May 1st marks the beginning of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a moment for the United States and the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in particular to reflect on and celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of AAPI communities in this country.
This year, violence and discrimination against Asian Americans looms over Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, just six weeks after six Asian women were killed in a mass shooting in Atlanta. As a Filipino American man, born to immigrants from the Philippines, the killings of Hyun Jung Grant, Xioajie Tan, and four other Asian women felt like losing my own family. It felt like a punch to the gut. These women looked like my mother, sister, mentors, and friends.
As we reflect on Asian Pacific American history, I want to recognize our communities’ long history of resilience and social justice movement-building. When we look past the myths and stereotypes about AAPI communities, we can find a rich history of social movements and struggle led by AAPI activists.
The Asian American identity was born out of the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in the late 1960s. People of different Asian ancestries united under the name of “Asian American” to fight in solidarity with Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities who were demanding liberation for oppressed peoples through an end to the Vietnam War, federally mandated civil rights, and the adoption of Ethnic Studies curricula.
In Delano in 1965, a strike by Filipino migrant laborers, led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, ignited the United Farmworkers Movement that Cesar Chavez Jr. and Mexican American farmworkers would join.
A wave of anti-Asian violence swept Detroit in the 1980s, driven in part by the decline of US auto-manufacturing and dominance of Japanese automakers. In 1982, two White men were ordered to pay $3,000 and serve just three years' probation for beating and killing Vincent Chin. The Asian American community across the country protested this light sentence, demanding justice not only for Vincent Chin, but for the long history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S.
And today, in Chinatowns all over the country, anti-displacement groups like the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development in Los Angeles are fighting tenant displacement, gentrification, and food insecurity.
But myths have grown up around Asian American communities that too often obscure the conditions many Asian Americans face in the US and fracture solidarity across communities of color. I’m talking specifically about the myth of the model minority: that all Asian Americans go to prestigious colleges, earn high skilled jobs, and are successful because they quietly worked hard and were rewarded for it.
For some—especially those who criticize or oppose racial-justice movements—Asian Americans exemplify an American dream that is alive and well and accessible to anyone willing to work for it. The argument is that these “model minorities” disprove claims of systemic racism that are raised by racial-justice activists.
But the model minority myth is just that: a myth. The AAPI community consists of diverse ethnic groups with varying immigration patterns and socioeconomic characteristics. The model minority myth veils the needs of Southeast Asian communities who came to the U.S. as refugees and experience higher levels of poverty on average than East Asian communities. The myth also masks the needs of East Asian communities. In working-class Chinatowns across metropolitan areas, residents face high levels of poverty, labor exploitation, and a resurgence of targeted violence.
The mass shooting in Atlanta really brought into the spotlight the vulnerability of working-class AAPI communities. Asian women in particular are vulnerable to violence because of a long history of sexual objectification and dehumanization that goes as far back as the Page Act of 1875. The Page Act “targeted Chinese women suspected of entering the country for ‘lewd, immoral purposes,’” viewing these women as prostitutes.
Asian American women’s vulnerability to violence has only worsened due to anti-Asian sentiment stoked by political rhetoric blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic. Between March 2020 and February 2021, women made up 68% of victims in over 3,800 Anti-Asian hate incidents reported by Stop AAPI Hate.
While AAPI community members across the country are still processing feelings of loss, I intend to enter May focusing on our communities’ resilience and struggle for racial justice and equity in this country. If we want to end anti-Asian violence, we must pick up where our ancestors left off in ending the structural violence inflicted onto us through poverty, exploitation, and political marginalization.
While the last two months have been painful, my grief and anger has taught me to reconnect with my identity and my community’s history in order to build a more equitable, just future.
Vince Leus is a program coordinator at Prevention Institute.
Photo credit: Chinatown Community for Equitable Development