AAPI Heritage Month and Challenging Reactionary Solutions

It is becoming a grim tradition this time of year to review the Stop AAPI Hate data and acknowledge that the issue is continuing to get worse. When you factor in particularly tragic spectacles such as the mass shooting in Monterey Park, California in January where a gunman killed 11 Asian American people at a dance hall, it’s even more distressing. Frustrating but unsurprisingly, far too many people attempted to minimize this tragedy by implying that the fact that the gunman was an Asian American man invalidated any reasons to treat it as an instance of the systemic danger Asian Americans face. In many ways, this is a reflection of how the national discourse has been oversimplified and often weaponized to obscure and divert energy away from a glaring problem: increasing anti-Asian hate crimes.

How do we meet the urgency of the moment without repeating the same reactionary, often performative and, most importantly, ineffective solutions?

As a university administrator, this is a question I continually wrestle with. Clearly, deepening our work is not enough if that work is not transformative. Good intentions aren’t enough.

This includes reflecting on how we celebrate and observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As a country, we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month during May of each year. The annual observation began as a week-long celebration instituted by former President Jimmy Carter’s Administration in 1978. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush expanded the observation to a full month. The reason that creators of the celebration chose May is because it commemorates two particularly notable moments in history. One of those moments is the first immigration of Japanese people to the US on May 7, 1843. The other is the completion of the transcontinental railroad by majority Chinese immigrants on May 10, 1869. Among other things, these two historical moments symbolize different Asian communities both making places for themselves and making foundational contributions to American society.

Of course, these large contributions and instances of placemaking don’t exist in a vacuum. While we celebrate and honor the work, we cannot erase the struggles that came with it.

That is no different when we reflect on what’s happening here in Oregon and our Eugene community.

For example, Eugene is home to the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival, which showcased more than 90 films this year, including 58 directed by women. The festival, founded by Jason Mak in 2006, is a staple of the community and a model of celebrating and supporting Asian American creators and cultures.

Yet, why events like this are so important is also underscored by a recent editorial in Eugene Weekly from a mixed-raced woman about the constant anti-Asian racism she and her Taiwanese mother face in the city to this day. This included her mother being forced to move because she could no longer deal with the virulent racism of her neighbors, including a woman who would shout, “Go back to China” out of her window.

This is not what a community where everyone is allowed to live and thrive looks like. Whether as a campus community or a city, we cannot continue leaning on statements and good intentions when these ugly realities persist. We must take real action and let’s be clear, that action can’t be the same solutions that treat various Asian American communities as a blanket group and work to make sure no one gets what they need, nor can they be the failed policies that only empower police to criminalize poverty, which disproportionately affects southeast Asian American communities.

We must truly collaborate with community members and grassroots organizations to build a different reality and transform our community. Here at the University of Oregon, that can’t just be on campus and in the classrooms, but also in the boardrooms. Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a convenient time to engage in this work, but we must do it all year round.