Transcript for Episode 70: Stop Asian Hate
NASW Social Work Talks Podcast
I'm Cat McDonald and welcome to Social Work Talks.
Asian Americans are facing an alarming rise of hate crimes, including verbal assaults, physical attacks, and threats to their lives. The most vulnerable are being targeted; women, elders, and workers in low wage jobs. This is a surge in the kind of violence that has been in our country for hundreds of years.
Today, we're speaking with Janlee Wong, who was Executive Director of NASW's California Chapter for over 25 years. He's a fierce social justice advocate and a strong leader in a very diverse state. Welcome Janlee.
Thank you very much. I also I want to thank Greg Wright and NASW for having me.
Can you talk about what's going on in California now?
Yeah, but first let me point out the great diversity of the Asian Pacific Islander community and that no one person or organization can represent the many, many communities involved. There are many voices in the communities and I hope they all can be recognized and given a platform to speak. I'll start with what's happening in California.
California has the largest Asian Pacific Islander population in the United States, and it's seen quite a few incidents. Some of them pretty violent and unfortunately one or two fatal incidents. I think it's really disturbing out here in California. It's kind of hard for people to think about how that could be since there's been a long history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in California, starting around the Gold Rush period in 1850. If you know anything about California history, the anti-Asian violence started at the same time and very much for the same reasons that they are here today. People look different, they speak different, they have different cultures and they're viewed as a threat. They can be viewed as a cultural threat or in many cases, an economic threat. So those same reasons for all the violence throughout history starting back in the 19th century are the same reasons today in the 21st century.
Why? Why now?
I think there's a couple of reasons. The first one is something that I read. The owner of the LA Times and renowned surgeon, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, said that, "Asian and Asian culture has been conditioned to find that to be equal with the dominant white population they have to be more than equal, they have to work harder, they have to do more things and they have to be quiet." Now people are saying, "Why are Asians speaking up so much?" It's because all of that doesn't work anymore.
There's just a tremendous amount of hate speech, as well as violent acts and significant increases. This could be because the political climate in the United States, starting with the past president has really amplified those differences as well as the economic threat so that people now feel that they have this enemy, and it's bi-partisan by the way, that the politicians they keep talking about how big a threat China is, for example. Here's something that people don't understand too well, is that there's this great diversity in the Asian American population. So when you point out that China is our greatest enemy, not everybody who's in the Asian American community or Pacific Islander community is Chinese, but for some reason, we're all kind of lumped together in this one group. So with this heated polarized political discussion going on now, it's easy for people to single out and target Asian Americans for hate speech and violence.
It's also because of the pandemic. We all know what the past presidents said about the pandemic, echoed by many, many politicians and even in just the past week, it's been reinforced by politicians. So Americans are really, and I am too, tired of the pandemic and exhausted. If I felt like I had to blame somebody, if our political leaders keep telling me it's these people you have to blame, then I might even succumb to that and blame them.
Unfortunately, there's a few individuals, and I want to point out it's just a few. The great majority of people are very non-violent and they're not using hate speech, but there's a few that because of their own frustration, anger, and fear that they're lashing out. Who do they lash out at? Well, if the political climate is it's Chinese, then they lash out at Chinese people, no matter if they're Chinese or not.
There's a long history of people who are of different ethnic groups, and they kind of have a hierarchy. The ones who have nothing or are very poor or feel very oppressed, then if there's a group adjacent to them, then sometimes they lash out at that group. For example, if there are people of color who engage in hate speech against Asian Americans or violent acts, it's partly because of this reason. That's probably why the Asian Pacific Islander community is speaking up now, because some of the conditioning that we all have learned over the years isn't working and we've seen this tremendous increase in hate speech and violent acts.
Yeah. Can you talk about that, the stereotype of an Asian person as a model minority and maybe how that works against you or how it works in this context?
Model minority was coined by a psychologist a few decades ago. It was misused at the time. It was used to say, "Well look, you have other groups that started off poor and had some disadvantages, perhaps not even a lot of education or not very good education, yet they succeeded. They were able to overcome all of those barriers and perhaps enter the middle class or the upper middle class. So if this one group, the Asian American Pacific Islander group could do it, why can't these other groups of people of color do it?" So it was used to pit one group against another to basically say that, "It must be because of your race. That's the reason why you can't do as well as these other groups of color who are different races who seem to be doing better."
I think that's really an attempt by people who are either white nationalists or white supremacists to really keep all people of color oppressed. If we had to do anything about being called a model minority, we have to educate people first of all, to say, "Look, once again, if you use that term and you apply to all of us, you are really doing something that's somewhat akin to racism because we're just too diverse to be all lumped together and put in this one stereotype, which isn't true of our group." Asian Americans probably have the highest income gap between rich middle class and poor Asian Americans. Yet we're all lumped in this group where we go to Ivy League schools, we've become professionals, like doctors and lawyers. Somehow we've risen from poverty and become economically successful. It's a big stereotype. It's used to oppress other groups and it's simply not true.
The thing that Asian Americans do feel strongly about is pride in their culture and heritage. That pride in our culture and heritage helps us overcome some of these stereotypes and some of this racism. But again, it's really a challenge because if you even say that you're doing well or you're benefiting, then you will inevitably be compared to other racial groups and ethnic groups that aren't doing so well.
You talked about this rhetoric that connects all Asian people with the coronavirus and how that trickles down to people who are perpetrating this kind of violence. What can we do to counter anti-Asian rhetoric?
It starts at the top. It starts with our leaders. Fortunately, we have a lot more leaders who are trying to kind of bring truth to the issues and to overcome some of the stereotypes and some of the attacks. Yeah, politicians attack and they attack Asian groups. They don't realize it. They say, "Oh no, I don't attack Asian Americans. I attack the Chinese." Yet the general population sometimes finds it hard to distinguish between Asian Americans and the Chinese.
If our leaders, our politicians, our public officials could step in and bring some reason and ask people to be more understanding and to avoid hate speech and avoid violence and to say it's wrong ... Fortunately, we have a president now, President Biden, and a Vice-President, Kamala Harris, who are doing that, and they're speaking up whenever they can. Again, like I said, many of our local officials are doing the same, whether it's the mayor of Los Angeles or San Francisco, whether it's the County Board of Supervisors, whether it's our state legislature or governor. That's where it starts.
You've got to have the leadership to address this, but you've also got to do more. You've got to somehow influence the media to stop focusing on just the violent perpetrators and criminals that are engaged in this activity and behavior and start educating people about the diversity of the Asian American population, the strengths, as well as the contributions of the Asian American populations. So far all we hear about is this Asian person was beaten up or stomped on or killed. We don't hear very much about their background or what they were doing or why they're here or how they're contributing.
One way to look at it is, we'll take the Atlanta killings, really horrific and tragic, and we say, "Look, six of the victims were hard working working-class people, immigrants who came here, overcame a lot of hardship and were contributing to our society. Not only were they hard working and earning a living, paying taxes, but they were also helping people. The kind of work that they were involved with is a kind of healing work. Some of them we're actually licensed therapists and they were providing important healing kind of help to people that needed help. We don't really hear that about the victims. We just hear, "Oh well, they're Asian, so that's why they're a victim."
We also have the elderly. Somebody might say, "Well, we hear about the elderly people being attacked, pushed down, beaten, kicked, and that's all we know about them; they're elderly people." That strikes a sympathetic cord because most of us respect the elderly, so we can't figure it out. Why are these elderly people being beaten up? We need to look a little bit closer at the elderly population.
Almost all of them have worked hard their entire life and contributed to society, made our communities a better place. And now that they're elderly and they're retired or perhaps a few of them are still working, but any of them are not working, they have been contributors, they continue to be contributors. And we know how they can be contributors after they've stopped working, retired, is they often play an important role in helping their adult children with their grandchildren or their adult grandchildren, with their great-great-grandchildren playing a very important childcare and daycare role, helping their parents have full-time jobs and contribute to the society.
So if we can give a little bit more dimension to the victims, I think that would really begin to help people understand that these are people you can identify with and you could relate to, if you say, "Look, grandma here is taken care of the kids so mom and dad can work." I'd say almost all cultures in this country, all groups, all racial groups, all ethnic groups can identify with that. They can say, "Yah, that's what happens in my family." But right now we're just getting the superficial look that, yeah, it's because they're Asian, that's why they're being attacked and that's it. All we know about them is they're Asian. So that's another thing that can be done.
And then the idea of watch what you say and how you think is really hard for non-professional people to understand. We social workers, we understand that. We know that in our training our first important duty to working with our clients is to really understand how we are in relationship to our clients. How do we understand their culture? How do we understand their identity? How do we understand how to relate to them, form a professional relationship and how to talk to them? But the general population doesn't know that . They're not social workers. They're not professionals.
So our job really as social workers is to really find ways to help the general population begin to establish relationships, conversations, education, friendships, with people in all groups, not just Asian groups. More of that has to be done. Some of it is going on in our communities. We've got some leaders from all different backgrounds, all different races and ethnic groups working together. That's a tremendous benefit. We are very fortunate that we see that as Asian Americans, but we also see our fellow people who struggle with racist issues, also allying with us. In particular, I'd like to highlight Black Lives Matter as a group that's done a lot of allyship with Asian Americans.
Can you talk about how people are mobilizing against the violence? You mentioned Black Lives Matter. Maybe talk about any other allyships and coalitions that are forming.
There's many. That's really the wonderful thing that's happening at this time. All across the country, there are rallies, there are marches, there are forums, there are webinars, there are Zoom sessions, and we have quite an array of different groups, not just Black Lives Matter. We have Latino and Latinx groups, we have LGBTQ groups, we have white allies, we have unions. We just have a lot of people, just community organizations, neighborhood organizations, people that just live next door to each other. They are coming together and they're joining in these rallies and these protests and these marches. They're also displaying a lot of messages. Whether it's posters or logos or memes or Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, they are really putting out the message there, and that's been really, really helpful. The education community has stepped up. Many professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers, they're also speaking up and bringing this issue forward. Many people in the institutional settings are doing the same.
In the past, if an Asian kid went up to the teacher and said, "Oh, somebody called me a name," that teacher might say, "Oh, it's nothing. Sticks and stones," et cetera, et cetera. "Just ignore it." They're not doing that as much now. They're sitting down and first they're saying, "Addressing the feelings," and then secondly, they're saying, "How can we address this in the group setting within the classroom or small groups or with individuals." This has been a great step forward too. Not every day that people are willing to take that on because it's not easy and it's pretty challenging and you have to be sensitive to everyone involved. That's what I think is really helping during this period.
How can social workers educate themselves and get involved in this issue?
Social workers, they need to start off by thinking about how did they feel about this issue and where are they at on this issue? It's kind of a self-identity, self-awareness approach. They kind of know about this because that's how they work with clients. That's the first step, they have to self-examine. And frankly, they have to understand whether they have been guilty of either racist behavior or racist thinking or some things they thought were minor in the past but actually were not. In particular, I'm talking about microaggressions, where they may have made a joke, or they may have said something to an Asian colleague that they thought, "It's not a big deal. That's what came to my mind, so I said it," without understanding that that person they were speaking to felt put down, they felt like they were an object of something. That's the important thing social workers really need to start off with.
Then they need to decide what they're going to do with their clients who aren't Asian, who are perhaps white clients or black clients or whatever, who express racist ideas and thinking. What do you do? Now sometimes in the past a few social workers have just kind of put that aside and say, "Well, I'm working with my client's other major issues and if they say a racist thing here or there, that's a minor racist thing, then I'll just ignore it. I'll just move on." I don't think that can be really done anymore because by ignoring it, you're feeding into that system that allows first of all, microaggressions, but might even lead to more impulsive behavior that could be hate speech or unfortunately violence.
The next thing is, how do you educate yourself? There's so much education going on now via Zoom, online, many platforms. There's some in-person education going on. If you look for it, you'll find it. It's not like it's hidden or missing or nobody knows about it. There are a number of platforms that either have courses or beginning to have courses on this issue, including NASW. So look for it, do your own research.
The next thing is, if you know people, you have to figure out a way to discuss this with them. Now we learned from Black Lives Matter that was kind of exhausting initially, especially after George Floyd, where non-black people would ask black people all kinds of things. And it was just like, "Hey, you never talked to me before about this. Now you're bombarding me with all this stuff." So that also applies to Asians too. You can want to know how Asians are doing, you can inquire about their wellbeing, absolutely, but you've got to think about what's the best approach to help either my colleagues, my friends, my community, who are Asian, who are really struggling right now?
One of the first things we know as social workers is we have to understand trauma and post-traumatic stress. We have to understand that this kind of racist activity actions, violence, didn't start yesterday. Didn't start when that past president entered office. It started, like I said, back during the Gold rush days here in California. So people have a long history growing up with racism. For example, my first experiences with racism was in elementary school. I was probably in the second or third grade and the kids on the playground would say racist things to me. They'd call me names. They would mimic what they thought to be Asian or Chinese language. I pretty much ignored them when I was in elementary school, but if it still sticks in my mind today six decades later, then it had an impact on me. And if you accumulate that over time, over many decades, it has a very strong impact.
So how do we help people understand that even the smallest things that you think are small, our cumulative and can trigger trauma. So if we're going to be talking to our Asian friends or colleagues or neighbors or people in the community, we have to be sensitive about this possibly triggering some feelings. When we listened to some of the interviews that some of the victims of violence, those who were attacked and assaulted, they feel like they don't want to talk about it right away. And as social workers, we know two things. One, we understand that they don't want to talk about it right away, they're not ready to talk about, but secondly, we understand with the right clinical approach, it's important to talk about it. When a person is ready to talk about it, that's when they need to talk about it.
Finally, social workers, we're deeply involved in social action and legislation and policy. Got to learn all about this stuff. For example, the initial response in some communities is we need more police patrols, but from a policy perspective, law enforcement should not be and is not the only response to this. We've already talked a lot about education, about developing deeper relationships with people, also about the economic and political climate. So that's what social workers need to learn about is that this is really a holistic issue. We need some action in all of these areas. This could include working with public officials, elected officials. It could include looking at legislation and commenting on legislation. It could include trying, which we've been doing for many years now, develop, expand, make sure that it's culturally relevant. Mental health services for people in all communities and particularly in those communities that feel under attack.
So there's a lot that social workers could do. Nobody should feel overwhelmed though. You should just take it step-by-step. Do what you can. If it's too much, take a step back. When you're ready again to jump in again, learn more, do more.
Is there anything that you wanted to add that I didn't ask you about?
I think there's some intersections that are extremely important that people should be aware of. They probably already read about it if they're paying attention to this and they should be very on top of it. The intersections were really revealed and put forward on the front burner of Asian American women and sexuality, sexual fetishes, and being objectified. Too often we overlook this perhaps because we don't think about it or we just think, "Well, that's just a stereotype," or, "That's just what our culture does." All that's true. If you look at all the movies from Hollywood until recently, until perhaps past 10 years, what were the roles of Asian American women? How did that translate to how we feel about it culturally? The other thing is how many wars have we fought in Asia? What was our military bringing back in terms of what they thought of Asian women in all these wars that they fought in. This is such an important discussion. It's not just for Asian women. It's true for all women. It just happens to be one of the factors in the Atlanta killings.
This is something that should have a widespread community discussion and should absolutely involve religious leaders because religious leaders tend to kind of set the stage for what they feel is moral and immoral. And if they have a congregation, if they have believers and followers, then they need to also differentiate here and say, "Look, just because you work in a spa, doesn't mean that you're somehow immoral for working in a spa." That's the kind of work that needs to be done. We can reach out to different religious groups and churches, help them develop a deeper understanding of this issue. We can reach out to Hollywood. Many of people have already reached out to Hollywood. Hollywood has done some good work in recent years to try to provide a deeper, more varied understanding of Asian Americans, particularly of Asian American women. It's something that social workers can easily fit into because the majority of social workers still are women and they empathize with this issue I know very closely, and they can also be very helpful in this issue.
And then finally, the darker side of this is human trafficking. NASW and professional social work has done tremendous work on human trafficking. More work needs to be done. When you have an active district attorney or law enforcement or police department, the sheriff's department, their first goal is always to try to stop human trafficking by arresting the women who are trafficked for all kinds of sex crimes and things like that. We at NASW over the years developed a lot of policies, some of them are in Social Work Speaks that really say, "No, that's not the way to go. Trafficked people are victims. You can't just simply treat them as criminals. We have to treat them as people, people in unfortunate situations."
Again, social work has kind of led the way in some of these areas. Still has some work to do in others. If people need to know what to do, they can look at some of our NASW policies and social work policies across the country and they can kind of draw that intersection with what's going on, how people are being viewed and how those views should be changed.
I'm going to gather some resources and put them on the show notes so that our listeners can further educate themselves about this issue. Thank you so much. We're so fortunate to have you on our team. I know you're not the ED of the California Chapter anymore, but I really appreciate being able to talk to you about this.
Well, thank you for inviting me. Thanks to Greg. We all are doing what we can, the rest of NASW is, and we'll get through this if we work together. It could be something positive, even though it's seemingly very negative right now. Once we open our minds and talk about it, we know this as social workers, we can do better and make things better.
Thank you, Janlee. Appreciate it.
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