Reggie Lee on Combating Anti-Asian Racism: 'Recognize Your Worth and Step into Your Power'
Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more
Reggie Lee currently stars on the CBS series All Rise as Head Deputy District Attorney Thomas Choi. He will also star in the upcoming Netflix thriller Sweet Girl opposite Jason Momoa, Marisa Tomei and Adria Arjona. Previously, the Filipino American actor notably starred in the NBC fantasy series Grimm and Fox hit Prison Break. In his spare time, Lee is an avid traveler and foodie who loves family time. His focus at the moment is strongly advocating for the Asian American community by amplifying AAPI stories. He is also producing a Filipino American family drama entitled Concepción that he hopes will go into production later this year.
Before my family came to the United States, I was a kid from the Philippines who was enamored by the American dream. Once we immigrated to Los Angeles, then to Ohio, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything I had seen about America on TV and in magazines would now be my reality. But as I got older, I started to deny my ethnicity. All I wanted was to be white.
It wasn't easy growing up in a place where I physically looked different than everyone else. I remember getting on the school bus in Ohio and someone said, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these." There was one kid that kind of defended me but I didn't know what to say. Racism was not something I had any experience with in the Philippines. I was in third grade and I remember going to my mom to ask her what I should do. She said, "Don't worry about it, you'll be fine."
By fifth grade, I started getting punched. I remember getting hit really badly while walking down the street one day. Looking back on it now, I didn't realize how much I came to normalize those experiences. I was in Ohio, living in an all-white community and I didn't feel like I had options. I took all of my feelings, shoved them down and quietly locked them away.
My dad would try and console me by saying, "Don't worry. When I was a kid in the Philippines, they used to make fun of me because I was little and wasn't growing." And I would say, "But dad, that doesn't feel the same. You can lose and gain weight but I can't change the fact that I'm Filipino." I started to hate how I looked and even asked to get a perm to get rid of my straight, spiky hair. I wanted to be accepted as an American. Looking back now, I realize that I let those feelings build up over time, and they've become toxic in different ways.
I've always loved acting my entire life, and when I started doing plays in high school, something odd began to happen. I was suddenly popular. I was making more friends and falling harder in love with my passion. After high school, I knew I wanted to leave Ohio and I had my heart set on New York City to start my acting career.
Today, I'm proud to say that I am a Filipino American, who loves himself and where he comes from. I have been acting professionally for over two decades and I have my family to thank for all of their support. So when anti-Asian racism began to sky rocket at the start of the pandemic, all I could think about were my parents, who are both nearly 80 years old.
I take walks with my parents and nieces every Sunday and recently, my dad came to meet us with a large pole. I asked him what he was holding and he said, "It's a walking stick." But it wasn't a walking stick — it was an iron curtain rod gripped in his hand "just in case someone comes by and attacks." That broke my heart.
It baffles me that there are people out there who hate so much that they're ready to kill. The attacks on the AAPI community have deeply affected everyone in my life, and we're seeing more and more violence every day. I haven't always been outspoken in the past about what I've been through, or my community, but things have gotten so far out of control that I knew I had to start speaking up.
I'm no longer that boy in fifth grade who got bullied and felt he had no options. I know my self worth now, and that's become my greatest gift. It's become a gift for me to go up to my parents and tell them that they are worth a lot, and they should be able to take walks without fear.
My parents grew up scared. Many immigrants, like my parents, lived their whole lives feeling scared — scared to raise their family in a new country, scared they were not going to have enough money, scared their kids were going to get hurt, scared for their future. It's taken a while for me to find my inner voice and to feel worth it, but I'm here today and I will no longer be silent.
It's time for us to embrace our gifts, to speak out and to demand to feel valued and respected in America. It means a lot to me to have gotten to this place in life where I feel capable of doing my part and supporting my community, so my parents do not have to live in fear anymore. You also have the chance to recognize your worth and step into your power. Recognize that you have options, even when it hasn't always felt that way. Keep on using your voice to help end these hate crimes that are disproportionately affecting our elderly — our most vulnerable and most loved.
Today, I'm using my gift to say enough is enough. Stop the violence. Stop Asian hate.
And to my dad, I want to say, "Let's go take a walk. Leave your walking stick at home. We will take this walk together."
- As told to Diane J. Cho
If you've been attacked or have witnessed an attack, please contact your local authorities. You can also report your incident here.
- Selena: The Series Star Gabriel Chavarria: Why My Success as a Latino Actor Is 'Bigger Than Me'
- Reggie Lee on Combating Anti-Asian Racism: 'Recognize Your Worth and Step into Your Power'
- Activist Hong Lee on Why She Spoke Out About Her Hate Incident: 'I Want My Kids to Have a Better Future'
- This 18-Year-Old Climate Activist Is Fighting to Save His Beloved Village in Alaska