Last night in New York City, a 65-year-old woman was assaulted on her walk to church and told that she didn’t belong in a neighborhood she’s had a presence in for decades. A nearby security guard offered no assistance, and not only failed to render aid, but closed the door on the poor woman as she was punched and kicked repeatedly.
It was just the latest incident in an escalating string of violent hate crimes that have left Asian Americans dead and severely injured, and the entire AAPI community has been left reeling from the devastating hate and violence their community continues to be subjected to.
Condemnations of the violence and calls to stop Asian hate have been ubiquitous in recent media coverage, but for too many of my Asian American friends working in Democratic politics, there has been an unsettling undercurrent of silence from political operatives that many Asian Americans have called colleagues and friends for years.
Sadly, it is just the latest example of the limits of allyship in the progressive movement, and it carries with it deadly consequences for our Asian American friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
So, I’m going to call it what it is: a moral failure.
In Democratic politics, we talk a big game when it comes to being an ally. The importance of allyship to our movements is irrefutable, and yet, white progressives like me continually find ways to fall short.
And yes, I include myself in that criticism. Despite my best intentions and effort, sometimes it isn’t enough. Sometimes I don’t understand an issue as thoroughly and completely as I wish I did. I try to learn from those moments and do better, but lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that many white progressives aren’t interested in the sometimes difficult work of self-reflection.
It’s one of the only explanations I can come up with for why so many of my white, progressive colleagues have been conspicuously silent in the fight to stop Asian hate as a wave of worsening hate crimes has devastated the AAPI community and our entire country, and a reminder that allyship extends well beyond the digital spaces we inhabit and influence.
There is another more obvious and regrettable factor at play that we need to fully acknowledge if we’re ever going to break the cycle in Democratic politics: the internalized bias of white Americans who have been exposed to hateful stereotypes about Asian Americans for decades across various media. Take, for example, former late-night host Jay Leno, who recently apologized for literal decades of terrible jokes about Asian people that were broadcast nightly to an adoring audience of millions of viewers.
I’ve seen those hateful stereotypes on full display in campaign offices more recently than I care to admit. When the coronavirus pandemic was in its earliest stage, I overheard coworkers making horrible and degrading comments about Asian people and immigrants, followed by a laugh.
And I looked across the same room at an Asian American staffer (one of the most qualified and talented folks on staff, to boot) as they buried their head in their laptop and did their best to tune out a barrage of insults they never should have listened to in the first place.
And in that moment, I tried and failed to be a good ally. I asked my colleague how they were doing on Slack and told them I was around if they needed anything when they expressed their heartbreak and outrage they were forced to deal with. I tried to empathize.
But I didn’t stand up strongly enough and call out the comments that were being made. I could give a list of excuses but the truth is that at that moment, something urgent came up and my colleague and I both went back about our work because we had to. That is, too often, what happens on campaigns when something urgently needs to be addressed.
We need to change that, too. No person of color or woman in a progressive workplace should ever feel like they have to set aside their feelings and emotional needs in service of the mission. Because we are not really serving our mission, at all, if we force our friends and colleagues to carry those awful moments around with them as if nothing happened.
Changing the behaviors is hard. It requires active participation, a willingness to improve yourself, and the ability to face the mistakes that you’ve made and hold yourself accountable. Even the most fearless leaders sometimes struggle with the realization that they’ve hurt someone, or done the wrong thing.
Accountability is hard. It’s messy and imperfect and absolutely necessary to the future of our movement.
So let it start with me.
It has been a source of abiding shame for me that I didn’t stand up for my colleague when I should have, just as it’s been a source of abiding shame for me any time I’ve let a colleague down or made a mistake in my professional life. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained perspective on what truly matters to me as a human being and can say with absolute certainty that I won’t sweat missing a deadline on a memo on my deathbed, but will still be clawing at my own insides for the people I’ve let down on a human level.
But we can’t allow our shame to breed inaction. People are being murdered and assaulted in cold blood in full view of the public. We must act now to end this wave of murder and violent crime and say loudly with one voice that we can not be at our best as a people or a nation without the contributions of our AAPI community, and that we will stand together with them until we end this violence and create a better tomorrow.
This can’t wait.