Preventing Anti-Asian Prejudice
Manjusha Kulkarni, who cofounded Stop AAPI Hate two years ago, was included in Time magazine’s 2021 list of 100 Most Influential People. The nonprofit has been highly successful in keeping track of anti- Asian attacks and bias. In a hard-hitting interview, Kulkarni talks about race and racism, inequity, what motivates her and her organization, misogyny, and what we can do to combat prejudice in all its forms. Kulkarni is executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance (AAPI Equity).
In a Duke University write-up on Baldwin Scholars, you are quoted as saying, “the opportunities I had at SPLC, the ACLU, and MALDEF cemented my desire to pursue public interest law and specifically to work in the realm of civil rights.” What sparked your interest in public welfare and civil rights to begin with?
It begins with an immigrant story in 1971 with both my parents. Before the Immigration Act of 1965, non-Europeans were not allowed to immigrate to the U.S. The Act removed racial barriers from immigration and opened specific pathways; only professional visas were granted. My parents came here as physicians. My father joined a practice in Alabama, but my mother was denied a job when she applied at a local hospital. During an interview, a panel of white male physicians said to her, “Why do you foreigners come to the United States and take all of our jobs?” My parents hired an attorney, and it became a Class Action Lawsuit. I was in fifth or sixth grade, hearing words like class action lawsuit! Seeing the courage it took my parents to bring a lawsuit against my dad’s colleagues and seeing that the law could provide redress made me change my plan of following in my parents’ footsteps to become a doctor.
What propelled you to cofound Stop AAPI Hate, the nation’s leading aggregator of Covid-related hate incidents against AAPIs (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders)?
Two years ago, in LA, an Asian American middle school child was attacked on the school yard before there was a single confirmed case of Covid-19 in southern California. “You are a Covid carrier, go back to China,” he was told. He said, “I am not Chinese.” Not to distance himself, but to say I am not from there, I have nowhere to go back to. The other kid punched him in the face and head 20 times. We helped the family cope and held a press conference with local leaders. That press conference got quite a bit coverage. My colleagues [at Stop AAPI Hate] saw the same thing in the Bay Area. Within two weeks we noted several hundred incident reports from across the country. We collected data with the intention of releasing it to the public and lawmakers, and got close to 700 incident reports with minimal public outreach.
There are several complex factors that lead to such overt hatred. But if you were to distil them down to a few nefarious elements, what would they be?
Certainly Trump weaponizing Covid for his political purposes, and the systemic dehumanizing. Racism is the father of race, not the other way around. In order to subjugate and humiliate, you find difference and create artificial difference and social constructs. In India, where people look alike, you do that by caste. Race may have some biological origins—different phenotypes— but you use that to determine not only individual behavior, but political behavior and governmental policy. Whether it’s British imperialism, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the PAGE Act which forbade Chinese women from coming to the U.S.—essentially labeling them all as prostitutes.
What are the core goals of Stop AAPI Hate?
The takeaways for us are that the racism we experience may be different—we are not threatened by police violence for example, but it happens. Most of what is reported to us—about 90 percent—are not crimes. For example, the experiences kids have in schools at the hands of not only students but also teachers. Like the Georgetown Law professor who called a student, whose name he did not know, Mr. Chinaman. Or a cashier who won’t check you out. These are things that prevent us from living our daily lives. It’s simple things like fearing to get your prescription filled. You don’t feel like you belong, especially if it’s your neighbors, friends and colleagues who do this. It is extremely jarring.
We address what business can do when racial discrimination happens. We want data-driven policy addressing street harassment, especially against women, because 60 plus percent of incidents are against women. We want to make public transit safe. We all heard about the Asian American woman who was thrown in front of the subway car in New York.
Is AAPI too broad as a label? In other words, do Indian-Americans identify with Asians who face hate driven offenses, and are they doing enough to build bridges with other Asian communities?
Race is a social construct, and so in a way AAPI is also a social construct and we have to look at why we created it. It is to build power. Labeled as Latin X, a Chilean, for example, may have very little in common with a Costa Rican. The same is true for us. If we are trying to achieve political power, then it is not too broad a label. And we do have commonalities—our immigrant stories, for example, and then there are cultural similarities.
We get incident reports from South Asians as well. We found Indians are also experiencing racism similar to what East Asians are experiencing right now. Indians were accused of bringing the Delta virus and told to go back. We need to see that we are in this together. Some of us did not do after 9/11—Hindu Indians did not support, in large numbers, our Muslin and Sikh brothers and sisters. That is a stain on us. We have the numbers in the way they don’t. About 80 percent Indians in the U.S. identify as Hindu. We should have been standing with them as they were facing a horrific backlash. Hindu Indians thought that by distancing themselves they would not suffer the backlash, but they were wrong. There is a wonderful book by Sanjay Mishra, Desis Divided, that deals with this.
Looking ahead, what concerns do you have about our elections?
I am frightened. We may become an authoritarian fascist state. There is appetite for that. There is voter suppression and voter nullification. Spreading and using lies to gain political power at the expense of black and brown people. Sometimes South Asians who do well choose to become Republican but that’s not going to save them, it is not going to save our communities at all. There is a great quote from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” And that is what’s happening right now in America.
[Right] In 2014, President Obama made Kulkarni a Champion of Change.
My kids, 18 and 22, have both experienced multiple micro aggressions, about them not belonging. Too often I hear from Irish and Italian folks—they say it will go away in a couple of generations. Not for us because we are never going to be white, and if we don’t look white, we will never be treated as white having the same power. Melania Trump was treated very differently than Michelle Obama or Kamala Harris.
Your advice to incoming women at Duke is to “not be intimidated by your male peers’ bravado or swagger.” As a mother of two girls, what advice would you offer young women as they enter the workforce?
Have confidence—you are everything you need to be. Men have plenty of confidence . . . that is all we lack. We are taught to self-doubt. Understand that systems and structures were not designed for you to thrive. Racism and misogyny are set up to keep you out. There is a bumper sticker I like: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Being well-behaved means following social norms that are not there to help us; they are about getting married and having children. Even my grandmother, who I would not call a feminist, recognized that. Many years ago, we were talking at the dinner table about why men marry much younger women—and she said, “So that they can keep us in line.”
You are passionate about eliminating the adverse consequences of poverty. What are some of your most significant achievements in that realm?
I worked on programs for low-income individuals. We still don’t have universal healthcare, but we are a little bit closer. Whether in the education realm, policing and health, tremendous inequities are built into our systems that need revamping. In some ways we have an apartheid type system. Poor school districts don’t have toilet paper but schools in affluent areas can offer AP classes. I tried to bridge some of the gaps by ensuring people who qualify for healthcare receive it, helping domestic violence survivors seek a new life, helping pregnant women get access to prenatal care. These programs are critical, and we have a long way to go.
In 2014, you received the White House Champions of Change award from President Barack Obama for your dedication to improving healthcare access for Asian American communities. In 2021, you were recognized by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential individuals.” How does it feel to be recognized for your efforts?
It's incredibly humbling. There are so many people who have been involved in the effort. I want to acknowledge those people who are doing this work, day in and out, without much pay or prestige. This is now a movement. Even the monolingual grandparents came out to say we are not going to take this!
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.
blog comments powered by Disqus