In ELLE’s Office Hours column, we ask women in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this May we spoke with Cynthia Choi, Co-Founder of Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit reporting center that has been tracking the growing number of incidents against the Asian community since last year. Below, Choi shares with ELLE why she believes hate crimes against Asians will continue to be an issue long after the pandemic is over—and how “starting small” can be a catalyst for big change.
My first job
I worked for a California parks and recreation department in the after-school program. My first set of kids were in kindergarten, and I learned how difficult it is for parents with young children to find quality daycare. I also got an inside look at the role of city agencies in providing free and accessible programs for families.
The job I never want to have again
I waitressed at a Japanese restaurant to put myself through school, because my family was going through some tough times financially. I actually applied to be the dishwasher, but they looked at me and they said, “You are not going to be able to wash those big pots.” Thankfully they said, “But you can waitress!” It was an incredibly informative time in my life. I learned so much about the restaurant industry, and especially how people in service are often mistreated.
Why I started Stop AAPI Hate
Just before shelter-in-place orders took effect one year ago, a colleague told me about someone she knew who was followed on their walk to the gym. This person was harassed, spat on, and physically threatened. It happened in broad daylight, and in front of many people. The experience was traumatizing for them, because it felt like a basic sense of safety had been stripped away. We started Stop AAPI Hate one day later to help track the unprecedented levels of discrimination, verbal harassment, and attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country. Since then, we’ve documented close to 3,800 incidents.
It’s time we address America’s history of fetishizing Asian women
The Atlanta area spa shootings were my worst nightmare come to life. I was absolutely shattered. What kind of social conditioning allows a man to think they need to target three businesses where Asian women are the primary employees in order to eliminate his temptation? This is an issue we have to think about from all angles. What role does education play? Our government? We need to support survivors and victims of crimes. If we don’t take this seriously, if we don’t deploy interventions and focus on long-term prevention, we can’t continue to make changes. This is going to be a issue long after the pandemic is behind us.
Why Asian hate should concern everyone
It is not acceptable to blame an entire ethnic group or racial group for a global pandemic. This kind of racism can be traced back to a long tradition we have in this country of vilifying immigrants and communities of color. In fact, over 90 percent of the incidents we track through Stop AAPI Hate don’t actually count as hate crimes, but they are equally as traumatizing, denigrating, dehumanizing, and discriminatory. That should concern everyone. We need a societal approach to this issue, including making sure that we provide support and mental health resources for those who are directly impacted during this time.
Why I think starting small is the best way to make a difference
Want to make a difference? Start really small and in practical ways, like with your family. Have a conversation with them. Read to understand what’s happening, and support other education efforts. Ask elected officials what they’re doing to respond. Consider joining a community group on the frontlines. On our Stop AAPI Hate website, we have an Act Now page and a portal to report incidents. The more we have data about what’s actually happening to people, the more we can make a case that we need a response. We also offer safety tips on what to do if you are targeted. These can be really helpful for bystanders, because sometimes it’s just so shocking or it happens so quickly, that people don’t know what to do or how to help. It is devastating to experience a hate crime, but it can be even more devastating to have people witness and not stand up for them.
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