The Center for Asian American Media hosted a digital town hall, featuring Viet Thanh Nguyen, exploring Asian American history and the Asian American experience during COVID-19.
In connection with the upcoming PBS series, ASIAN AMERICANS, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), WETA, and Asian American community leaders will host a digital town hall exploring how lessons from Asian American history can help us understand the experience of Asian Americans in the time of COVID-19.
Read the full transcript below.
Hey everybody. Good evening, good afternoon, depending on where you are, and welcome on behalf of the Center for Asian American Media and WETA. I’m Amna Nawaz of the PBS NewsHour, and thank you so much for joining us tonight. This will be a virtual town hall and an incredibly important conversation that’s going to look to center and explore and uplift the Asian American experience at this unprecedented moment in US and world history. Now, this is being presented to you in conjunction with a groundbreaking series that’s going to be premiering soon on PBS, called Asian Americans. You’re going to hear more about that in just a moment, but I just want to say as someone who has covered world events on the ground, who’s covered Asian American and identity stories for years and is covering this pandemic up close, I cannot think of a more important conversation to be having right now, and I can’t imagine a better lineup of panelists that you’re going to hear from in just a moment.
So just to set the stage, let’s all remember, 2020 was supposed to be a consequential year for Asian Americans, right? The Census was going to be accounting for all our growing demographics. It was going to validate a political clout of the community, and of course, there’s a critical election coming up in November. We made history over the last year with a presidential candidate, Andrew Yang making the debate stage. I was proud to be a part of that history as the first Asian American presidential debate moderator. But as we know, the pandemic changed everything. And now 2020 stands to be consequential for Asian Americans for very different reasons. So tonight our conversation is going to be twofold. On the first panel, we’re going to be focusing on this moment in time. It’s [inaudible] Asian Americans and communities of color, and then we’re going to turn to the power of culture making and storytelling to propel us forward, to look ahead and see what comes next. We’re also going to be taking your questions, of course, so keep them coming, and we’re going to work them into the conversation. Before we jump into any of the conversation though, I am honored to introduce our very first speaker to present some opening remarks. She is a devoted and relentless leader, not just in the halls of Congress, but across the entire country. Please welcome the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congresswoman Judy Chu. Madam Chair, over to you.
Well, thank you so much and thank you Center for Asian American Media for hosting this important digital town hall as we lead up to the national PBS premiere of the groundbreaking new series of CAAM, called Asian Americans. There’s no better time to reflect on the history and contributions of the AAPI community than as we gather for the Asian Pacific American heritage month. And even though the coronavirus pandemic may have us staying at home, it’s so important to be able to find ways to connect with each other. That’s why I knew I had to join today’s digital town hall, and why I’m so appreciative of CAAM for hosting this national dialogue. I know that many Americans are fearful and worried about their health and safety as we navigate these uncertain times. And for many Asian-Americans, it’s not just the health risks of the coronavirus that were worried about. We’re also worried about the anti-Asian bigotry that this pandemic has incited. As chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, or what we call CAPAC, I want you to know that our CAPAC members have been laser-focused on making sure that the AAPI community remains a priority as we work to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. We fought for the needs of AAPI workers, families, and small businesses in the four COVID-19 and emergency relief packages that Congress has already passed, and we’re continuing to make our voices heard as we put together the next emergency relief bill to help our country weather this crisis.
This is especially true when it comes to addressing anti-Asian hate crimes. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has made it a priority to stoke xenophobia and direct anger at China in order to deflect blame for his delayed and inefficient response to the coronavirus pandemic. He repeatedly used the term Chinese virus to refer to COVID-19, even though national health experts at the CDC and WHO repeatedly warned not to associate the disease with a specific geographic location or ethnicity due to the stigma it causes. In this case, associating COVID-19 with an ethnicity has perpetuated false beliefs that people of Chinese or Asian ancestry are more likely to carry and spread the diseases, and that they are the ones who should be blamed for it. And as a result, we’ve seen an alarming rise of anti-Asian coronavirus xenophobia and discrimination over the past few months. It started in January, with dirty looks, insults, and misinformation that Asian American restaurants and businesses were more likely to have the disease and should be avoided. But in the last two months, it’s escalated to spitting, yelling, and physical attacks against Asian Americans all across the nation. In New York, an Asian American woman was physically assaulted on a subway for wearing a face mask. And in another incident, an Asian American woman was simply taking out her garbage when a man poured acid on her, making her suffer second-degree burns on her face and arms.
In Texas, a man stabbed three Asian Americans at a Sam’s Club, saying that he wanted to kill Asian Americans. And one of those that was stabbed was a 2-year-old child. In the Bay Area, an elderly Asian man was simply collecting cans when he was taunted and attacked by individuals who said they hated Asians. And in Los Angeles, a 16-year-old boy was sent to the hospital after being attacked by bullies who accused him of having coronavirus because he was Asian. In fact, according to the data compiled by various Asian American hate crime reporting sites, there have been over 1,600 hate incidents reported in recent months. At its height, there were nearly 100 hate incidents being reported per day, and I worry that we may see a dramatic uptick once the home orders are lifted and people start coming out into the public. That is why the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus has called out President Trump and his followers every time they’ve used this term Chinese virus or Wuhan virus. And we’ve been so heartened by the strong support we’ve received from others, from leaders in the congressional black, Hispanic, and Native American caucuses, from our Democratic leadership in Congress who’ve all stood in solidarity with us to denounce anti-Asian bigotry. There is also a resolution in Congress to address anti-Asian sentiments pertaining to COVID-19 that was co-led by two of our CAPAC members, Congressmember Grace Meng and Senator Kamala Harris, that already has strong support in both chambers. And we’ve also sent letters directly to President Trump, urging him to refrain from stoking xenophobia that puts Asian Americans at risk.
So there have been many efforts to oppose anti-Asian bigotry in recent months. As a result of these collective efforts, last month, the president finally acknowledged how harmful his words can be, and said that Asian Americans should not be blamed from the coronavirus. But his words would not have been necessary if he and other Republican leaders had refrained from stoking xenophobia in the first place. We must continue to push back against the xenophobia every time it rears its ugly head, whether it’s the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese American internment during World War II, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, or the backlash against South Asian and Muslim communities after 9/11. Our history has shown us that Asian Americans have often been used as scapegoats in times of crisis. We are seeing this again today, which is why it is more important now than ever that we stand united and make our voices heard. So that is why I’m so glad that you’ve hosted this national town hall to bring our community together during these challenging times. Let us remember that our unity is our strength. Together we can and must stand united in denouncing hate and ensuring that we keep all of our families healthy and safe. Thank you.
Chairwoman Chu, thank you so, so much for being a part of our conversation tonight for your continued leadership and for so eloquently raising so many of the issues we’re going to be digging into more deeply tonight. Before we jump into our first panel, though, we want to bring with you a little clip. You’ve been hearing so much about this groundbreaking series from PBS that’s coming up in just a few weeks, Asian Americans. Here now is a brief clip previewing that series. This is going to feature a pivotal moment in Asian American history, and it’s also going to feature a few of the voices you’re about to hear from next. Take a look.
[music] I think the Vincent Chin murder was shocking to a lot of Asian Americans, not because it represented something new, but that it actually represented something old. It reminded Asian Americans that progress hadn’t really been made.
In 1882, you could kill a “Chinaman” and get off paying $1. In 1982, you can kill an Asian American and get off paying $3,000. This was not justice. But there wasn’t an organization that existed to stand up and say, “This is wrong.” What began out of that was meetings that started with 4 people, 10 people, 20 people, 100 people. And people were talking about what can we do? What can we do? What can we do? I raised my hand and I said, “The world wants to know how the Asian American community feels about this.”
We want justice. We want justice.
In death, Vincent Chin inspired protest marches, rallies, dinners, banquets.
Justice for Vincent Chin.
The killing of Vincent Chin is probably the most tragic example of the kind of violence that’s been committed against Asians. [applause]
Civil right organizations of every kind came forward as well as individuals.
We have been drawn together by death, an unplanned family reunion. Our hearts are made heavy by a mother who sits here with us, whose son was brutally killed just because he was. What can we do in the aftermath? Those who live, we must redefine America so everybody knows everybody fits in the rainbow somewhere. [applause]
That right there was a sneak peek of the upcoming PBS series, Asian Americans. And here now to talk about that moment in time that was featured and this moment in time are three incredible panelists I’m so excited to bring to you now. Helen Zia joins us. Of course, she’s an activist, author, and former journalist. Her books include Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, and My Country Versus Me. Helen, thanks so much for being here. Also joining–
I’m honored to be here.
Thank you. Also joining us is Darren Walker. He is president of the Ford Foundation that has a $13-billion endowment in search of social justice philanthropy around the world. He was also named one of Times 100 most influential people in the world. Darren, thanks so much for being here.
And also with us is Viet Thanh Nguyen, who really needs no introduction; we’re all fans. But of course, he’s the man behind the novel The Sympathizer, which was a New York Times bestseller, and his debut novel which just happened to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He’s a professor now at the University of Southern California. Viet, thanks for being here.
It’s a pleasure to be here with you, Amna and the rest.
So Helen, kick us off here. Now talk about that moment in time – we just saw the clip from the series featuring – and the parallels you are seeing to what’s happening right now.
Well, very sadly to say, there’s so many parallels between that moment, 38 years ago, and some of those clips. That activism continued for a number of years actually to try to get justice for Vincent Chin and the Asian American community and really to stand up for all people to have equal justice. That was 38 years ago. Vincent Chin would be 65 today, had he not been killed. And that’s chilling to think that we’re talking about practically a generation ago. But it was a time that there was massive unemployment. There was a terrible depression in the Midwest that affected everybody. People had no work for years after having spent a lifetime working hard in very good-paying jobs. And the suffering was across the country. There was a recession everywhere. The ’80s were a terrible time. And there was an effort to find somebody to blame. And throughout the media, the halls of Congress, the corporate C-suites, people finally found an enemy they could all agree on, and that was Japan. And why? Because they built fuel-efficient cars that people preferred and could drive. Whereas, the dinosaurs from Detroit that got 7 or 8 miles a gallon, people couldn’t afford to drive anymore. And by blaming Japanese people, Japan, and then everybody who looked Japanese, a young man named Vincent Chin was killed.
And so we can see from that time, it’s so similar to today. We are just at the start of what every economist says is going to be a massive recession. They hesitate using the words depression. But we’re talking about a global economic terrible time. And we have leaders, unfortunately, who are blaming people who look Chinese. And we’re already seeing, as the Congresswoman Judy Chu already pointed out, so many different attacks, more than 1,600, have been counted. And we know that anything reported is an undercount. So we’re seeing something very similar. And Vincent Chin was not the only victim of that terrible wave of racist innuendo, racist views at that time. Throughout the decade of the 1980s, there were many, many people of Asian descent who were killed. And I have to say, that hatred has been stoked, not just then, but all the way through. The ’90s were characterized by intense anti-China, looking for a Chinese spy. This millennium began with the Islamophobia and the hatred toward brown Asian Americans and Muslims. And so here we are today. It’s being stoked already, and the fans are being flamed. And unfortunately, we are in a very similar situation. And I have to say, we are just at the beginning. So there’s really a lot for us to be talking about, and it’s great that this town hall to talk about it is here, so.
Darren Walker, let me ask you about that. I’m not sure many people would tune in to a series called Asian Americans and expect to Find Jesse Jackson. So the significance though of that moment of standing up and speaking out the way that he did, talk to us about that and how it relates to what you’re seeing today in terms of the response to a lot of these racist attacks against Asian Americans.
Thank you. It’s a great honor to be here. And let me just say that as a black queer man in this country, I am appalled by what I just heard from Congresswoman Chu, and what I have read, and the reports I have seen of the rage directed at people of AAPI ancestry in this country. The same people who are expressing that rage towards your community are the same people who are expressing rage towards African Americans and all brown people, all immigrants. We have to understand that in America justice– while Thomas Jefferson said that building a just nation was the work of America, justice is a contested idea and must be always fought for and protected. And we must be vigilant because as long as we live in a country that is rooted in white supremacy, and the hierarchy of whiteness, and an economy, and an economics that creates winners and losers, we are always going to have to fight for justice.
We can never take for granted the progress that we make. And no matter how intoxicated we might have been with Barack Obama’s presidency, some of us were lulled into believing that we had made tremendous progress and crossed the Rubicon. And we were wrong. We were wrong because the forces of division are always, always among us. And with the right leader, the right economic situation, it is no surprise that we find ourselves in the situation that we do today. So we – black, brown, queer, immigrant – we must stand together. And that litany of crimes were not just committed against the individuals and the AAPI community. I was wounded. I was deeply offended at the inventory of injustice that she recited. So we all have work to do in this country. Every vote counts. Every one of us matters. We have a shared destiny, no matter what some of us think. We are an interdependent nation in an interdependent world. And for those of us who believe that, we must always fight because the battle will never be won.
Darren, as you say, it’s no surprise we find ourselves here, and I think that’s a sad truth thing so many of us can say. Viet, I have to ask you though, it is different for younger members of the Asian American community who, for the first time, may be feeling some of these racist attacks that others have felt before. And Viet, I’m going to ask you to tackle, if you don’t mind, the question from one of them. I want to feature just a quick video now from one of our audience members. Her name is Kate Nakamura. She’s actually a member of the Student Reporting Labs program that PBS NewsHour runs. So she’s an aspiring journalist. She sent in this very important question. Let’s take a listen to Kate’s question now.
Hi, I’m Kay Nakamura, I’m from Hawaii. And during these COVID-19 times, I’ve been seeing a lot of racist attacks against Asian Americans on social media. Here in Hawaii this issue isn’t as prominent as, say, other states. So people in my community haven’t really been made aware of this issue. My question is, how can we raise awareness about these attacks targeting Asian Americans?
Viet, talk to Kate if you can and to people like her in her generation. What is the message to them right now?
Well, I think the message is that anti-Asian racism has always been persistent in this country, as Helen pointed out. It’s going back to the 19th century with the presence of Chinese workers here who were brought here to benefit the American economy. And then when the American economy had no more use for them, they were demonized and posed, posited against the white working class. So that dynamic is still persisting today. And the one guarantee that makes us all Asian Americans is anti-Asian racism. When anti-Asian racism is at its peek through violence incident, or through what we’re witnessing today, we suddenly realized that we are Asian American. We realize we have something in common with each other. And if you have, in fact, grown up in this country during a period of relative racial comfort or stability for Asian Americans in the last decade or two. Or if you are a newer immigrant and you don’t have an awareness of the history that Darren brought up of our mutual struggle against racism throughout the history of this country, then it’s easy to think that perhaps Asians are getting along and that we’re assimilating to American society, and that things are all good for us. So it’s a shock to encounter anti-Asian racism. And I think the way we– one of the ways that we combat it is to talk about it, is to bring attention to the kinds of incidents that Judy Chu talked about, but also to bring attention to the historical lineage. Going back to Vincent Chin, but also much, much further back, to the 19th century, and to tell stories about these kinds of incidents.
Now, I don’t agree with Donald Trump in anything. But I do think he’s a very good storyteller. And the story that he tells is make America great again. A story in four words. And it’s a story that many Americans repeat constantly. And what that means is that we are also all storytellers. We have the opportunity constantly to tell ourselves, to tell our families, to tell our friends, to go on social media, to tell a stranger that these types of racist things are happening and that we need to combat them. And one of the things I’d add to that in the end, is that it’s not enough for Asian Americans to be against anti-Asian racism. Of course, we’re going to be against that because we’re the victims of that. But it’s going to ring hollow when Asian Americans demand justice for ourselves without demanding justice for others, as Darren was saying. So part of this transformative moment that we find ourselves in because of the radical impact of COVID-19 on our economy and our society is that many things can change for the better and for the worse. And it’s up to Asian Americans not just to defend themselves at this moment, but to make a case for how it is that we stand up also for justice – economic justice, social justice, racial justice – for ourselves, but for everybody else in our society who’s going to suffer from these economic and racial consequences of COVID-19.
Helen Zia, I want to bring you in here. We’ve been hearing so much about history repeating, about how some of this we have seen before and we are seeing again, and people think it will just continue to happen cyclically. But I want to ask you about what’s different now? What’s different today about the Asian American community? What’s different about where we are? Certainly, this pandemic is a very new and different and unique moment in time, and what can be done differently so the cycle doesn’t repeat?
Well, we are in a different place, even though we are seeing the cycle of history in a way repeat itself. And we are seeing the convergence of a time of these trends where this competition or naming the China as the enemy of the US, but also the main difference that we can control here is the evolution of the Asian American people. When Vincent Chin was killed, the population of Asian Americans was very small. It was probably 1 or 2 million people. Now there are more than 20 million Asian Americans. And what we’ve found in the history of how Asian Americans have been used as a wedge, as a way to say, “Oh, you’re the model minority today because that means you’re the better minority or you’re the enemy and another case to be bashed,” none of those were creations by Asian Americans. None of those were ways that Asian Americans defined ourselves. Now we have 20 million more Asian Americans who have a voice. As soon as this bashing started, people were able to use social media and to say, first of all, “Alert, this is happening.”
But now we also have a way to talk about all the things that Darren and Viet were saying that, for example, to point out that white supremacy moves forward when people are divided, and that we as Asian Americans will not let ourselves be used in a way against other people of color, against any people at all. But that the way together is to come together and to support each other. And that’s a difference. We have that voice today and to make use of it. I mean, look, we’re having this town hall. The mini-series of the Asian Americans is coming up. There’s greater attention. And that’s where we as Asian Americans have to begin to define ourselves, not let ourselves be used as the model minority on the one hand or the ultimate diabolical enemy on the other. And we don’t own them. We reject them. And so then it’s up to us to define who we are in this country, in this world, and how we stand up for the rights of all people because we reject the white supremacy house and white supremacy.
Darren, you hear Helen talking about raising awareness, about telling our own stories. You have a very unique perspective on this panel as the head of the Ford Foundation. And I’m curious, especially as we’re heading into very tough economic times, what do you think the role of philanthropy can be right now in participating and empowering and amplifying some of those voices? How important is that right now and in the years to come?
Well, we have a critical role to play. And let me first say that the Ford Foundation, since the 1960s, has supported various organizations, indeed the creation of various organizations to advance the rights and protect the rights and bring justice to Asian Americans. Having said that, I will tell you that when I first was presented with the opportunity to support the new series, my question was, why did it take so long? I couldn’t believe that public media had not produced this idea, this history, this rich, vibrant story that is central to understanding who we are in this country. It is impossible to know America, to know American history, without knowing the history of people of Asian descent and the contributions that they are making today. How is it that it took so long? The stories are so important. And what Helen and Viet said, I must add a coda: you must control your own narrative. For too long, the narrative of people of color has been controlled and defined by white supremacist ideas.
And what you are doing now, what CAAM has done so brilliantly, is to center the narrative, not with white people at the center, but to put Asian people at the center, and to right history – R-I-G-H-T history – so that we actually understand the fullness of America because we have not been told our real history, which is a noble, inspiring, aspirational idea that we have not lived up to. So we need to know that black people weren’t the only people lynched and American history. There were Asian people. Asian Americans were lynched in American history. So I could not be more proud that the Ford Foundation is supporting many efforts, but we don’t do enough. It’s essential that we spread the gospel in philanthropy, that we must move from these old noblesse oblige charity ideas to a framework of justice and dignity over charity and generosity.
Charity and generosity are wonderful, but justice is really what we must have as our calling and the work of philanthropy. And that is very hard because philanthropy, for the most part in this country, is a privileged white domain that is conservative. No matter how progressive we profess to be, that is conservative and often too interested in preservation rather than innovation. And when we get to innovation and we start to understand the innovation, the entrepreneurship, all of these American ideas, this community, this community is at the center and has done more to advance those American ideas. So tell your stories. We need to hear them.
That is a perfect segue to my next question for Viet. Viet, this whole idea of American ideas, you wrote beautifully about in a recent New York Times op-ed. It was called The Ideas That Won’t Survive the pandemic. And you wrote, “If anything goes–” “If anything,” rather, “emerges out of this period, if anything good emerges, it might be the awakening to the preexisting conditions of our body politic.” I want you to take that idea and make it relevant to this conversation. When we talk about telling our own stories as Asian Americans, when we talk about storytelling from our own centered perspective, what does it mean in terms of how and where we fit into this country moving forward?
I think there’s two kinds of stories that we need to tell. I mean, one kind of story is the immediate story about who we are as individuals, who our families are, who our parents are, the struggles that we’ve gone through, and so on. And this is where I think, to answer the youth question– the youth have a real advantage here. You know what I mean? They have access to TikTok. And TikTok can tell great stories that old fogies like me can’t do. There’s always new stories. There’s always new experiences that are coming out that we need to tell stories about. And I’m the last person to tell Katie what to do because I have no idea what somebody 20 years old from Hawaii is experiencing. So I welcome new, unexpected, surprising stories that are coming out. But there’s also a more fundamental story. And this is what I think my op-ed was really trying to get at, which is that the United States is built on this idea of the American dream. We all know what that is, but the United States is also built on another kind of story, which many Americans don’t want to talk about, which is the story of slavery and genocide and occupation and colonization. And that story, that history, has not disappeared. It’s still with us today. The ramifications are felt in every aspect of our lives. And when we tell our individual stories, we should be keeping an eye out on how that story connects to this more fundamental story of the beauty and the brutality of America. And so when I say that COVID-19 has revealed the fundamental underlying illnesses of the American body politic, what I’m saying is those fundamental underlying illnesses go all the way back to the origins of what we call the United States. So the class inequality, racial inequality, all these kinds of things are direct consequences of this much longer history.
And I think that’s one thing that we old fogies can share with the younger generation in order to understand why anti-Asian racism, for example, recurs throughout American history. The answer is it’s baked into the very nature of American society. It is not going to go away no matter how many times we pledge allegiance, no matter how many times we try to prove our Americanness, it is not going to go away because it’s structurally integrated into who we are as the United States. And it won’t go away until we radically reform these inequalities. And that’s why COVID-19 exposes these inequalities, and it gives us an opportunity to try to either radically reform them or they’re going to get even worse.
Viet, my takeaway from that is that you are not on TikTok, is that right?
God, no. It would be embarrassing [laughter].
Okay. If anyone out there watching has any TikTok tips for Viet, you can message him for those now. But look, we’ve been talking so much about the difficult periods of history, how they relate to today, the difficulties of today. It is a critical moment in time. Viet, I want to ask you first, and then I’d love each of the panelists to give their final thoughts on this too. Some of the folks out there watching right now want to know in these difficult times, what is it that gives you hope? What hope can you pull from where we are right now? Viet, I want to start with you.
I mean, in reality, it may be hard to have hope if you look at the cyclical nature of American society and how enduring racism and inequality and so many other ills in this country, how long they have persisted with us. But the hope I think is that, again, if we look at our history, we see that generation after generation, people who are committed to justice have built organizations, have built movements, have created legacies against injustice that we inherit. Center of Asian American Media that’s hosting this is one of those organizations. And I think one of the things that gives me hope is that when someone from Hawaii who is a college student that’s asking these very serious question, what gives me hope is that she will come off and she will be part of a new generation that will build another organization, that will build another movement, and that is, I think, something that I find inspirational.
Darren Walker, I’ll put you on the hotspot. What brings you hope? What is it people can look forward to coming out of this moment in time?
Well, in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was speaking with his friend, Harry Belafonte. And he said at the time when American cities were burning, when he himself was depressed and dejected, had been rejected by the youth of the Black Power movement. He said, “America’s house is on fire. Where are her firefighters?” I am hopeful because I see firefighters all around America. Of course, I’m inspired when I’m on a panel with Helen and Viet, but I see the frontline workers. I see those delivery men. I see the hospitals. I see the young people who are online, who are asking what they can do to help. This country, yes, it is flawed, but it has a noble mission that so many of us want to see realized. The challenge is, do we have the will to see the potential of America to be realized? I am hopeful and even more hopeful after conversations like tonight that we do.
Firefighters everywhere. Helen Zia, what about you? What makes you hopeful right now?
I was just thinking today about the World War II period and how we celebrate that generation as being the great generation. And what made that partly a great generation was that it was a world war. People all around the world were experiencing the pain and suffering and the cause of that war, of the higher ideals. And so we are in a way experiencing something in a shared way, a shared suffering all over the world. And we can stand together and show that we too can be a great generation because what this time is showing is that, as Darren was just saying, the delivery workers, the essential workers, the people, the immigrants who are all over the world, the migrants, the people who are at the bottom rungs of our society who are essential, and as bad as anybody might feel about what they’re going through in this time, we can look and see how lucky we are to have food security or a roof over our heads, yet these other people who are really fighting on the front lines for all of us, we can see that all over the world.
So what gives me hope is that this shared knowledge and hopefully shared insight that we can bring around the world will bring people together and see just how interdependent we all are with each other, and that we cannot afford to have all of these disparities in the future that we want to see, that when we come out of it, we don’t want to be the normal of what it was that brought us here. We want to create a new normal that will bring us all together and get rid of the disparities that Viet was talking about and really make substantial systemic change. And I think it’s this generation that’s coming up that’s looking at all of this. And they’re the ones who are going to say, “You know what? We can be a great generation too. We can change this. We don’t want normal. We’re going to create a new normal that is better, a better normal.” And that gives me hope.
A better normal, and the next great generation. I love both of those ideas. I cannot thank these panelists enough. Helen Zia, Darren Walker, Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you, thank you so much for being part of this conversation and uplifting us all tonight.
Thank you all.
Thank you. Thank you. Before we start our next panel to help set the stage, we have another clip that I want to bring to you now from that upcoming PBS series, Asian Americans. Here’s a quick preview of what that series will hold. Take a look.
When the bottom fell out of the economy, blame ended up on Japan. People with a Japanese looking face were a target.
The Vincent Chin murder was shocking.
We want justice.
The verdict stunned everyone. Four officers acquitted of beating Rodney King.
All hell broke loose.
But as much as tragedy is a part of our heritage here, so is possibility. Asian Americans become founders with fantastic vision.
We were one of the largest websites in the world and literally laying down their train tracks as the train is running and you just got to stay ahead of it.
The country’s changing and people are freaking out about it.
Because after 9/11, I wanted my art form to reflect what I believe.
To transform the system into something more just, that’s the hope of activism. That’s the hope from which the Asian American movement was born. [music]
That was another clip from the upcoming PBS series, Asian Americans, premiering soon in May. And here now to talk about what you just saw and where we go next are four incredible panelists. I’m so excited to introduce you Tamlyn Tomita, actress and longtime supporter of Asian American film and the star of so many seminal works we all know, including The Joy Luck Club, The Man in The High Castle, and narrator of course, of this series. Tamlyn, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you and thank you for having us all. Thanks.
Also with us today, Hari Kondabolu. He’s a comedian. He’s a writer. He’s a podcaster. He’s a former immigrant rights organizer who the New York Times has called, “One of the most exciting political comics in standup today.” Hari, good to see you.
Thanks, that quote got a lot of mileage. Thank you [laughter].
Also with us, Naomi Tacuyan Underwood. She is the executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association of which I am a proud member. She’s long focused her work on empowering Asian American Pacific Islander communities. Naomi, welcome.
It’s an honor to be with you. And thank you for being such a supportive member.
And also with us, Renee Tajima-Peña. She is the Academy award-nominated filmmaker whose work has long focused on communities of color and immigration, gender, and social justice. And she is a series producer of PBS’s Asian Americans. Renee, thank you so much for being here. Congratulations on the series.
So let’s jump right in. Tamlyn, I got to ask, as much as we talk about representation and how much of a difference it can make, your career began at a time that Asian American roles were rare. And just before this pandemic hit, it was almost like there was a renaissance of Asian American cinema. We had Crazy Rich Asians, we had The Farewell, and were sort of becoming much more mainstream. What do you think this means for the trajectory for representation?
I think it’s still always upward and outward. I think we have the two new projects that everybody’s talking about right now. Never Have I Ever by Mindy Kaling and Alice Wu’s Half of It. These are two projects that are out on the horizon right now and being embraced by not only Asians of America– not only Americans of Asian descent, but all Americans who really enjoy stories with a golden perspective, meaningful from specifically Asian American point of view. It’s always something to be able to celebrate these kinds of stories that have protagonists and antagonists that look like us to know that these stories can be carried and are part of the American fabric. And knowing that Mindy’s and Alice’s stories are being celebrated and being watched by all of us who are quarantined at home is very meaningful because it shows that us Asian Americans are not different from Americans of other ethnicities and heritages, but that we are all one of these two stories or two threads throughout this fabric of what we call America.
Hari, you and I have talked about this before, you talk about it often, how there was a chaotic moment in American history that really defined how you moved forward in developing your voice and your political comedy. That was of course 9/11 attacks. And I wonder when we’re in this similar chaotic, uncertain time, how do you think this informs new voices moving forward? Is this that kind of period from which we will see even more unique voices emerging?
I think it has to. Anytime you have something that is so severe as 9/11 was, as what’s happening right now is, and the and the racism around both of them, that’s going to spark lots of thoughts. It’s going to make us question– there might be young people who haven’t experienced this kind of mass racism. Let me rephrase that because if you’re black that’s like every day, but I feel like for a lot of Asian Americans, this kind of targeting– I had never been targeted the way we were targeted after 9/11, where law enforcement is looking at you, where the government is detaining and deporting people. And that shaped how I viewed this country. And it made me want to go back and think about the greater history of civil rights in this country. And I think the same is true with this moment. There’s a generation after 9/11 who doesn’t quite remember what happened, who doesn’t understand what it was like before 9/11. This generation knows what life was like pre-COVID, and they’re going to have to question where we are at now. And I think that’s going to inform how they view the world and subsequently their art.
[inaudible] talks about a whole new generation, right? Generation C coming out of this moment in time. Renee, we talked a lot in the previous panel about history and the importance of learning from our past. And I’m really curious when you’re putting together these stories, which is not just about where we have been, but where we are going, what role history played, and how you decided which of your characters you would be focusing in on? Because there are a lot of stories in there that many people may not have heard before.
Well, we were really interested in, one, looking at the fault lines of race, and class, and immigration, and looking at how those fault lines erupt in times of crisis like this, during the Vincent Chin case, 9/11, during World War II, and we wanted to see how Asian Americans responded. People see us as the model minority, of course, but Asian Americans actually have been fighting from the very beginning. I mean, the biggest labor strike in the 1860s, the Chinese railroad workers. So Asian Americans have been a part of that fight for justice. And I think what we want it to lead to in the series is really the question today when we’re a larger population, we have a greater presence, does justice mean, to quote from Richard Pryor, does justice mean just us? And how do we involve ourselves in this broader kind of movement for justice that the previous Helen and Viet and Darren talked about? So that’s really tricky because there’s a lot of interethnic tension even with other people of color. A lot of the attacks on Asian Americans lately, it’s not only white people, it’s other people of color as well. Asian Americans ourselves, we’ve wrestled with for many years anti-blackness in our communities, even in our own families. And so there is tension. That tension is something that the media loves to focus on. But there also has been solidarity from the very beginning. I mean, Frederick Douglas denounced the Chinese Exclusion act.
We found this footage of Patsy Mink in 18th– no, sorry, not 1860, 1960. 60 years ago, another election year at the Democratic National Convention. And she gave this amazing speech to convince the delegates to stay firm on a civil rights plain. And then she became the first woman of color in Congress and sponsored Title IX, which is named after her. But it’s really Asian American history is this history of solidarity. And I think for the next story, I think that’s what we really need to focus on because people want to get to work. I mean, we know it’s a shit show out there, but people really want to figure out, “Well, how are we going to move forward?”
And Naomi, I want to ask you about this from a journalist’s perspective because we’re talking about this moment of crisis everyone’s in right now. You’ve heard Hari and Renee and Tamlyn all reference it there. We went in our previous panel too. But there’s a difference between the stories told by members of the community and from a journalist’s perspective when you’re reporting on a community, and it’s different when you’re a member of that community, right? Tell me a little bit about how Asian American journalists are responding to this moment in time.
Sure, absolutely. And we can look at it from this perspective in that it is a very real moment for being an Asian American Pacific Islander journalist, and they’re experiencing COVID-19 in three very distinct ways. One, there’s an uncertainty to journalist livelihoods. Journalism has been unstable since the recession, and with 20,000 jobs lost from 2008 to 2019, this is yet another blow to journalism as we know it, as an institution. Second, just like the Asian American communities, they’re experiencing the safety concerns that we all are. And third, they’re experiencing being Asian American while working. There is a threat of anti-Asian violence when they’re doing their jobs reporting on the street or even in the White House. Two of the most public examples of this, when Weijia Jiang, a White House correspondent tweeted out that a White House official had called the coronavirus the kung-flu in front of her. Another example is Kyung Lah, a senior national correspondent, setting up for a standing shot on the street, probably. A man walked up to her, and basically shot a racial slur at her while she was doing her job. So it’s a very real moment in many ways for journalists. Regardless of how journalists have been able to incorporate and have been empowered to own their identity in the workplace and in newsrooms, the very essence of their identity is now being imposed on them by society. And we at AAJA have been tracking both the good and the bad. And I just wanted to highlight that a lot of our journalists are stepping up and owning their voices and really being able to bring the value of their experiences and identity to the work.
I just want to highlight Anh Do from the Los Angeles Times has been writing about the impact of COVID on Asian-American seniors. Bethany Ao of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a wonderful piece about Asian American mental health. Matt Stevens of the New York Times wrote a wonderful piece as well about how the Asian American community has collaborated to respond collectively to this racism. And lastly, Benjamin Pew, on the campaign trail has been talking about the empowerment and the growth of Asian American voters. So it really is an opportunity, especially with the instability in journalism. There is an opportunity to, as Darren Walker said earlier, participating and controlling the narrative and ensuring that the Asian American narrative is really a strong part of our collective American narrative.
There is really some incredible reporting and incredible work going on out there. I encourage everyone to check out some of those stories that Naomi just mentioned. Hari, I’m going to put you on the spot here though. We do have an audience question I want to play for everyone now. This comes from Theodore in Foster City, California. Hari, you were talking earlier about some folks who are going to live through some difficult times for the very first time. Theodore has a question that’s related to that. Take a listen to this now.
Hi, my name is Theodore Pei and I’m from Foster City, California. The question that I have concerns racism. As someone who has experienced flat out discrimination, what advice do you have for dealing with racist remarks and beliefs made against me?
Hari, I hate to say it, but there are people out there, young Americans who are going to experience things they’ve never experienced before. How do you prepare someone for that? What advice can you give to people?
I mean, let me first say for those of you who haven’t experienced racism, before that, I’ll also speaks to the progress that we have made that you’ve gone this far without dealing with racism. So congratulations. I think what’s key is to point it out, to make it clear, to make it public. In the previous panel, they were talking about underreporting. I mean, that’s definitely a problem when it comes to hate crimes, and when it comes to what some of us might say, “Oh, that’s insignificant. It was just a slur. It wasn’t violent.” Report it. Report it publicly. Report it to the police. Report it on Twitter. There needs to be a record that this is happening, and people need to know that this is part of the reality that we’re not too sensitive. This isn’t just a once in a million occurrence. It happens all the time. So know that at the end of the day, whatever they say to you does not define who you are. And also that you have the opportunity and maybe even the responsibility to say something.
Tamlyn, I want to bring you in here because we talk a lot about how often entertainment is on the forefront of changing the conversation, right? It’s like when things become normal and you start seeing them on your screens, big and small, suddenly it just becomes a part of your normal life. Do you think that there’s a more important role for culture to be playing right now in changing some of these conversations and addressing this kind of racism head-on?
Absolutely. I think I want to also add to Hari’s wonderful comment on addressing as to how young people or other people of other ages have not experienced racism to this point because I feel myself getting hot, and I just want to punch someone in the face when somebody does that. Because let’s face it, there’s a bunch of assholes out there, and when they hurl that shit at you, you get this feeling, and it’s rising in me now. You get angry, you get fearful, you get scared about how to react, how to properly react. And kudos to all the progress that we have made collectively as a nation, as Americans, as citizens in society, that there are so many of us who haven’t. But up until this point, just realize that again, what Hari said, it does not define you when somebody’s hurling this garbage at you, and that you just have to take it in stride and say that if you hear it outside, be safe. If you’re going to react against it, or you’re going to call it out, do so safely and do so with the presence of powered and saying, “I’m not a monster. We’re all in this together. I’m scared. You might be scared because that’s why you’re hurling this garbage at me.” But it’s that kind of progress that we all have to make together. In terms of culture and story, this is why it’s so important because there are so many of us in this nation that don’t get to see Americans of different colors on the palette of our skin tones, to be able to see two people fall in love in various degrees of golden, brown, black and white and red and green and purple or whatever. That’s important.
When we see these stories on TV, on film, it changes perceptions, perhaps imperceptibly, but they’re small increments. They’re small incremental movements towards a more progressive, a more just, a more equal society. And to be able to be participating in these stories that are broadcast, that we get to pay tickets for, that we get to stream on, that we get to laugh and cry with. That’s what’s important about culture. And it’s not just American culture. It’s worldwide culture, when we mourn the deaths of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor. There are so many stories out there worldwide, globally, that we can all embrace and say, “We’re all just brothers and sisters and human beings of this race that we’re all trying to get through COVID-19 together.”
The two giants of the industry we lost this week. Thank you for mentioning both of them. Renee, though, I want to ask you, did you ever feel the same way as Tamlyn did when you were documenting all these stories of horrible chapters in American history and dark periods and brutality against people. Do you get burned up too? Do you start to feel that kind of rage build inside of you [laughter]?
Oh yeah. That’s why I make films. [inaudible] make a movie about it. But what’s really been great is all these stories. Look at Asian-Americans. I mean, my family arrived during exclusion. They were in skid row during the Great Depression. They were incarcerated. Then the next generation of Asian Americans came as refugees, as immigrants after the war, after the Vietnam War. And people thrive, they thrive and they were so much apart. Asian Americans have really been a part of moving this democracy forward. We’ve got to step it up now. I mean, it’s going to be a tough rebuilding. It’s really going to be a tough rebuilding. And that’s why I keep on saying solidarity. I mean, we have got to go out there, and this already exists. The solidarity with other people of color, with other progressive people who are working for the same goals. But we have to really double down. We have to double down and also get people who maybe– like the Vincent Chin case. There were a lot of people who thought, “Oh yeah,” like what Viet was saying, “I’ve kind of made it. Things are okay.” And then they’re really awakened by the case. So all those people who are being awakened now, we’ve got to get them into the fold and move forward together and work with all these other groups. I mean, I look at this COVID-19 whole crisis. It’s like having a tumor. You have a stomach tumor, then it goes to your lungs, you have a lung tumor. And so for Asian Americans, we’re facing this hate, but for black and brown, indigenous, poor, immigrant, Americans are being hammered by– I won’t say hammered by the coronavirus. They’re being hammered by health disparities.
And not only is that our fight, because Asian Americans are in that group, a lot of Asian Americans are in that group. But it’s our fight because it’s like what Frederick Douglas denounced the Chinese Exclusion Act because he knew the rot of racism was going to stop us all from moving forward. So if you have a tumor in the stomach, you don’t just deal with that and leave the lungs alone. You have to attack the cancer. It’s the cancer, racism, and inequality is the cancer. And to all you racists out there, the cancer, it afflicts the whole body. So it’s not good for anybody. And you can say, “Well, I’m going to just cut out the lung and throw it over the wall.” But good luck with that, walking around without a lung. So it’s all our fight. But for Asian Americans, I mean, we have to look at the inequality effecting other communities and create alliances and become a part of that fight too. And not to say it hasn’t been done because it’s been done over the decades. And we found through the series it’s been done since we started coming here, people have created these alliances. But we’re going to be really tested in the coming months and the coming years.
Naomi, weigh in on this moving forward. Now, obviously, there’s always been a really fine line, right, between journalism and activism, and choosing stories itself is an editorial act. Where you decide to put resources, who gets to do the story, in what voice they’re telling the story. How are you approaching, and what advice do you have for the AAJA members and others aspiring journalists and storytellers out there for how they should approach which stories to tell and how to tell them at this moment in time?
Very good question. And I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts as well at another time on this. Journalists have been trained to exercise objectivity and impartiality, and there is a level of that that you have to bring to reporting. We all know that. But I think the key here is, there is no point of objectivity. You bring to the story, you bring to the choices in a newsroom or the questions or the pitches that you’re making to an editor, you bring that experience to the table. So while there is a really fine line, I think let’s turn that question over on its side and say journalism is now– there is a new frontier for journalism. It’s now a Wild, Wild West. How are we either, one, rebuilding institution so that journalists of color are more empowered in the infrastructure of the newsroom? And outside of journalism, how are we using this opportunity to ideate? Let’s break down some of these silos in terms of our careers and our roles and our training, and really ideate on the opportunities to tell stories together. We may come to this as comedians, as directors, as producers, as writers, as journalists, but really, there is the value of the stories that we can tell. And it really is a matter of being able to empower ourselves to make those avenues available for the kind of story each and every one of us has to tell, whether it’s in a newsroom or not.
All such good points. And before I let you all go, I’m going to put to you the same question I put to everybody else because I think everyone out there needs to hear this right now from some of you. You’re thought leaders in this space and across the country. So let’s play people with just a little bit of hope if we can. Naomi, I’m going to put you on the spot to start us off on this. Well, in this moment, especially from your unique perspective as a journalist, what is it that gives you hope?
What gives me hope is the fact that despite what’s happening in journalism, there are so many Asian American young people who are so interested in the craft and the livelihood of journalism. And it just goes to show that there is a future for Asian American journalists. What that future looks like, that is uncertain, but there’s so much interest. Most of AAJA members are young people. Our largest affinity group is the young AAJA group, and our college students are also very active and looking for the mentorship and looking for the guidance and also in need of history lessons, to be frank. So that gives me hope, the fact that there is a will to learn and it’s still a very strong attraction to the career.
Those are all great points. Hari, what about you? Give us some hope, something to look forward to.
I mean, like a lot of us, I think just the young people give me hope. And I think the fact that we live in a generation where there are so many more representations of a broader piece of the population is huge because that means that when things like this happen in the future, you can see Asian Americans, South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, black people as part of your community, as fellow human beings and Americans as opposed to what we’re dealing with now, where you get these negative singular images and that’s a whole group of people. So that certainly gives me a lot of hope that things are going to get stronger. In addition to the young man who was talking– I called somebody young man, I feel horrible [laughter]. But the young man who said he hadn’t experienced racism before. And I’m like, “Well, that’s a sign of hope.” It’s sad, but it’s a sign of hope.
It is indeed. We will take them wherever we can find them. Tamlyn what about you?
I just love the idea that we’re all recognizing the hope that’s in with the younger generation, but I also have to give credit to the older generations who have gone through and who have endured and who have persisted and resisted all forms of hate. Most persistently, and it’s currently the top of our conversation, racism. But also to, again, echo everybody else’s sentiments. That it’s the younger generation who have this technology, who are the TikTokkers who are going to be able to tell the stories more precisely and more elegantly in those 15 seconds of fame that they’ve got. But also to recognize that we can also reach back as to our older generations, the generation that the people whose footsteps we step into together as Americans, as global citizens, continue to journey towards the future. And it’s just a collective kind of hope that once we recognize that we’re all individuals, but we’re all the same family, that’s how we can really bond together as this one world.
Very, very well said. Renee, I’ll give you the last word here. Obviously, everyone can look forward to the series when it finally does premiere. But what is it in this moment as a storyteller, as a documentary storyteller, that gives you hope?
Well, people talk about young people. And there are two stories a century apart that we tell of young people. One was Wong Kim Ark in the late 1800. He was born here. He was a restaurant worker at a time when– your Chinese restaurant worker near the bottom of the social rung. But he went to China for a visit. When he came back to the US, to his home, he was denied reentry. So what does he do? He goes to the US Supreme Court, which blew me away because I go to traffic court and I’m like trembling in traffic court. But he goes to the US Supreme Court and wins an amazing precedent for birthright citizenship. So my parents are citizens because of Wong Kim Ark. And then over a century later, there’s Tereza Lee, the first dreamer, a Korean immigrant, undocumented immigrant from Chicago who was actually born in Brazil. And her family came to Chicago, inspired the DREAM Act, and she continued even though the DREAM Act, unfortunately, was– I mean, it got bipartisan support. It was going to be signed into law, and then 9/11 happened. And no pro-immigrant legislation was enacted after that. But she kept on fighting. She joined the movement of other undocumented young people, and she still fights to this day, so those two ends of the Asian American story are the stories that I think take us into that future.
Renee Tajima-Peña, just one of our incredible panelists here at the town hall tonight. Before we go, Tamlyn, you have to show your shirt to everyone.
I can’t believe we didn’t find a moment to feature it before. There we go. Thank you. Thank you very much. We got the Bruce Lee shirt, and we got Hari Kondabolun to call someone young man. Oh, there we go [laughter]. [inaudible] options all around.
Couldn’t change on screen.
It’s not that kind of town hall. No, it is not. My heartfelt thanks, you guys. I cannot thank you enough for being here tonight. You gave so much hope and so much insight. I think it’s something everyone needs to hear right now. Tamlyn Tomita, Hari Kondabolun, Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, and Renee Tajima Peña. Thank you. Thank you for being here.
Absolutely. Thank you.
Thank you. Bye.
Let me say a quick thank you too to our earlier panelists. That was Helen Zia, Darren Walker, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Thank you, of course, to Congresswoman Judy Chu for joining us tonight, to all of you, your time, your insights, your leadership. They mean so much and they are so necessary right now. Thanks to all of you out there who’ve been watching and listening in and sending us your questions. These are difficult times for all of us, and I think the one thing we can take away from tonight. History has shown us that in all of these moments of crisis, there are opportunities to come together and to emerge even stronger than before. So please just don’t forget we are all in this together. And also don’t forget, you can tune in to PBS’s milestone series. Check your local PBS, local member station, it premiers, May 11th, and May 12th, 8:00 PM eastern and Pacific, 7:00 PM central. It’s called Asian Americans. And when you watch it, of course, you talk about it online. Use the #AsianAMPBS that’s coming up May 11th and 12th. Listen, on behalf of the Center for Asian American Media and WETA, I’m Amna Nawaz at the PBS NewsHour. Thanks to all of you for being with us here tonight. Stay safe.