"It was an unusual and lovely experience, to see other people stand up for people like me."
By Wendy Tajima, Executive Presbyter, San Gabriel Presbytery, PC(USA), Altadena Community Church UCC, Volunteer
I am humbled and grateful for this chance to send my aloha to my beloved Hawai‘i ‘ohana! Though I am terrible at communicating, please know that you are always close to my heart and a significant part of my ministry even here in California.
I cannot say anything without first sharing my heartsick grief at the news of our brothers Grant, Richard, and Kekapa leaving this mortal plane. During this Easter season, I can only give thanks that we are a Resurrection People, and that we can say “a hui hou” with certainty, because we know we will see each other once again.
Whenever I am asked about my first call in ministry, I recount how churches on the mainland could not see me as a pastoral leader, even though I had many years of experience as a manager in the non-profit and business worlds before seminary. Instead, what they saw was an Asian woman, and in their mind Asian women were submissive or prostitutes. Even as I prepared for ordination, two haole men with supervision over me asked me about prostitution, in totally separate instances. There was no role model for Asian woman leadership in the imagination of most people here, even in California. But Hawai‘i people saw AAPI women as senator, lieutenant governor, and just about every school teacher they had growing up! I was so thankful to be able to come to Hawai‘i, and I learned so much about being a pastor, thanks to you.
Though I have been asked to comment on this recent surge of anti-AAPI violence, I have to share that anti-AAPI racism has been a reality of American culture since the 1800s. Back in 1871, at least 18 Chinese men were lynched in Los Angeles. The first US law restricting immigration based on ethnicity was enacted in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1924 Immigration Act expanded the immigration ban to all Asians, and was not repealed until 1965. In Hawai‘i, there has been distrust of “locals” (evidenced by the 1932 Massie Affair), especially of our hosts, nā kanaka maoli. The illegal overthrow and imprisonment of Queen Lili‘uokalani reflects total disregard for the rights of the Hawaiian people. And in its 2018 report, the State of Hawai‘i confirms that Native Hawaiians continue to have the lowest per capita income of the largest race groups (White, Filipino, Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese)—though the Marshallese suffer from the highest levels of poverty among all groups (seehttps://files.hawaii.gov/dbedt/economic/reports/SelectedRacesCharacteristics_HawaiiReport.pdf).
I say all of this because I see the rise in recent anti-AAPI violence within the context of historical hatred, and the damage done to people not just from one-on-one attacks, but also from systemic racism and poverty. When the instances of anti-AAPI hatred started to rise, I would point out that while no racist attack is OK, the numbers of COVID-related deaths suffered by our African-American, Native American, and Latin neighbors far outnumbered these attacks, and those numbers were caused by poverty and lack of adequate health care. So there is individualized violence, and then there’s systemic violence.
That said, there have been two issues that stand out for me related to anti-AAPI violence. First, I was struck how the murders of people at Asian-identified spas in Atlanta seemed to reveal long-ignored challenges for Asians on the mainland, namely the exoticization of AAPI women and our relative invisibility. I remember how the initial reports of the massacres barely mentioned the victims at all, but instead focused on police and government officials praising each other for their quick response. I was grateful for the people who addressed particular aspects of this tragedy: African-Americans pointing out the specific targeting of Asian businesses and stepping forward in solidarity with the Asian community; Korean churches coming to the site of the businesses to pray for the victims; and Asian journalists talking about being seen as the perpetual foreigner (if they are seen at all), or the dehumanizing impacts of the fetishization of Asian women. At the church I attend (the church where Kekapa did his seminary internship), some non-Asian members organized against anti-AAPI violence. It was an unusual and lovely experience, to see other people stand up for people like me.
The second issue, and one which continues to bring tears to my eyes when I think of it, is the targeting of elders for individual attack. Some will say that we AAPIs have special respect for our elders, which may be true. But for me, the most painful aspect is the totally unprovoked ambushing of vulnerable people. There are too many ways that the sacred humanity of each child of God is ignored by others, and used as objects for criminal rage, whether they are an Asian grandfather on his morning walk, a homeless person sleeping on a sidewalk, a missing Native American girl, or a Black man jogging down a street or driving a new car on a highway.
Where I live, in San Gabriel Valley, the Asian community is very strong, and we have seen little anti-AAPI violence—though I would have thought the same thing about the San Francisco Bay Area, where some of the ugliest incidents of violence have occurred. This rise of violence has not impacted me directly, though it seems to have been a wake-up call to any AAPI people who somehow thought racism didn’t affect them. And I have seen increased awareness of non-Asians, and I hope that all of this reminds AAPIs and all peoples that we are all vulnerable to the “otherism” that infects our society.
One of the benefits of living on an island is the stronger sense that everyone is in one community together, and I pray that the people of Hawai‘i never lose that. Back when I was in Hawai‘i, I remember that after 9/11, when the mainland was busy attacking Muslims or anyone (like Sikhs) who “looked” Muslim, the leader of the Islamic Center in Honolulu was quoted as saying that he and his fellow local Muslims experienced nothing but concern and support. May the people of this really big island called North America learn to welcome people of all backgrounds, and may we all find ways to share God’s abundance for the welfare of all of God’s children. Mahalo for listening, and God bless you all.
(An excerpt of this article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Friend.)