Insider

Asian American women are speaking out against hate. Activists say that can mean fighting sexism and erasure

Summary List PlacementIt was well into the rally's second hour before New York assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou stood on stage at the local Rally Against Hate to deliver her speech. By then, cries had rung out from the crowd to "let Asian women speak!"  Niou is Taiwanese-American and was, until this year,...

Stop Asian Hate Women

Summary List Placement

It was well into the rally’s second hour before New York assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou stood on stage at the local Rally Against Hate to deliver her speech. By then, cries had rung out from the crowd to “let Asian women speak!” 

Niou is Taiwanese-American and was, until this year, the only Asian woman in New York state legislature. She was one of several women scheduled to speak at the March rally, organized in protest against a recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes.

To a crowd of signs urging “Stop Asian Hate,” Niou recalled when she first received reports that a 21-year-old white man shot and killed eight people, including four Korean and two Chinese women, in massage parlors in the Atlanta area.

“You know what was the most heartbreaking thing? It was those 911 calls. When those women tried to call for help, and nobody on the other end could understand what they were saying — it broke my heart because it sounded like my own mom,” Niou said. “But I can speak their language. I can make sure I hear them.”

While the rally both galvanized and temporarily comforted a community roiling with fear and anger, activists point to experiences like Niou’s as emblematic of the silencing of Asian and Asian American women within both white and Asian communities. For many, their words have often fallen on deaf ears — until now.

“You can’t change the table setting unless you have a seat at the table,” Niou said.

The double invisibilization of Asian American women

Asian American women have long been subjected to both gendered and racialized violence and discrimination — a pattern that’s only surged amid the pandemic. According to Stop AAPI Hate’s most recent report, of the nearly 4,000 hate incidents reported since March 2020, women reported 2.3 times more hate incidents than men.

“Part of that is because immigrant women are overrepresented in the restaurant, retail, and personal care industries. These are all industries in which women are more subject to harassment,” said Jaclyn Dean, the policy and government affairs director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF).

In a press conference held the morning after the Georgia shootings, the Atlanta police department reported that Robert Aaron Long had said that he had been motivated not by racism, but by a sex addiction. Experts, however, have widely denounced this statement, citing a history of sexualized violence against Asian American women and the dehumanizing stereotypes and objectification it’s cultivated.

Many note that when women do speak out for a cause — like May Chen, who led one of the largest Asian-American worker strikes in 1982, or Evelyn Yoshimura, a civil rights activist who railed against the myth of the quiet, socially obedient Asian American — they’re often met with apathy, or, worse still, admonitions to stay silent by others in their communities, said NAPAWF’s Dean.

“There’s still a lot of patriarchy within Asian communities. We’re expected to be quiet stay-at-home moms,” Dean said. “It’s a reckoning that not just this nation has to go through, but one our community has to go through.”

Asian American women are on the ground leading local movements

Following the Atlanta shootings, Asian American women are renewing their fight to have their voices heard. During a 3,000-person Georgia rally she helped organize on this month, Cam Ashling, the cofounder and chairwoman of the Georgia chapter of the Asian American Action Fund, said she had to “fix” the lineup of speakers because the women had been buried further down.

“Whose house is on fire right now? Centering Asian women in our public discussion is crucial,” Ashling told Insider. “We’re normally not at the center of attention, partially because we don’t want to be, and partially because we’ve been ignored.”

Ashling, who was tapped as Sen. Jon Ossoff’s AAPI outreach director during his campaign, said that she and other activists have been “organizing like crazy” in Georgia to mobilize the community against race- and gender-based hate, likening it to “a second Civil Rights Movement for people of color.”

Betty Hang, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, organized her own vigil, deciding to take matters into her own hands after she didn’t hear back from other advocacy groups. 

“Women are speaking up and being very vocal. I hadn’t really seen that before,” said Hang. “Asian women have been socialized to not say much and to put our heads down.”

For Hang, the push to join racial justices causes began last year, as headlines about hate didn’t often mention the uptick in violence against Asian Americans in her California community. She was inspired by a George Floyd vigil she’d attended around her college graduation last year.

Around 500 people of different ethnicities showed up, lighting candles in remembrance of the victims of the Atlanta shootings. Hang noted that, soon after, many of them Asian American women began reaching out for advice on organizing their own events.

“As Asian women, we hold a lot of things that we haven’t been able to be vocal about. But now we can break out of the boxes that people put us in,” Hang said.

Fighting for a seat at the table

Activism in communities is matched by advocacy in public policy. Across the country, AAPI women are fighting for policies aimed at dismantling the systemic discrimination and inequities disproportionately experienced by minorities at the local, state, and federal level.

Included in that work is breaking down data by ethnicity and by gender to capture Asian diversity and intersectionality, ensuring that underrepresented ethnic groups and women aren’t overlooked when making policy decisions.

“AAPI communities aren’t a monolith. We’ve long been considered ‘statistically insignificant’ by ethnicity, let alone disaggregating it further by gender,” said Dean.

Assemblymember Niou is committed to addressing cultural and language barriers that can disadvantage Asian American communities. She ran for office in large part because of her childhood experience acting as the de facto translator for her immigrant parents.

But in order to fight for policies that can engender greater equity for minority communities, Niou recognizes that representation comes first. 

“We’re human. We shouldn’t have to beg to be recognized as humans too,” she said. “I want to make sure that people see these women as their mothers and sisters, that they humanize everyone others are trying to erase. We need our voices heard.”

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