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What AAPI Identities Mean For Our Staff

We asked our colleagues what draws them to the work of economic and racial justice, and about what being Asian American and Pacific Islander means to them

Authors: Common Future

Common Future, we are proud to be a Black-led, majority women, majority BIPOC institution. By the numbers, 25% of our team identify as Asian, Pacific Islanders, or as biracial Asians — American or otherwise. We asked our staff what draws our team to the work of economic and racial justice, and about what being AAPI means to them.

These are their stories.

The Power of Otherness

As a transracial adoptee, I didn’t grow up eating kimchi or wearing hanbok. I grew up in a town that — years after I’d left — voted to elect Donald Trump for president. It wasn’t until after college that I connected with my ancestors’ country and culture.

While I lived a very happy three years in Korea, drinking makgeolli and riding along the Han, my relationship to being Asian will never be tied primarily to those cultural touchpoints — no matter how much jeong I feel with Korean people. Before I moved to Korea, and began to embrace my identity as Asian-American, I — like so many minorities in America — sought false refuge in assimilation. As a young person, rather than explore my Korean heritage, I actively avoided and sought to erase any trace of it: popped collars, bronze sun tans and glossing over any and all times when people earnestly or flagrantly confused Korea with any other Asian country.

My relationship to being Asian began with a deep and disdainful feeling of being Othered. Throughout my life, when people found out I was adopted by white folks, they often asked “when did you realize you were adopted?” — only to be somewhat surprised that there wasn’t a seminal moment where my adoptive parents sat me down and laid out a prepared speech. I knew I was adopted because — as someone who was a minority and raised in a place that, either directly or indirectly, made me feel like the Other — I developed strong awareness and observational savvy. I knew because when you cannot blend in with the crowd, you notice and process details instinctively. For many, I feel it’s a tool for survival.

As an adult, being Asian will always be about transforming my youthful Otherness into a powerful form of solidarity with those who also, by no choice of their own, have been marginalized in some way, but are full of tremendous potential. I carry this perspective into all of my personal and professional endeavors, which creates a foundation of unyielding empathy and asset-based thinking. At Common Future, when I am pursuing and evaluating prospective partnerships, I look and value things beyond people’s resumes or traditional experiences; I ask about the texture of their lives and how they have navigated a world that has given them less, but requires them to be at least twice as good.

One of the most powerful parts, both organizationally and personally, of being on a majority BIPOC team, is that I believe my — and for colleagues and partners that identify similarly, our —Otherness is a valued source of insight and empowerment, not a mark of marginalization. To achieve Common Future’s mission of building community wealth and closing the racial wealth gap, I think we are called and compelled to operate in this seemingly subversive way. Even if it’s not how Others are doing it.

The Legacy of Liberation Fighters

I hail from liberation fighters, refugees, farmers, educators and healers. Bangladesh is a relatively new nation, having only gotten its freedom in 1971. Our liberation is tied to language, wealth extraction, representation and heritage. Bangla was banned as an official language by the oppressor government in place, not to be taught or used in any forms within the colonized system. Even having won the majority in allegedly democratic elections, we weren’t allowed the seats or power for representation. Our merchants, our farmers, our entrepreneurs, were all denied the opportunities to meet a basic income for survival — everything was day-to-day subsistence. Our food, our practices, expressions, our traditions — even our weddings — were methodically expunged. So we fought.

A tiny nation, on the brink of famine — often described as “the basket case” by Western white economists — fought back. And won.

There is no official death count for the war. The range is expansive from 300,000 to 3,000,000. But the trauma, displacement, memories from the war are passed down to each one of us, and become a part of our identities. So for me, being AAPI means always centering on the struggles, resiliency, and hope of my ancestors. It means being seen, heard, and recognized for my identity and native Bangladeshi roots. It’s knowing that the ancestral knowledge and experiences I carry in my body, bones and soul far exceeds that of my 3.4 decades lived experiences in a foreign country. In my day to day life, especially as a BIPOC fundraiser, the irony isn’t lost that I’m both working within the oppressor wealth systems to build new opportunities for marginalized BIPOC people.

Our north star at Common Future, is to shift capital and build power by/for/with BIPOC community leaders who are under-resourced, overlooked, and underestimated by dominant systems. My personal purpose and Common Future’s values are aligned in the unfettered dreams, hopes, vision we have for our communities. AAPI as a term, a category is large, expansive, complex, and through my work I hope to illuminate the granularity and mutuality of our existence and most of all I hope I can model and breathe life to far-reaching dreams, hopes, possibilities for our communities — similar to that of my ancestors.

The Gift of Biculturalism

I have never been more proud to be Taiwanese American, but it has not always been this way. My internalized understanding of what it meant to be an Asian American woman led me to believe that I should just defer — that my place in society was not centered around myself. Imagine not feeling like the main character in your own life — that was what it felt like to grow up Asian American in a world that centered white, evangelical men.

But being Taiwanese American and discovering that heritage gave me a vantage point into privilege too. When I lived in Taiwan for a summer in college, I felt the thrill of strangers — taxi drivers, food vendors — assuming that I had grown up in Taiwan and was just returning in between semesters. For the first time in my life, I had a template of what it could look like to belong. Returning to the States, I felt emboldened to redefine my identity on my own terms. No more stereotypes; no more internalized racism.

Now I know, to have both found and built belonging in two wholly different cultures is a gift. To be seen as Asian American — to be seen for who I am — is just the beginning.

Being Asian American, I am fundamentally driven by the fact that my existence in this country was not up to chance. If not for the work of countless Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latine American civil rights leaders over centuries, I know I would not be here today. If not for the risks and sacrifices taken by my grandparents and parents, I would not be the person I am today. This is the basis of what compels me to pursue the work of justice and belonging.

In my early career, I faced questions like “What could an Asian American woman know about racial equity?” Conversations with other Asian American women pursuing careers in justice and equity showed me that I was not alone. Though proximity to whiteness was a phrase we often used to unpack our own privilege, it also reinforced a false dichotomy and a narrative of Asian Americans being perceived as a perpetual foreigner. Because the underlying question is — if you just got here, what can you know? But the truth is that we’ve been here, asking different versions of these questions, for centuries.

In Baltimore, my friends and I created the Charm City Night Market, a festival celebrating AAPI culture and heritage. We founded the event after we read a Baltimore Sun article from 1958 about Baltimore’s Chinese American community that stated, “The old people cling to tradition; the young strive to Americanize. Both groups succeed, but neither succeed entirely.” Here we were, 60 years later, still circling around the same question, just rephrased as, “What does it mean to be Asian American in spaces that are predominantly Black and White?”

I believe our liberation — our belonging — is not a zero sum game.

My early life was shaped by a need for white validation. My early career was shaped by a similar search for Black affirmation. But at this point in my life, I am proud to say that I am doing this work — the work of creating a more race conscious, just, and equitable world — for myself too. That’s why I’m proud to work alongside a multiracial team that is building with and for our BIPOC communities to ensure our future defies our past.

Grappling With Our Place in Justice

I sat with what to write for this piece for a significant amount of time. I am a Korean-American woman, married to a Black man, and am mother to a biracial child. Asians have been for so long, upheld as the model minority, framed by white supremacy to be somehow better than other BIPOC cultures. But with that, I have found myself grappling with my place as an Asian woman within the world of liberation — my culture, the life experiences that I’ve had as an Asian person — in a way that explains why we’re not white when the privileges that come with being an Asian person in this time, to be considered studious, industrious and ultimately safe under white eyes.

I grew up in San Francisco, a place which was in many ways the epicenter of the devastating effects of Japanese internment. In the 1940s and 50s, San Francisco dissolved the Japanese population in the city, and then only allowed limited repopulation after the war. But we were never taught that. We were also never taught how San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown architecture came from a survival strategy, to keep businesses and neighborhoods from being razed and relocated. As a Korean, I was also never taught about the traumas of what happened in my home country and watched as my elders silently dealt with the traumatic experiences of moving to America. Instead, we were taught the model minority myth. Study hard. Work Hard. Make Money. Be successful in America.

In my elementary, middle and high school, the population was almost 90% AAPI, with the vast majority coming from the Chinese diaspora. And so I grew up without being branded an Asian person. With my classmates and peers, I was simply a person navigating life. A lot of my friends looked like me. We had the same experiences of being second generation immigrants, with parents that we would help with taxes, loan documents, and navigating the American bureaucratic system. We celebrated and lived in our culture while also living our adopted American culture which we adopted out of the American TV shows we watched.

At Common Future, our equity principles and values focus on centering the most impacted — which when we’re talking about the racial wealth gap are Black Americans, Latin Americans, and Indigenous populations. East Asians in particular, who were demonized upon arrival 150 years ago, have seen a steady rise to success within the American economy in particular. And so, for me, being an Asian woman, means challenging all of the assumptions placed upon us. Rather than seeing ourselves as “approximate to white,” understanding that this is a framework created by white supremacy, meant to keep us from banding together with other races to fight for liberation and equity.

Healing Trauma and Carving My Own Path

My Indian family, like so many other immigrant families, comes from a long history of poverty and trauma. When they were able to “escape” their past and “make it” to America, there was fierce urgency to assimilate. The narrative I grew up under was that you had to jump through the right hoops — predefined by white America — in order to survive. Maybe, if we do it right, we won’t have to suffer again.

For my family, as it was for many AAPI immigrants coming to America in the ’70s, the only opening we saw to come to America was to be good at math and science. I saw my mother — who I think is much better at writing, art, and creativity — try to contort herself to fit in a strict box. And she did it, very well. After graduating high school as valedictorian at 16 and taking a job in corporate America, she realized that her “high achievement” complex was never a choice. It was a matter of survival.

For so many AAPI immigrants, being in America has never meant choice or exploration. As a model minority, we’re expected to fill a certain role in society and in the workplace. And we’re so grateful to have a role, we rarely poke at it. We’re the quiet work horses, actualizing an agenda that was not written by or for us. White people love extracting as much as they can from us if it fits into their lifestyles — or wallets — but we have so much more we have to offer than yoga and engineering.

Ultimately, to me, being an AAPI in America means healing my family’s generational trauma. The amount of bravery it took for my family to leave their home country is astounding to me. How can I practice bravery in my own life, to help others create better lives for themselves and their families?

I often think about the Hindu principle of dharma. Before we were colonized, Hinduism wasn’t even conceptualized as a religion in the way the west thought of it. Instead, it was a way of life. While there are a number of ways to think of dharma, I was brought up thinking of “dharma” as life defined by duty. So many Indian Americns hold a deep understanding that spirituality, work, family, and community are all deeply interconnected — they are woven from the same fabric; the same interlocking principles. Today, I feel so privileged to be doing work that so deeply reflects my values. This is my dharma — my duty to my ancestors.

To Be Brave

In most cases, I am not seen as AAPI — something I have struggled with for most of my life. I am biracial, and while I have my mother’s Japanese face shape, I have my father’s English coloring. Most humans I meet, here and in the 7 other countries I’ve lived in, do not recognise my Asian heritage.

I am AAPI because of my Japanese mother. She is the only one in her family who chooses to live outside of Japan, and who speaks English. She first came to the United States when she was 18 years old, as part of the American Field Service Program. She was placed with a white family in New Jersey, and lived with them for a year. It was the start of a life where she learned a new language, a new culture, became the first Japanese woman to be hired by her firm, eventually met my father, and gave birth to me.

Japan can be an intimate, enclosed, bounded culture. It holds in its bones beauty and traditions, as well as strict rules and expectations, particularly for women. I think about the bravery it took for my mother to choose to leave this world she belonged to. I believe it was a bravery she expected of me, when she moved me to Japan to attend primary school in the 1980s. It was a time long before there were many foreigners in Tokyo, and I was the only biracial kid, or haafu, in my school. I felt this push-pull of wanting deeply to belong — to just fit in and be invisible — but feeling trapped by the physicality of my body, my skin tone, my appearance. Everything from my size, my hair, to the way I sat cross-legged, felt wrong. I grew up with a deep sense of shame for not being seen as Asian, despite the fact that I lived there, studied there, speak fluent Japanese, and my favorite restaurant in the world is our neighborhood gyoza spot in Takadanobaba.

These days, I recognise this identity trigger that lives within me, and work to be less reactive when others make assumptions about my heritage. At Common Future, we talk about bravery a lot. To reimagine a future where people, no matter their race or ethnicity have power, choice, and ownership over the economy, that takes bravery. How can we imagine our collective future bravely? How can we practice bravery in the work that we do? How can we bravely experiment and demonstrate in the face of change?

As a child, it felt hard to be brave, when so much of my energy went towards trying to stay invisible. And today, the 6 year old girl inside of me — who has always felt on the outside — often wants to withdraw. Can I be seen and accepted in this work? Do I really get to join the conversation?

Here is what I know. For our work to be successful, we must truly see the communities we work with, and address the layers of understanding and empathy that can live beneath a human’s physical appearance. I also know that I must practice that muscle of openness and curiosity, because that is what I am asking of others. The us versus them narrative in the United States has deep roots, and a reimagination of our future will require brave understanding beyond our tribes. It was my mother’s bravery to step outside of the path that was laid out for her that eventually gave me the privilege of working at Common Future as a biracial woman. I channel that energy to bravely experiment, outside of expectations, to inform the work I do. And I know deep in my bones that different perspectives make us stronger. In a big expansive way where we are all truly seen.

Hope for the Future

At 24 years old, I recognize the privilege in the space I grew up in, and the comfortability I feel in my skin. I’m biracial — half white, from a family that has been here for a century, and half Indonesian from an immigrant family. The result is that most people have absolutely no idea what my background is by looking at me, and yet I blend in seamlessly in various spaces. I could be Latine, Filipino, South American, if you were to guess by my looks. I often joke that I’d make an amazing spy, by virtue of my ability to fit in among so many people, that is, if I were good at any of the things it takes to be a spy.

Growing up in Long Island and then Colorado, I had a generally positive relationship with being Asian, which I realize is incredibly lucky and not something that other folks get to have. Many of my formative years were spent living with my mom’s side of the family, which immersed me in Indonesian culture — which is so different from anyone I met at school, or out in my daily life. I’ve always felt really lucky about it, and I always knew I had my family to lean on. I liked being unique, looking different, and enjoying delicious meals in my cafeteria, even if people made fun of them. I loved the chaos that my family created because there were so many of us living in the same house. I thought it was so much fun to be part of our own, Indonesian-American culture that taught me so many values that fundamentally shaped me as a person.

However this ambiguity of existing in a liminal space means that my eyes are often opened to the privilege of one side and the struggle of the other. I ask, every day, how do we open doors so that my Indonesian family — and Black families, Latine families, and countless others — can exist in a world ripe with the opportunities offered to my white family. Growing up as an ambiguously biracial kid taught me to never guess someone’s lived experiences, because our lives and stories deserve to be told and not assumed.

I think there is this magic that when you’re riding that middle, and when you have been placed in every other bucket than the one you belong to and you fall into this miscellaneous category, you can focus on just getting to know people from the beginning. Ultimately, what inspires me in this work is the sense of progress. I was beyond excited when I first started working for Emily, realizing that I’d be working for a biracial Asian boss. But I also recognize, looking at our stories, I see such a difference. I’m lucky that my generation is filled with third culture, biracial kids, who have been lucky enough that someone has paved the way before us. I think there are so many more nomads around, and so many more like immigrants that are telling their stories. My hope is that we hold steady to this road of continued acceptance and appreciation for generations to come.

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