet position. Too often, AAPI women are underrepresented in film and television—and white actors are often cast to play AAPI roles. And in business, despite being the most likely demographic group to have graduate degrees, Asian American women are the least likely to hold senior leadership positions or have supervisory responsibilities.
At this time of crisis, our leaders can no longer ignore the rise in anti-Asian harassment and violence has disproportionately impacted women in our community. Nor can any of us continue to shrug off the marginalization of our community. As AAPI Heritage Month comes to an end, let’s recommit to building just communities, where we are all safe, where all workers are treated with dignity and respect, and where all our loved ones thrive now and beyond.
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