Amid Rise in Attacks, Activist Amanda Nguyen Says Anti-Asian Racism 'Existed Long Before COVID'
"The way to heal is first acknowledge that there's a problem, and that's what's happening right now."
The rise in attacks and racism against Asian Americans has civil rights activist Amanda Nguyen feeling stressed and fearful.
"It's a fog of fear walking out the door," Nguyen, recipient of the Nelson Mandela Changemaker Award, told Rubenstein. "I have friends who have texted me saying, 'Oh, I'm trying to figure out how to wear my mask in a different way, to draw my eyeliner in a different way to make my eyes look bigger.' And what is it for you? All of these horrific incidences have been in places that are so daily — people lit on fire, people having acid thrown on them."
While many have attributed the surge in these horrific hate crimes — including the killing of 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco — to misperceptions and scapegoating about COVID-19, Nguyen said anti-Asian rhetoric and violence in America is nothing new.
"Anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination unfortunately ... existed long before COVID," she said. "It existed as soon as Asian-Americans — well, as Asian people — stepped into this country."
Listen to the rest of Nguyen's interview (and much more) on her episode of PEOPLE Every Day, PEOPLE's daily podcast hosted by Janine Rubenstein
According to a recent Harris poll, 75 percent of Asian Americans are fearful of increased hate and discrimination toward them. Connie Chung Joe, CEO of the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, says that there have been at least 2,800 hate incidents targeting Asians nationwide in the past year but that those numbers may be deceptively low.
"You have to think that this is just the tip of the iceberg," Joe told PEOPLE. "A lot of people don't report it, especially if you come from immigrant communities or English is not your first language. There's a lot more that is going unnoticed."
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After Nguyen, the founder and CEO of the civil rights organization Rise, posted a video to social media addressing the attacks, she quickly received support from some big names.
"The first person who probably shared my video, and is responsible for it becoming a zeitgeist moment now, is Questlove" from the Roots, Nguyen said. "He was the first person who posted it on his feed, and then I think Amy Schumer posted it, Wanda Sykes posted it, and then, it really blew up from there. But beyond these celebrities, I am so, so grateful for the solidarity that other groups, especially, the Black community, has shown in this moment to the AAPI community — so grateful."
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Ever since, she said, she has been hearing from other Asian Americans who are grateful for her voice.
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"I've been getting flooded — literally, thousands of messages of, 'Hey, for the first time I feel like my grief is visible,'" Nguyen explains. "'Thank you so much for speaking up, because I feel like I can share my truth.' 'Here's how I was discriminated against.' And I am hopeful, also heartbroken, reading these posts. But I think the way to heal is first acknowledge that there's a problem, and that's what's happening right now."
Last month, President Joe Biden signed an executive order condemning the surge of racism toward the Asian American Pacific Islander community because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The emphasis by some political leaders on the geographic origin of the pandemic has "stoked unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and [has] contributed to increasing rates of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI persons," the executive order stated.
To learn more and to report crimes, go to: Asian Americans Advancing Justice (advancingjustice-aajc.org) Stop the AAPI Hate (stopaapihate.org) National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (aapiern.org), Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA (advancingjustice-la.org) and Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (asianpacificpolicyandplanningcouncil.org).