Debunking “Let’s Ask an Asian” and helping Miami be more diverse

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Miami – Let’s talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It’s Asian Pacific (Islander) American Heritage Month and as a proud Filipino-American and DEI facilitator who cares deeply about my communities, I served on the “Let’s Ask an Asian” panel curated by the National Association of Asian American Professionals.

This panel was part of a larger series called ​“10 Days of Connection” ​founded by Radical Partners aimed at building relationships in South Florida across lines of differences. In the spirit of “lovingly loudly” and learning continuously, as a panelist, I attended to connect with a diverse audience by sharing about my experiences.

As a panelist, I attended with the intent of connecting with a diverse audience by sharing my experiences. But diversity alone is not as powerful without equity and inclusion, which allow deep connections across lines of difference to flourish.

When looking at an aerial scope of this city, only 1.6% of the Miami-Dade County identifies as Asian American and 0% identity under Pacific Islander (PI). When comparing the US Census of 2010 and 2018, this number remains unchanged.

In regards to the “Let’s Ask an Asian” panel, while this cross-cultural space was much needed, this lack of diversity manifests in a lack of society, and Miami’s collective awareness in regards to the history of power, privilege, and oppression that our AANHPID (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Desi) communities collectively and uniquely face.

Model Minority Myth 101

When panelist and colleague, Linda Sun (current Director of Middle School Redesign at Miami Public School District), asked if anyone knew about the model minority myth, we were met with eye blinks both from some of the other panelists and the majority of the audience. In short, the model minority myth is ​“​a stereotype that generalizes Asian Americans by depicting them as the perfect example of an if-they-can-do-it-so-can-you success story.”  It draws on the success of some Asian American subgroups — where US policies inviting immigrants with professional degrees to the US factored into their success. This is in stark contrast to the history of the arrival of African slaves to the US. The term “model minority” was first used to discredit the Civil Rights movement without acknowledging differences in history and policies that lead to different outcomes for different minority groups, hence why the existence of a “model minority” is a myth.

While the intent of this panel was to build an intercultural safe space centered around AANHPID, it did this without acknowledging equity and inclusion. So let’s unpack this play-by-play:

First off,  let’s consider the title. When I saw the title I was taken back and immediately asked myself, “am I reading something from The Plantain?” I immediately thought in comparison, if I were Black or Cuban, I would never curate a panel entitled “Let’s ask a Black person or Let’s ask a Cuban.”  This sets the precedent that it’s free game to come and ask any types of questions, whether respectful or harmful, without having done any self-work to avoid moments that could be triggering for panelists and participants who identify within the AANHPID community. Perhaps, it could have been centered around an issue that affects all Miamians but showcases our take on the issue. Or perhaps it could have been an issue that specifically impacts our communities.

Secondly,  I took issue with the opening question: “What Makes You Feel Most Asian?”

While the moderator was well-intentioned, the tone felt more akin to a game show than a productive discussion around the intersections of my identity. I proceeded to answer with:

“As of recently, I don’t identify as much with the Asian American umbrella term, because the experience of PI (Pacific Islanders) and specifically Filipino Americans is so different than most East Asians.”

This past year I edited a piece for the Harvard Asian American Policy Review entitled, “The Brown Asian Movement: Advocating for South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Filipino American communities” written by Dr. Kevin Nadal – Psychology Professor at City University of New York. In his paper, Dr. Nadal cites:

Author Fred Cordova described Filipinos as “Forgotten Asian Americans” – citing how Asian American Studies had traditionally excluded narratives of Filipino Americans, while Filipina American scholar Dawn Bohulano Mabalon discussed how previous descriptions of Filipino Americans by early Asian American Studies scholars had been inaccurate, misrepresentative, or altogether false

After reading this, it felt validating to see my sentiments connected to a larger body of scholarly work. It makes you feel less crazy when explaining to non-Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that data disaggregation matters. In breaking down the data of the AANHPID umbrella into its subgroups, you can reveal stories that often go eclipsed.

Panel Moderation

Before jumping into cross-affinity spaces centered around identity and intersectionality, it’s important to frame the space with community agreements. This allows both panelists and participants to agree on certain protocols that ensure the safest space possible. While we can’t ensure 100% safety, we should aim at trying to craft this so we can capitalize on moments of bridge-building instead of potential divides.

This is by far not exhaustive, but below are a few agreements we could have co-introduced to make this dialogue safer:

  • Speak your truth.
  • Using “I” statements when speaking about experiences helps avoid dangerous generalizations that lead to stereotyping).

Embrace Discomfort and Assume the Best

When multiple truths clash, discomfort may manifest, and in this discomfort, learning can happen. Embracing it and assuming the best can help welcome others who are not far into their self-work in relation to power, privilege, and oppression into space. Also when framing “Assume the Best,” we want to focus on the notion that not everyone has access to the same level of knowledge and resources as those who are more versed in this work.

Intent vs. Impact, with a huge focus on Impact

People who have done the harm usually like to focus on their intent and not the harm committed because it’s simply easier to deflect. If someone from the marginalized group critiques how you are operating in a space meant to empower them, then it’s helpful to stop, reflect, listen, and apologize for committing any harm. And then perhaps follow up if the person harmed is willing in that moment or after to dialogue. I realize this agreement foils in tension with agreement “B,” but it’s important to note that this agreement holds more weight.

Aim for Multi-Partiality

Multi-Partiality is both a method and a mindset, which is often the responsibility of the moderator/facilitator. It argues that in order to build empathy in challenging moments, we must do a delicate dance by being partial to multiple audiences. It argues that we must engage the dominant groups while prioritizing the marginalized voices in the space. To push this forward, I would argue to decentralize some of this responsibility to the participants by creating this as a norm so even audience members can hold each other accountable, thus creating a more democratic space.

At one point, whiteness became a focal point in the conversation. In this case, a white man felt like it was necessary to center his narrative in the space and commit ​micro-aggressions towards one of the participants by jumping into a South Asian accent. The panelist and I noticed this right away, so I decided to step in. I reframed this space by stating directly, “can we not center whiteness, especially in a space aimed at empowering people of the AANHPID community to speak their truths… especially since we rarely have structured opportunities to dialogue with each other about our lived-experiences here in Miami.”

Looking back at the experience, I appreciate that allies in the space who started to step in and educate this participant on his whiteness, taking the labor off of me and the other panelists. Part of my triggered-self wanted to respond rhetorically with, “Is this ​Ask a White Male panel about the lived-experience of people of the AANHPID community​?” But as a leader in my own affinity, I know that we need to call this person in.

Call to Reading

Overall, as someone who plans on educating the public and organizing around issues that impact the AANHPID community here in Miami and nationally, I’m glad this space happened. While there was a lack of intentionality, there was also thoughtful cross-affinity dialogue that rarely happens nationwide.

This panel was a microcosm of the type of work we need to do here in educating the public on the 1.6 and zero percents. Doing this work both within our own communities as well as across affinity spaces. Miami, if you want us to feel a part of the “diversity” you claim, then please do the self-work to understand our history in relation to power, privilege, and oppression. Below are some resources that I myself, as a Filipino American, read before writing this article. This can be a great start in understanding self-in-relation-to the AANHPID community, and with a foundation we are able to move from conversations to action, and from panels to potential movements and coalitions.

This piece was edited by Irene Vailikit

Here are some resources Tony suggests checking out: