"Understand that your Asian friends, brothers, and sisters are suffering trauma during one of the tensest moments in U.S. history," Nicole Kang tells PEOPLE

By Karen Mizoguchi
March 25, 2021 09:45 AM
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Nicole Kang is using her platform to speak out against anti-Asian hate crimes, which have increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The most recent tragedy unfolded on March 16 when eight people were killed in shootings across three Atlanta-area spas. Though authorities said there's no evidence suggesting the suspect was motivated by race, six of the victims were Asian women.

"I know that I have to continue with as much fervor and vigilance as I have in my activism all year, but it's hard," the Batwoman star, 27, tells PEOPLE about the rise of racist incidents against Asians.

Findings of a recent study of police department statistics show that hate crimes against Asian Americans rose by nearly 150 percent in 2020, despite hate crimes overall dropping by seven percent. The report, issued by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, analyzed data on hate crimes in both 2019 and 2020 from authorities in 16 of America's largest cities, and found that the first surge in violence against Asian Americans occurred last year, as COVID-19 cases started to spike in March and April. The findings show that New York City saw the largest increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, rising from three reported instances in 2019 to 28 in 2020.

"I was living in New York City about a year ago, and I had sort of heard and read here and there about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in Chinatown, where I had lived. It was a neighborhood specifically that I had lived in for many years, and I just had this huge wave of fear," Kang recalls. "I remember that feeling on the subway, just an awareness for the first time that I had never felt living in that city before. And I felt isolated and scared. So I just started reaching out to my peers."

Nicole Kang
Credit: The CW

As a result, Kang co-created the Asian We Stand collective with fellow actress Midori Francis and spoke to professors across the country to learn more about "how this isn't an isolated event." Kang adds: "It's historical in the DNA of the Asian American experience due to our erasure from American history, first of all, but mostly in the history of epidemics — it's always an outsider thing."

"Terming it the 'kung flu' was kind of the nail in the coffin for our community," she continues. "I ended up having some of the most amazing conversations and an incredible community that I've built for myself, which just made me want to share. ... I was inundated with Asian excellence, first and foremost, which is really incredible."

Not only did she build a resource for her fans, especially those in the AAPI community, but Kang continues to provide more information for her followers. "As for allyship, I have an anti-Asian violence reference card that's posted on my Instagram. You can donate, you can undergo bystander intervention training, you can read up on what's happening now, you can use hashtags to amplify our voices and amplify our stories," she says. "There is so much you can actually do to be an ally. I am super saddened that it took six women that we can't bring back [to start the conversation]."

Kang is also leading Asian excellence on the small screen with her role in The CW's Batwoman as Mary Hamilton, Kate Kane's step-sister who secretly owns an underground medical clinic for Gotham's underserved. "My existence on this show is so important and significant to me, — that certainly doesn't get past me, any day, any time," she says.

"I think it happens to me every time I see a little girl dressed up as Mary Hamilton. It really, really hits home for me. And also when I see the poster with a mix of more than one minority, I just think that's a better representation of the tapestry for what a Gotham or a city looks like, imaginative or not," Kang says. "I'm so grateful for [executive producers] Greg Berlanti and Caroline Dries, and all the people involved in reimagining a Gotham where somebody could look like me, and could potentially have been in the Wayne family. That's really huge — just starting to include our faces in stories like this. I'm so grateful for that. And I promise I won't misuse it."

As she navigates Hollywood and gains more success, Kang remembers the advice she received from actor Sung Kang, who famously portrays the beloved character Han in the Fast and the Furious franchise.

"He sat me down and said, 'Just don't ever be afraid to misbehave.' And that idea has evolved for me so much, because yes, I am so privileged to be in the position that I am in, but really it is what you do with that privilege and how you have conversations to inform people to better write for you, to better represent you, to better empower you and imbue everything that I am, Korean American, all of those nuances, and weave them into my character," she explains. "And not being afraid — because I also think, culturally, as Asian people, we are sort of taught and encouraged to not make a disruption, to be good employees, good students. And I think we can do that, but we can also have opinions. So speaking out and amplifying our voices means tenfold, if I can be that for my community, it's a huge endeavor of mine."

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Nicole Kang

And during a time when many are asking those in the AAPI community "What can I do?" and "How can I help?," Kang says: "Understand that your Asian friends, brothers, and sisters are suffering trauma during one of the tensest moments in U.S. history."

"I just think, if you're in the AAPI community, survival means you're already going above and beyond," she continues. "Whatever we can do for our mental health and each other's mental health is, first and foremost, the most important thing."

Amid waves of violence and times of crisis, Kang says she remains eternally motivated to support AAPI communities and speak out against racial injustice.

"What inspires me is the hunger that's still inside of me that hasn't been satiated. I haven't said all the things I want to say, and I haven't expressed them the ways I want to express them," she says. "There's so much I still have yet to tell, and so many stories I can't wait to tell. When I hear that what I'm doing is impactful, that just fills me up with even more [motivation]. What inspires me is that there's still a huge gap and a huge landscape that we have to cover. And I will do my best, but I definitely need to encourage other people to join me, whether you want to be a writer, a showrunner or director, or anything you can do to share our stories. That's what inspires me."

Batwoman airs Sundays (8 p.m. ET) on The CW.

If you've been attacked or have witnessed an attack, please contact your local authorities. You can also report your incident here. To learn more and to report crimes, go to: Asian Americans Advancing JusticeStop the AAPI HateNational Council of Asian Pacific AmericansAsian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, and Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council.