By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Racism toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is nothing new. History shows that discrimination against this group has always existed, but in the past year, it has gotten worse. The violence against the AAPI community reached a peak last week in Atlanta, Georgia when a gunman went on a shooting spree at several spas.
Eight people lost their lives and of those, six of them were Asian women.
As the nation mourns the loss of innocent lives, it must also reckon with its history of racism against the AAPI community. In the week following the shooting, it seems that there is a rise in the awareness of the mistreatment of the AAPI community.
The past year coupled with recent events has left Jessica Boling with a sense of heightened anxiety.
“Overall, the community feels more targeted,” she said. “The rhetoric of the previous administration made people feel more on edge.”
Boling is the co-chair of the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin. The group launched last April with the intention to unite AAPI leaders across the state in an advocacy effort to allocate more resources for the community and to stand against hate and racism.
Boling said the group strives to be inclusive of all AAPI communities from Pakistan to Indonesia and everything in between.
A lot of times when people think of the AAPI community, they think of East Asians and not of the others that fall under the AAPI umbrella, Boling said. Not only does the AAPI community consist of multiple nationalities and ethnicities, but it also has a large immigration and refugee population.
These groups are often ignored when it comes to resource allocation, Boling said. And when it comes to the AAPI community in Milwaukee, Boling said, “We’re largely seen as invisible, we’re often overlooked and we’re not brought into discussion.”
The feeling that elected officials disregard the AAPI community was further heightened during last week’s candlelight vigil.
To honor the lives of those who had died and to raise awareness of the ongoing hate toward the AAPI community, the coalition held a vigil at City Hall on Thursday, March 18. The group extended the invitation to Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Tony Evers.
At the time, neither had released an official statement or demonstrated a show of support. Boling said that Evers has since reached out to the coalition to apologize and to make a plan of action. She said the group is cautiously moving forward, and that it intends to hold elected officials accountable.
In addition to the lack of statements for elected leaders, Boling noted that leaders and media have been hesitant to label the shooting a hate crime. A choice that is detrimental to the AAPI community. Not calling it a hate crime, disregards the feeling of the AAPI community, and makes it seem that racism doesn’t exist, Boling explained. It also moves the responsibility from elected officials to the AAPI community to protect themselves on their own.
These actions erase the AAPI’s lived experience, she said. There’s also the denial of the role that the sexualization of Asian American women played in the shooting.
Historically, Asian American women have been targeted and objectified, Boling said. Denying that the fetishization of Asian women played a role in the shooting is dangerous.
The shooting is one of the few hate crimes against the AAPI community to receive coverage in recent history.
The number of hate crimes against the AAPI community is hard to quantify for two reasons. The first, is that there are barriers when it comes to reporting the incident to the police, the FBI, the Equal Rights Commission and so on, Boling said.
Language barriers and strained relationships with law enforcement often prevent people from reporting the crime. The second reason is internalized racism.
“There’s also an element of internalized racism for Asians as well,” Boling said. “We don’t always acknowledge our racism because it is perceived on a different level and there’s an emphasis on assimilation.”
Some cultures in the AAPI community don’t want to bring attention to themselves or don’t want that fuss, she said. Furthermore, the model minority myth, which paints the entire AAPI community as successful, further perpetuates harm against the AAPI community and allows for racist acts to be ignored.
The coalition is working to change that.
“I definitely think you’re going to hear the AAPI voice more going forward,” Boling said. “We’re going to hold people accountable.”
As part of its work, the coalition is coordinating with elected officials and community stakeholders to build relationships; increasing its civic engagement; creating programs that focus on the history and AAPI experience and continuing its advocacy work.
“I feel hopeful by the support we’ve gotten, but I think what we really need is tangible solutions and resources allocated to the community,” Boling said. “That’s the goal we continue to work toward.”