A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City’s Chinatown-based Apicha Community Health Center, which began in 1989 as the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS, informally collected stories from its staff about their pandemic experiences.
Again and again, staffers of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) descent told stories of people getting up and moving away from them on the subway toward other seats. That’s according to longtime Apicha Community Health Center head Therese Rodriguez, who is of Filipino descent. “It really hurts at the core of your humanity when someone looks at you with that disdain,” she says. “There’s a sense of powerlessness that comes with that.”
Since then, API folks across the U.S. have experienced a shocking rise in hate crimes directed toward them, according to Stop Asian-American Pacific Islander Hate, a new group launched in response to the attacks. Such attacks began after former president Donald Trump started constantly referring to COVID-19 as “the China virus,” “the Wuhan virus,” and “Kung Flu,” despite repeated protests that such descriptors were racist and would, indeed, spark anti-Asian violence.
In the following months, API folks—especially in New York City and California, where their numbers are large—have been shoved, knifed, gang-jumped, and spit upon, sometimes fatally, often accompanied by overtly anti-Asian verbal slurs. Such attacks have been widely denounced, including by President Joe Biden. On social media, such hashtags as #StopAsianHate and #StopAntiAsianViolence have surged.
And much of this had happened even before Robert Aaron Long, a young white man, murdered eight people at three Atlanta massage parlors on March 16. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent who worked in the parlors. Those murders took the national conversation about the long-unaddressed racism and violence toward API folks to an even higher level.
For API folks who work in the field of HIV/AIDS and broader ones of LGBTQ services and/or public health, the recent spike in violence is directly attributable to the relentless anti-Asian race-baiting of Trump.
“I put this squarely at his feet,” says Paul Kawata, the Japanese-American longtime head of NMAC (formerly National Minority AIDS Council). “I don’t know whether or not he understood how much his words mattered, but the ramifications of it are that people my age and older are getting beat up just walking down the street because they’re Asian.”
He’s echoed by Japanese-American Lance Toma, CEO of San Francisco Community Health Center, which serves the city’s Tenderloin area, which has high rates of HIV, drug use, and homelessness—including, he says, among API folks. “It made my blood boil every time I heard Trump say ‘the Wuhan virus,’” he says. “He had a mocking tone that was so cruel and racist and ugly. I’m not Chinese, but I knew it was going to impact our entire API community.”
But underscoring the recent surge in attacks, they say, is the much longer-existing issue of API invisibility—the relative lack of API representation in American public life or pop culture, which has only improved somewhat in very recent years.
And that’s especially so in the world of HIV, they say, where API folks have long made up such a tiny percent of the U.S. HIV caseload that they are often overlooked entirely by HIV prevention efforts. In 2018, for example, Asian-Americans made up 6% of the U.S. population and accounted for 2% of new HIV cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders made up .2% of the population and less than 1% of new HIV diagnoses.
Meanwhile, in the same year, Black folks made up 13% of the population but accounted for 42% of new HIV cases. Latinx people made up about 17% of the population but accounted for 27% of cases. And non-Hispanic whites made up about 60% of the population but about 30% of HIV diagnoses.
With such low numbers among API folks, it’s hard to feel seen at all, says New York City’s Ivy Arce, who says she was almost entirely alone as a woman of Chinese descent living with HIV when she was involved in the AIDS activist group ACT UP in its late ’80s/early ’90s heyday.
“People were constantly asking me why I was there,” she recalls. “Was I there for somebody else? Was I a nurse? A mole with the police?” She says she remembers seeing a statistic in the early ’90s showing that API folks made up about .02% of the city’s HIV cases. “It made me feel like I wasn’t even a full number as a person.”
And that invisibility can send a dangerous message, even if API HIV rates are low, says Japanese-American Suki Terada Ports, one of Apicha’s founders. “We don’t see ourselves in HIV treatment or PrEP ads on the subway or anywhere,” she says, “which makes us say, ‘Oh, we must really be superhumans—we don’t get infected.’ Even if our numbers are small, we still need to be paid attention to, included, and mentioned.”
Perhaps, in the realm of HIV, now more than ever. Rodriguez points to CDC data showing that, between 2014 and 2018, HIV rates for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders increased, even while decreasing for all other racial groups, including Asians (the rate for Native Americans remained stable). She cites New York City data showing that API folks were the only racial or ethnic group whose HIV rate decrease between 2001 and 2019 was not significant. And she points to a 2018 New York City report showing that, due to HIV and LGBT stigma, HIV testing rates in Asian populations were significantly lower than in the overall population.
A Discomfort With Seizing the Spotlight
But many API advocates in the HIV world said that it felt uncomfortable demanding more attention to HIV in API communities when the actual numbers are still so low—especially compared to the disproportionately high numbers among Black Americans.
“The funding has to follow the demographics,” says Kawata. “If the majority of people living with HIV are African-American, then the majority of funding obviously needs to go to African-American groups, the people who are hurting the most.”
And this feeling of not being the top priority can extend into a moment like the current one—when, despite the shocking rise in anti-API violence, it still pales in comparison to the years-long rates of police (and sometimes civilian vigilante) killings of Black people.
“I don’t think America has the bandwidth to deal with racial conflict beyond a white-black binary race narrative,” says Filipino-American Angelo Ragaza, head of marketing and editorial at the LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal. “If I were Black, worried about my son getting shot by cops, I’m not sure I’d be able to worry about anybody else’s racial problem.
“With white people now,” he says, “in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, you see this outpouring of support to Black Lives Matter and related nonprofits around criminal justice. I could not even conceive of anything like that happening for Asian Americans, because I think anti-Black racism is so painful and seems so intransigent.”
Granted, in recent weeks, rallies against anti-Asian violence, mostly in New York and California, have drawn crowds of hundreds—nowhere near the millions who took to the streets nationwide last summer to protest the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, and others.
“It’s hard for us to claim space when Black Americans have suffered so much,” says Arce. “Yes, there’s violence today toward Asian-Americans, but not the kind we see every single day toward Black people, who can’t even be in their own houses without being shot. So how can Asian culture say anything?”
Turning the Tide of Shame and Silence
But some API HIV and LGBTQ advocates say that the relative lack of noise against anti-API violence is also due at least in part to deep traditions in many API communities to not make a fuss, in order not to shame one’s family or community.
“We’re so used to being ashamed of a thousand things,” says Arce. “Our parents instill that in us. Most of us are from cultures that are very propagandistic, where you always have to be a good player and not stick out. So we oversell ourselves on America and feel that, once we’re here, we should be grateful.”
Says Rodriguez, “We have traditions where silence is considered a source of strength. If you’re coming from a very traditional family, which many of us are, you don’t have language to protest. But we have to begin to assert the role we have played in this country, our contributions, and demand policies that will protect us.”
Ragaza, who served as editor in chief of a magazine for the Asian community called A in the 1990s, says that during a recent reunion Zoom with the magazine’s editorial staff, they were all grappling with the uncomfortable feelings of the current moment of anti-Asian violence.
“In a lot of Asian cultures, it’s not cool to stand out,” Ragaza says. “The emphasis is on the collective good, and you’re not supposed to sacrifice family unity at the altar of individual self-expression or dissent—even if it’s to protest people sucker-punching or stabbing us in the street.”
Still, says Ragaza, he feels that a current “third wave” of Asian activism is taking flower. The first wave, he says, arose out of protests against the Vietnam War, while the second was part of the initial identity politics movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
That second wave birthed the career of comedian Margaret Cho, who, in her hilarious foul-mouthed diatribes, almost single-handedly shattered the stereotype of Asian women as quiet and docile. Cho has spoken out extensively against anti-Asian violence in the past year, alongside fellow API celebs like Olivia Munn and Jeremy Lin and new watchdog/advocacy coalitions such as Stop AAPI Hate.
“We’re definitely in a new wave right now,” Ragaza says, “which is different from the last one because of social media, and also because Asian-American studies programs [on campuses] are much more established. We’re seeing all Asian-American organizations and celebs speaking out against the violence.”
But he questions just how far the pushback will go. “I don’t think we’ll see a groundswell of non-Asian allies taking to the streets, willing to get arrested to protest anti-Asian violence. It’s not anybody’s priority and, I’m sorry to say this, it’s not even Asian-Americans’ priority.” After all, he notes, “one in three Asian-Americans voted for Trump despite the China-bashing over COVID.”
That lack of militancy may be because of how well many API folks have assimilated, he says. “A lot of educated and affluent Asian-Americans live surrounded by white people, including our spouses. Things like [the U.S. government’s] internment [of Japanese-Americans during World War II] seem like the distant past.”
And yet, he says, precisely because so many API folks are comfortably assimilated is why many he knows are so shaken by the recent violence. “It’s really jarring to suddenly see videos on your social feed of Asians being attacked for no reason. A lot of API folks are coming into a sharp awareness that really they’d rather not have. I see Asian friends of mine who are pretty apolitical starting to post now, ‘This is fucking outrageous.’”
In the HIV and LGBTQ realm, API advocates say they hope this is a moment that both their white and people of color (POC) colleagues and peers stand up for them, as they feel that they, as API folks, have for other groups.
“I consider myself part of a bigger POC movement,” says Kawata, whose parents were in the internment camps. “I will never understand what it means to be Black in America, but I can still stand in solidarity with the Black community. When NMAC first formed in 1986, we decided that we were going to be multiracial, that we were more powerful together than separate. I’ll be the first to say that you can’t compare oppressions—that’s a losing game.”
Still, at this moment, he would like the focus to stay on API folks. “So often, we Asians get ignored. Our stories aren’t told, and when you don’t have your stories out there, it seems as though you’re not significant or important enough. I want the larger community to understand that the Asian community always stands ready to fight with them against all types of oppression and discrimination. But I want Asians to understand that we’re important, too. It’s like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said: None of us are free until we’re all free.”