by Sameth Mell
The invisibilization of Khmer and Southeast Asian communities poses harm to our collective community. At the same time, we are also working to address health disparities, food insecurity, inability to afford basic needs, rent insecurity, economic vulnerability, and violence against our most vulnerable elderly populations who are Asian/Southeast Asian Americans. The problem is a systemic and structural issue that spans centuries of invalidation, marginalization, and “othering” of Asian/Southeast Asian Americans.
We have seen a huge influx of hate and bias crimes, sentiments, and attitudes against Asian/Southeast Asian Americans in the past two years since the pinnacle of the Trump Administration’s failure to address the pandemic. So many of us have witnessed the deterioration of logic, rationale, and decency in American politics and civil society. When Trump termed COVID-19 the “kung flu” and the “China virus,” it led to an uptick of anti-Asian/Southeast Asian American hate and bias, primarily instigated by right-wing and hate groups.
What I am here to share with you is the harm that is caused by further alienating and hyper-marginalizing Southeast Asian Americans into terrorizing pandemic invisibility, and stories about what a few of our community coalitions and organizations have been working on to address this issue.
In my full-time job, I direct a project called Partners in Change, a program under the Equity in Education Coalition (EEC). Partners in Change has convened community conversations since the beginning of the pandemic with multi-level stakeholders, community leaders, and different levels of government departments and officials. We are blessed to be supported by former State Rep. Velma Veloria and our executive director, Sharonne Navas, in pulling together concrete work and community relationship development outcomes. Under Partners in Change, we have had the opportunity to fight hate and bias by strengthening and supporting Meg Tapucol-Provo’s fight against the Proud Boys.
Meg is a resident and leader in the City of Des Moines. Partners in Change convened a community forum on anti-hate and bias in July 2020 to address the issue of the Wally’s Chowder House Restaurant owner’s son, Ethan Nordean, a member and leader of the Proud Boys, holding meetings at the restaurant. At that time, social media messages were seen with racist statements by the owners of the restaurant. Nordean is also one of the individuals who led the Proud Boys on Jan. 6 at the Capitol Hill riot and was later arrested and charged.
We fought to hold Wally’s Chowder House Resturant’s local city council and police chief accountable. At that time, the restaurant received King County funding to support food access. EEC and Partners in Change do not believe that an establishment that supports hate groups, bigotry, and racism should be receiving public dollars. Fortunately, the County suspended their funds to the restaurant.
We were also working with the governor’s office, senior staff RaShelle Davis, and her team members through weekly — later bi-weekly — meetings beginning May 14, 2020. We were able to get support from RaShelle and CAPAA’s executive director, Toshiko Hasegawa, to request the governor to issue a Asian Pacific American Anti-Bias and Anti-Hate Day proclamation on July 13, 2020. During all of this and other high-priority work we have been attending to, we were also in communication and working with Sahar Fathi from the Washington State attorney general’s office around these same issues.
But the issue of anti-Asian and anti-Southeast Asian bias and hate has not been resolved.
Our work is in making sure we coalesce communities, government, and institutions together to tackle a variety of topics and issues. Anti-hate and bias is one of those pressing topics. We acknowledge that there are many communities within the Asian/Southeast Asian American community who are impacted and victimized. What I hope is that we continue to provide space to hear from impacted communities, their stories, and the work that is being done from the different municipalities, to further push this conversation into the policy, media, and political discourse more aggressively, and to de-normalize the hyper invisibilization of Asian/Southeast Asian American Communities.
This Tuesday, Oct. 5, in lieu of our regular governor’s office meeting, we will host a forum on Anti-Asian/Southeast Asian Hate & Bias. Visibility and action are important in holding systems accountable to the needs and survival imperatives of impacted communities. As we continue to build conversational infrastructure, we also work to undo the erasure imposed on our collective struggle towards being seen, being counted, belonging, and a sense of community empowerment. We will have to push this conversation further into public discourse and action and demand from institutions to rectify and remedy iniquity and inequity. Here are a few things that we should be demanding right now from our government and/or doing to address the issue of anti-hate and bias:
- Through the Procurement Offices/Departments: All RFP and grants should be made sure that the applicants have no ties to white supremacy and hate groups. If they do, don’t grant them access to apply for public dollars.
- Cities and local municipalities should invest in marketing and outreach that improves the dimensions of the Asian/Southeast Asian narrative and stories: Focus on empowering and powerful messages about our culture and our elders. We are powerful, and yet the media continues to portray us as the “model minority,” submissive, docile, and weak.
- Work with local groups that are doing grassroots organizing and support for their communities. Sometimes grasstops organizations and larger entities are just a service delivery and administrative horror movie waiting to show up. Invest in the people closest to those who are impacted.
- Continue to participate and be part of these larger opportunities to coalesce, share, and incrementally advocate for policy and legislative changes that make inroads for possible offensive adherence against hate groups. We must not just react, respond, and be on the defense. Fighting back means FIGHT BACK.
- Keep talking with legislators and policy makers. Make sure that it is not just all talk and no follow up, action, or commitment. What we need is real talk and real walk.
In Community and Solidarity,
Sameth Mell is a 1.5 generation Khmer American born in a refugee camp in Thailand. He has been the chairman of the Cambodian American Council of Washington State since 2018 and currently works as the director of Partners in Change (a program of the Equity in Education Coalition).
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