Culture 

7 Asian-American and Canadian Creatives Speak out Against COVID-19 Racism

“We need to stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities.”

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7 Asian-American and Canadian Creatives Speak out Against COVID-19 Racism

“We need to stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the outbreak has provoked a wave of anti-Asian sentiment across the globe. Despite how far the world has progressed over the last century, xenophobia continues to spread. Unfortunately, many individuals from Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities still experience racism, discrimination and prejudice on a daily basis.

Thankfully, initiatives like Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which takes place in May every year, acknowledges and celebrates Asians and Pacific Islanders for their contributions to the United States‘ history and culture. In honor of the annual event, we spoke with six Asian-Americans and one Asian-Canadian in the creative industry about their thoughts on the current state of the world, what life has been like for them since the beginning of lockdown, and how the health crisis has affected their work.

Jan Vincent Gonzales of MERCADO VICENTE

Born in San Francisco, Jan Vincent Gonzales was raised between Manila and New Jersey for most of his childhood. After having obtained his undergraduate degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and his masters at The American University of Paris, he is now based in Brooklyn.

In July 2019, the queer Filipinx-American creative established a self-titled agency dedicated to representing and fostering talent. After its first collaboration with Carl Jan Cruz, the agency started to lean more towards representing Filipinx brands, and helping them grow and develop their international presence. Just last month, Gonzales launched MERCADO VICENTE — an extension of his current agency — as a multidisciplinary creative index that features a curated selection of Filipinx artists around the world.

How has COVID-19 affected your work and daily life?

Our agency focused immensely on in-person activations like underground dining experiences, pop-up launches and other community-driven events. When COVID-19 hit, we were forced to cancel many of the projects that we had initially lined up. Understandably, our clients also had to hold off on most of the services that we offered them as they had to look out for the wellbeing of their businesses. On top of running the agency, I also worked as a server at two restaurants to make ends meet but the pandemic also wiped those jobs out once restaurants were no longer able to do table service.

My initial thoughts were to just shut down the agency, wait for things to open back up, and then act from there. However, I knew that I had a responsibility to my team, to my clients and to my people. So, this pandemic forced me to pivot and change the way I think about the work that I do. It reinforced the lesson that life will throw unexpected barriers your way and how you react to it is what matters. I had to think about the greater responsibility to the brands that I work with and the people that I represent.

For now, I take things one day at a time, understanding that there are things out of my control but knowing that I have great power over how I react to the situation given to me. It takes a lot of willpower but having the right mindset can ultimately move you forward with the work that you do.

 ”I will never be completely American. Being Fil-Am, many of us share this sentiment that we are stuck in this limbo of never being Filipino enough for the Philippines, but never being American enough for the States.” 

As an Asian-American, how do you feel when you see anti-Asian comments that are linked to COVID-19 on social media?

I’m terrified. It feeds into my insecurity of how, even being born here, I will never be completely American. Being Fil-Am, many of us share this sentiment that we are stuck in this limbo of never being Filipino enough for the Philippines, but never being American enough for the States. But I think this is where our work really comes into play in making sure that we create these spaces of allowing people to belong to groups that accept you for who you are.

This is why our project MERCADO VICENTE, along with my other groups focusing on marginalized communities, are so important. You have to understand that there are like-minded people out there that support you especially in times of hate.

Have you been experiencing any form of discrimination or racism where you live?

I consider myself lucky that I have not experienced this first hand. However, I have a handful of friends that have shared their experiences with this and it broke my heart to hear this, especially considering that we live in NYC.
Why do you think xenophobia continues to exist in the U.S.?
That’s a lot of unpacking and I don’t think I have the definitive answer to that, but I do think it has a lot to do with our leadership along with our people not having more compassion for others. In life, I think there is always an opportunity to learn something new, but if we don’t have the tools to learn then we won’t be able to create those opportunities for people. We need to foster and empower groups about marginalized communities so that we give everyone the opportunity to learn about them and understand them.

We need champions for people of color, queer people, disabled people, indigenous people, the list goes on, because their voices need to be heard so that people have the opportunity to learn, understand and hopefully empathize with these communities. We need to do this so that the only question remains is that: “Are people who are xenophobic willing to learn?”

Amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, what do you think the creative community can do to help combat racism?

Now, more than ever, it is important for creatives to show up, be counted and express themselves in ways that can galvanize our community together. Creatives have the power to change the rhetoric through their work. Seeing people come together, even online, gives others hope in these dark times. At the end of the day, with all of our eyes on the screen, we are also just looking for other things to consume digitally other than bad news. This is why we created MERCADO VICENTE.

Jenny Yang, Comedian and Writer

Los Angeles-based comedian and writer Jenny Yang moved to the U.S. when she was five years old. The Disoriented Comedy co-founder has been in the comedy and entertainment business for the last nine years. Additionally, she is a co-host for ISAtv‘s Angry Asian America. The writer has been engaged in political activism, even prior to her career in stand-up comedy.

At a young age, Yang already started writing her own poetry but never claimed to be a poet — she had denied that part of herself that was always craving creativity. It wasn’t until she got burnt out in her political career that she realized she needed a source to express her artistic side. ” Even in politics and labor organizing, storytelling was a really big part of it because it’s all about relating to one another. For me, I want to do that through my comedy,” Yang told HYPEBAE.

How has COVID-19 affected your work and daily life?

Luckily I do multiple things. I’m not only a performer but I’m also a writer. As a performer, the pandemic has limited my ability to do shows and connect with audiences directly. A lot of us comedians have pivoted to [creating and sharing content] online. On the writing side, however, that machine is still going. I’ve always seen myself as a comedian and a writer who cares about the world, and who wants to always be a part of a conversation that I think we should be having.

For me, since the world has shifted into this pandemic conversation, so have I. I started doing videos and I started doing less stand-up comedy because I was writing for TV shows for the last two years. When the pandemic happened, it coincided with the end of the second television show I was writing. I was already mentally and physically prepared to be self-employed again.

As an Asian-American, how do you feel when you see anti-Asian comments that are linked to COVID-19 on social media?

I feel like racism has always existed. With the pandemic, there’s just a new and more high profile target for racists to direct their anger and their negativity. Personally, it’s upsetting to see that Asian-Americans and Asians in general are seen as a perpetual foreigner. No matter what you do or no matter what you look like, you will always be seen as foreign, other and alien — because of that you’re less of a human being in their eyes and because of that, you don’t deserve to be treated as a full human with dignity. It’s upsetting to see this pandemic being used as an opportunity for people to direct their hate towards Asians. That kind of hate exists and has existed, and I think the pandemic is just an opportunity for us to see it much more clearly.

Have you been experiencing any form of discrimination or racism where you live?

I would say [I did] within the first couple of days when everyone realized that everything was getting shut down. I was just walking on the street in my neighborhood in LA and there was a man in a truck who pulled up — it was a green light — and stopped in front of me, glared at me, flipped me off and left. He obviously didn’t have to say: “Hey, f*ck you. I’m being racist towards you because you’re Asian.” I knew what that was because I experienced that when I was younger.

When I walk on the street, I can be as American as I want to be, but I will always be seen as a threat and a foreigner because that’s a part of the Asian stereotype that is so evil and persistent through cultural institutions and through the media. My face will never be read as fully American. I think it’s important that Asian-Americans are aware of that and we have to respond appropriately by educating ourselves about this history, being in solidarity and connecting with other groups that often experience racism as well.

“Asian creators should commit to speaking up and be in solidarity with other groups, especially the Black experience.”

Why do you think xenophobia continues to exist in the U.S.?

It’s because of the history and the benefits of our culture, and how powerful white supremacy is. It’s a big term but it shouldn’t be. To say the term “white supremacy” means everything that’s connected with whoever is in power. This whole system has the mighty weight of history behind it and it’s tough to break through it because it takes a lot of pushing back, organizing, and even just bringing awareness to the fact that things are unfair or unjust. I think that’s a part of what storytellers do, which is to try to present a vision of a world that you should understand or you should see and that you can connect to. I think it’s very powerful to entertain people and make people feel better, but also to make people feel like they’re less alone. To make other people feel like they understand more about the world.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, what do you think the creative community can do to help combat racism?

Asian-American creators, writers and performers should speak up and talk about what’s going on in our communities and that it is not okay. Most importantly, Asian creators should commit to speaking up and be in solidarity with other groups, especially the Black experience. Everyone says that racism is always connected to anti-Blackness and anti-Black violence. No matter where you are, it’s always connected to it because as Asians, we’re always used as a wedge to divide and conquer.

Asian creatives in general should start speaking out about how it’s wrong to vilify Asian faces, but also to always connect that with the daily injustices and violence that Black people always experience and that we are actually connected to. We need to speak up and say this is not the time to turn on each other. We need to acknowledge that when it’s other people’s turn of feeling the hate, that we’re going to commit to speaking up for them. Speaking up is very important right now because it’s completely selfish as Asian-Americans to only talk about the anti-Asian violence that’s peaking right now when this is a reality for so many other groups, and that we need to connect and be stronger together.

Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho of Banana Magazine

The brainchild of Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho, Banana Magazine spotlights the narratives of Asian talents. Born of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, Tso spent most of her childhood and adolescent years in Texas, and moved to NYC in 2012 to work in fashion. As for co-founder Ho, the Chinese-American, Brooklyn-native started working in fashion public relations after graduating college in 2011. The duo started their publication in 2014 with the mission to create a platform for Asians in the creative industry, and has since then published six successful issues.

How has COVID-19 affected your work and daily life?

KT: The pandemic and living in quarantine have heightened anxiety for me. We both work full-time on top of working on Banana and are both lucky to still have our jobs. It’s definitely challenging since we’re on call more than ever for our day jobs and since time has no meaning anymore, the boundaries we created to make time for Banana are no longer there. So we have to go and make sure we carve out time to dedicate to the magazine daily.

VH: Yes, on top of keeping up with our day jobs, we’re trying to be there for our Banana readers and community as much as we can during quarantine. We want to stay inspired and creative with them. So we’ve been refreshing our newsletters, updating our website, sharing more content and resources on our Instagram, and brainstorming ways to celebrate the new issue and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The anticipation and excitement in bringing Issue 006 to the world have been a big coping mechanism for us.

As an Asian-American, how do you feel when you see anti-Asian comments that are linked to COVID-19 on social media?

KT: It’s disheartening. Our community has made strides over the last few years and the racism around COVID-19 definitely feels like it’s pushed back our progress. It’s sad to see that such flagrant ignorance and racism is more rampant than we thought, and it was just hiding behind the surface.

VH: It fills me up with so much anger. I can’t stand the ignorance. I try to channel that negative energy I feel and turn it into motivation to keep speaking up against xenophobia, share resources with my Asian friends, and champion my community to be loud and proud of being Asian.

Have you been experiencing any form of discrimination or racism where you live?

KT: Luckily, I live in Manhattan near Chinatown, so I’m surrounded by people who look like me. The Guardian Angels have been patrolling our neighborhood since mid-February, so we’re lucky to have allies who have our backs. I haven’t experienced any racism directly.

VH: During the early U.S. stages of COVID-19 back in February, I had just finished recovering from the flu and was wearing a face mask during a weekend trip to San Francisco to prevent spreading the flu to anyone. I experienced racist remarks and glares in NYC and in SF — they all assumed I came from China because I had a mask on. I was honestly so angry and disappointed because I was just trying to prevent others from catching the flu, and the racism I experienced happened in two of the most diverse cities in the world.

“It’s sad to see that such flagrant ignorance and racism is more rampant than we thought, and it was just hiding behind the surface.”

Why do you think xenophobia continues to exist in the U.S.?

KT & VH: Sheer ignorance and hatred. It all trickles from the top, and sadly our President gives permission to act upon xenophobia based on his own actions towards COVID-19. The U.S. as a nation might be diverse in race but is it diverse in thought?

Amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, what do you think the creative community can do to help combat racism?

KT & VH: Continue our mission to tell our stories, highlight our work and support each other. The creative community should continue sharing resources and supporting each other’s projects and work. We value conversation and connection so much more now because of social distancing, and so we’re using these strange times to build new friendships and grow our community virtually in the meantime.

Gabriella Mozo, Marielle Sales and Mal Tayag of Sari-Sari Studio

Filipino-American artists Marielle Sales and Gabriella Mozo founded Sari-Sari together back in 2018 as a way to bring their creative community together and celebrate their culture. While Sales is still taking up freelance projects as a photographer on the side, she currently works for an agency where she is in charge of digital and creative strategy for fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands. As for Mozo, she became an apparel designer in 2013 but has always worked on projects outside of her day job.

The third new member of Sari-Sari Studio is Mal Tayag, a first-generation Filipino-Canadian based in Surrey, British Colombia. Her business, Schema, is an agency and an online directory that prioritizes, amplifies and connects marginalized gendered creatives of color, including womxn, femmes, non-binary, trans and two-spirit people.

How has COVID-19 affected your work and daily life?

GM: It’s been a learning curve working from home but I feel really grateful that I’m able to [do so]. When we first started quarantining, I had a lot of emotions, mostly guilt and grief after seeing which communities were affected and not knowing how to help or if that would even be enough. I think the most we can do right now is to donate to charities or NGOs if we can, and if not, just be there for each other and our community. I also find that yoga helps me clear my head and anxiety.

MS: I’m grateful and privileged to be able to work remotely, and have a safe and healthy home during this heavy time. I’m also trying to be kinder to myself and allowing myself to rest and “just be,” since stress tends to build up and affect my body in physical ways. A lot of Sari-Sari events were always in person, but we’ve adapted and created digital programming to bring the global community together. From virtual DJ parties, cooking lessons, book clubs, venting sessions and movie screenings, we’ve been exploring different ways to support friends who have been deeply affected by the current situation.

MT: I am lucky enough to be able to work from home and be around family, and I understand how much of a huge privilege it is to say that. I tend to consume a lot of content and it’s painful to see particularly BIPOC communities suffering from this situation. It’s always a balance of figuring out how to advocate for justice and add to positive change, but not get burnt out or overwhelmed emotionally and physically. I think that entails, like Marielle said, being kind to ourselves and if possible giving ourselves space, especially from the digital ether and our echo chambers when need be.

“For those that are feeling the pain from this pandemic-induced anti-Asianness shouldn’t forget that exact kind of abusive behavior and violations have been happening every day and all throughout history.”

How do you feel when you see anti-Asian comments that are linked to COVID-19 on social media?

GM, MS & MT: It’s scary and disappointing to see the response to COVID-19 as such, and we support our entire Asian community through this pain that we are all feeling right now. As Asians and as Filipinas, we have experienced anti-Asian and anti-Filipina sentiments in our lives, whether they were overt or more covert microaggressions. All of us have been vocal against those actions. The reality is though that for a lot of the Asian community, this is the first time they are experiencing more overt forms of racism, and so we understand why people are up in arms.

While we appreciate all of the coverage these things are getting in the media, we have to remember that there are many other forms of racism going on right now against other BIPOC communities that aren’t getting as much of the spotlight. It makes us question how society, particularly the white cis capitalist heteropatriarchy, values different lives and ethnicities. It makes us take a look at the model minority myth, how our Asian community has benefitted from this, and how it has potentially made the community more complacent when it comes to the racism that is happening every day to other communities. For those that are feeling the pain from this pandemic-induced anti-Asianness shouldn’t forget that exact kind of abusive behavior and violations have been happening every day and all throughout history, particularly against Black and Indigenous folx. We can’t forget the anti-Blackness that is prevalent within our cultures and the erasure of Indigenous cultures that goes on in our countries. We also can’t forget that even amongst Asians, we are not a monolith, and there are different ethnicities and cultures that are discriminated against, or not given as much visibility — as Filipinas, this something we experience ourselves.

When we say all of this, it is not to villainize our own, it’s to remind everyone that suffering runs rampant in more than just our community, and it does so in disproportionate ways. On top of that, we can be suffering while also causing suffering. As Asians we need to stand in solidarity with each other and with all BIPOC that are experiencing racism, now and always, because there is no sustainable future without collective liberation.

Have you been experiencing any form of discrimination or racism where you live?

GM, MS & MT: None of us have directly, but honestly all of us have been trying to refrain from going out as much as possible because of both the anxiety of dangerous behaviors from others, and because we should all be social distancing. Since we are all privileged to be able to work from home, we take that responsibility seriously. We have, however, heard from friends who have experienced forms of racism, from physical to verbal attacks.

Why do you think xenophobia continues to exist in the U.S.?

GM, MS & MT: We think it’s a combination of fear and, as we’ve mentioned earlier, the white cis capitalist heteropatriarchy. Fear, in that people are always trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, and sometimes this results in defense mechanisms rather than empathy. People are also afraid of the unknown. Whether it’s people who look different from you or an unknown situation like COVID-19. When there is uncertainty, people try to find certainty through what they know and sometimes what they know doesn’t take into account the whole of society — only what they’ve been taught, which may be self-focused.

The white cis heteropatriarchy, in that the country of the U.S was founded on a violation of consent, was taken from Indigenous Folx. This is also true of Canada. Genocides were ordered and cultures were forcibly erased. On top of that, the U.S has still yet to acknowledge slavery and the inhumane abuse of Black folx. If a place is founded on those very systems, on a method that upheld Whiteness and sought to “save” and “civilize” those they deemed as “savage,” this indicates that they assigned different values to different groups of people. People that were darker-skinned that spoke different languages and had different customs were valued less. People with whiter skin who spoke English and who adhered to Western ways were valued more.

This is something that continues to hold in our society, whether people realize it or not. Those from minority groups are still valued as less than and it’s even more evident when we look at what’s happening in the country now. What communities are minimally affected and what majority demographic lives in those communities? Wealthy, privileged and white. What communities are being hit the hardest and what majority demographic lives in those communities? Lower socioeconomic standing, black, brown and minorities. What causes these inequities? The systems. The white supremacy and privilege. The disproportionate valuation of people.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, what do you think the creative community can do to help combat racism?

GM, MS & MT: Share. This doesn’t mean everyone has to put all of their feelings on blast on social media, or be on the front lines of digital protests or be super productive and creative. It means to be honest with where we are all at. Sometimes we feel like our experiences or emotions aren’t valid, that we aren’t allowed to be angry, sad, frustrated, tired or in need of a break because we don’t see others expressing those sentiments. If those close to you, like your community or your friends, have the capacity, share what you’re experiencing — whether that be in a creative form or just direct.

Listen. As you’re sharing, don’t forget to also give space to listen. A lot of times we don’t take the time to really hear what people are saying and listen to what they need. This isn’t a time to be imposing what you think is the best solution to someone else’s problem. That in and of itself is a colonial way of being, and our world and communities are too full of that already. The key is what they need, not what you think that they need. Really listen to other creatives’ works and hear what they are trying to express. The more we can relate to one another, the easier it is to form a community rather than experience conflict.

Learn. We are not Black or Indigenous, so we are not here to educate you on anti-racism. We are only here to operate with the values that we believe in, do what we can to dismantle the white cis capitalist heteropatriarchy and advocate for what is just in solidarity with other communities. We might not get it right 100 percent of the time but we are open to feedback. We will continue to learn from our mistakes and keep at it 100 percent of the time. There are so many resources out there. Use the Internet and find incredible Black and Indigenous social and racial justice educators, pay them for their work, unpack your biases, unpack white supremacy and privilege, and learn how to stand in solidarity with anyone who is experiencing racist attacks, including potentially yourself.

This is a problem that is not going away in our lifetime and is something that we all have to work on every day to progress in a better direction. We need to stand in solidarity with other BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled and marginalized communities. We have to remember that we are not all equally impacted and remember that we need to be equitable. Remember to have empathy, remember that everyone is in pain and that there is space to have compassion for all. To pull sentiments from Audre Lorde, none of us are free until we are all free.

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