There's been a disturbing surge in racist attacks against Asian Americans, sparked by misplaced anger over the pandemic. In New York City, the NYPD reported a 1,900 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans since COVID-19. And in Oakland, California's Chinatown, a number of violent attacks on the elderly have sparked an outcry. But Asian American stories are often not told — or heard — in the mainstream.
We asked five prominent Asian Americans in beauty how racism has touched their lives, how the beauty industry can help, and what they want others to know about the Asian American experience
CEO of Very Good Light and author of Pretty Boys
My parents came from then-impoverished South Korea with $100 in their pockets. My father came to the U.S. first and a year later brought over my mother. It was their goal to achieve the American Dream — ensuring that their children would never go hungry like they did growing up. I remember my father going to work as a carpenter, having to prove his worth by being 10 times more efficient at his job. While others put together chairs in 30 minutes, he'd make 10 in the same span. It was this idea that you had to be productive and prove you were of worth so that you could belong, that you could be embraced.
My parents eventually saved enough to buy a convenience store. I remember a white child calling it the "chink store," casually, and saying that was what his own father described it as. I didn't understand what that meant except it brought me shame. The years went by and the taunting, the bullying, the violence I experienced for being one of the sole Asians in school made me very aware that I would never be embraced. And more so, that I didn't need to be embraced.
This self-awareness at a young age pushed me to learn about Asian American history. I'd pore over history that I was never taught in hopes of understanding my place in this country. In high school, I created a club called the International Diversity Council, a place to celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion — way before we had the DEI acronym we all use today. It was my desire to spark change and to advocate for all people who may also feel unseen and unheard that made me so impassioned.
Asian Americans — our rich histories, cultures, and contributions — are part of the very fabric of America.
Years later, in my adulthood, I look back and think that so much has changed, but nothing's changed. The violence against Asian Americans was real then and it's real now. It's just now there are cameras and social media around to post about this. The trauma that Asian Americans face in this country while also continuing to be silenced and erased is what forces me to continue my life-goal of promoting space and healing. I understand that to make change we must enact and speak up. But it isn't just one voice that can be heard, rather a chorus that must champion this change. I'm hopeful for one of the first times ever. Change is coming.
The beauty industry can listen, learn, and ally with Asian Americans. Asians are not a monolith—there are 48 countries in Asia. None of them speak the same languages or have the same exact traditions. Asians are also the least likely to be promoted to upper management in the U.S., which isn't surprising as there's constant erasure of our people.
I'd like the industry to hire more Asian Americans into these positions, promote Asian American founders from all backgrounds, have more trans and non-binary Asian American voices, create a fund to ensure Asian Americans from disenfranchised communities can uplift themselves, and to see more folx in front of, and behind, the cameras. There's so much work to do, but I'm excited to see the beauty industry meet us where we are.
I want to let others know that the rise of this pandemic and COVID-19 is not why we're observing hate crimes. It's only an excuse for those with anti-Asianness to act on their own hatred. Violence has always plagued Asian Americans since the beginning of our histories here. I want to know that we're not in this alone. We need our allies to support us as much as we voice our concerns and speak our own truths. I want healing for us all, but to get there, we must all recognize that Asian Americans — our rich histories, cultures, and contributions — are part of the very fabric of America. And I hope we can all move forward together as I know we can.
Co-founder of Soko Glam
I was born and raised as a Korean American in California, but I was often made to feel like an outsider, as I experienced racism and discrimination growing up in a predominantly non-Asian community. Then recently, after the surge in COVID cases, someone verbally attacked me on the street, calling me the Kung Flu Virus. Riding the subway, I could see people looking at me in disgust and actively avoiding my path. Trump had recently called it the Chinese virus and the Kung Flu, which obviously helped justify this behavior that I had experienced. I despised him so much for it, for dividing us with his words. For encouraging blame and racist acts against Asians.
At the same time there was a surge of protests involving the injustices our Black and Brown communities faced. Though Asian Americans were getting attacked and blamed for the virus, with many of their livelihoods decimated, it just wasn't our time to speak up. People around me told me that Asians were not people of color and that we were in fact privileged, we reaped the benefits of being close in proximity to the white experience. I empathized with the injustices our communities faced and I didn't want to diminish the Black and Brown experience, so I downplayed my Asian experience. I was once again succumbing to the model minority expectation and waited for our turn to speak up.
If you see a racist act being committed, speak out and help them. We must not work in a silo, and instead we must fight collectively against all forms of racism.
Racist acts against Asian Americans are often forgotten, underreported, and marked as an experience that doesn't count. I'm here to say we do count. I will no longer neglect or wait for our turn to bring to light the wrongful deaths, attacks, and racism we face. Asians are people of color, we belong to the BIPOC community, and our experiences matter.
Tina Chen Craig
Founder of U Beauty and Bag Snob
I had no idea how much I've chosen to suppress of my childhood until the recent rise of hate crimes against Asians.
I’ve experienced so many instances of blatant racism. Some kids calling me chinky face and when forks dropped on the cafeteria floor, they say "hey Ching Chong cling clong" or people making slanty eyed gestures at me to my face. I was taught to brush it off, ignore it, and smile. Keeping our heads down and staying silent was what our parents taught us and showed us.
Of course, I didn’t.
End the model-minority myth, and start by educating yourself on the wide Asian American experience.
When I immigrated to the United States at eight years old, I did my best to become as American as possible. I wore Levi's and rainbow tees, instead of the custom-made dresses my grandmother had her tailor sew for me. And I learned to speak English without a trace of an accent. But I knew I was never fully accepted. I was everyone's pet: "Teeny-Tiny Tina." By high school, I started tanning at the beach and pool during the day and hitting the tanning salon at night: purely a rebellion against my grandmother’s "no sun" rule. I wore heavy black eyeliner to make my eyes appear rounder and accentuated my lids with pastel-blue eyeshadow.
All throughout high school, I only befriended non-Asian friends, mainly because I grew up in very white communities. The few Asians at my schools were the typical quiet and studious kids of immigrants. Not me. Instead, I was loud and demanded attention. I spent a lot of time in detention. I recall a few teachers (usually white males) commenting that I wasn't very "Oriental" because of my boisterous behavior. They wanted me to know my place. I'm thankful I had a few strong female teachers who encouraged me to find my voice, my art teacher especially. She understood me, encouraging me to try out for cheerleading (the Pom Pom Girl dance team, to be specific) and run for student body, so I could channel my loud energy in a more positive way. If not for people like her, I would have been completely on my own to forge a path — which I was determined to do no matter what. I didn’t like how people treated my family, and while they stayed silent in the face of blatant racism, I wanted to be heard and seen.
In the '80s, someone threw a soda can at my dad’s white Cadillac as we were pulling out of a Gemco parking lot and called us "Ching Chong Chinks." My dad stopped the car and got out to pick up the soda can to politely throw it away, but I jumped out, grabbed it, chased after the teen and tossed the can back at him, screaming. My family worried about me. They thought I was a troublemaker, and I was: Little Tina wanted to be heard.
[How can the beauty industry help?] Stop the fox eye trend. It's offensive, period. We are not the "quiet minority" that will be passively silenced and continuously stereotyped. There are a few ways people can make a difference, which is increasingly imperative as hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased by 1,900 percent in NYC in 2020. End the model-minority myth, and start by educating yourself on the wide Asian American experience. It’s vast, layered, and a vital part of the tapestry that makes up this country. The Asian American experience is very complex, and contrary to popular believe we are not all the same. Thai food is not from Taiwan (a woman recently told me she loved Thai food when I told her I was in Taiwan).
Volunteer with organizations doing their part, like NAPAWF. Support your local Chinatown and Asian-owned businesses. Every little bit counts. And speak up on the subject. Racial injustice and hate crimes against Asian Americans are seriously underreported by mainstream media and underplayed by government officials. The more people spread awareness, the more chance we have for real change.
Also, please stop policing our thoughts and words. My friend Nam Vo was told she was being racist against her twin nieces, whose nicknames are "TWINkies." I was called out for referring to my celebrations as Chinese New Year. Each Asian culture is beautiful in its own way, and very different. We should be celebrating the differences and nuances of our individual culture instead of allowing people to try to homogenize all Asians!
Makeup artist and global director of artistry and education at Tatcha
Growing up, I was always reminded of "knowing my place" in polite society and after the last four years, it's definitely time to break that fourth wall. After the summer we've had with BLM and George Floyd, I've discovered my courage to speak up when things are not right, nor fair.
I remember an incident in high school when, after turning 18, I went to the office to register to vote. After filling out my registration application, the office attendant was looking through it, handed it back to me and very "politely" said, "Son, I need the name you came here with…" She didn't believe my name was Daniel George Martin and demanded I show her some form of ID. I showed her my driver’s license and she rolled her eyes.
We need to educate and share more Black-Asian solidarity in our community. We Asians need to have the courage to speak up and share our struggles just as the Black and Brown community unified and educated us all last summer.
We need a seat at the table to even shake it. Yes, it'll be an uncomfortable conversation to have but with our unified voices, it's our fight against oppression that'll allow us to be proud in our own skin. We become stronger when cross-communities band together.
Editor in chief of Allure
Over the past several weeks, I’ve seen and heard many of my fellow Asian Americans express how issues in our community are so often overlooked. I didn’t realize until I was an adult how much I suffocated my own feelings in order to make other people more comfortable.
A few years ago, I took my kids to an exhibit. When I was buying our tickets, the guy selling them asked where I was from. When I told him I was born here but that I was Chinese, he replied, "Oh, I don’t know anything about Chinese people except that they look like this," as he stretched the corners of his eyes with his fingers. The sting of that gesture — all too familiar to many who look like me — momentarily took away my capacity to think. I took our tickets and walked away.
When we have to produce a collective scream so loud that it can't be ignored in order to finally have our stories covered, it's clear that the system is broken.
I replayed that moment in my head this week, still wishing that I had reacted differently, to show my children that casual racists deserve a public, and very loud, shaming. But for years before that, my default setting had been silence. In Asian American culture, it's often valued to put your head down and work hard. Don’t make waves. Swallow your pain.
I've talked before about my experiences with racism growing up, when middle school bullies tormented me and called me an ugly chink every day. And, sure, you could chalk some of it up to the behavior of immature kids. But when I did speak up, our school’s vice principal did nothing. The bullies' parents did nothing (they insisted that that didn’t sound like something their sons would do). Later that year, when my 7th-grade French teacher made "ching chong" noises in class while describing how Chinese people talk, I wished I could disappear. Adults and people in positions of authority simply didn’t care to hear my voice. So I learned to shut up.
In more recent years, I’ve endured — and ignored — my share of "ching ching" jeers in the street and blocked truly offensive dog-eating memes sent to me by Twitter trolls. I've had road ragers shout "go home to China" at me, and I've been stopped by security at my office building (where I'd been going for years) because I was presumed to be an Asian tourist.
Now, the misplaced frustration and anger of the pandemic has been placed on us, with hate crimes against Asian Americans experiencing a disturbing uptick. And some of the most vulnerable among us, our elders and even small children, are being targeted. When actors have to offer a reward to help find a hate crime suspect to make people care…and when outraged individuals have to tag news outlets — and produce a collective scream so loud that it can’t be ignored — in order to finally have our stories covered, it's clear that the system is broken.
Also, now is not the time to turn against one another. I’ve been reading a lot of social media comments this week and the anti-Blackness in the replies is troubling and totally unacceptable; and shows how racism can drive a dangerous wedge between us. We can fight to have our voices heard without stepping on, and diminishing the efforts, of others.
Founder and CEO of Tower 28 Beauty
My parents immigrated from Taiwan to Minnesota with just a tiny nest egg in pursuit of the American dream.
Born in the midwest and then growing up in the inland empire of Los Angeles, I have always felt equal parts Asian and American. But at the same time, I don’t fit in either way. I've been called a Twinkie and banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), told I was "pretty for an Asian girl" and asked more times than I can remember what my nationality was only to be met with a confused look when I said American. When I try to speak Chinese, my abilities remind me I don't fit in there either.
The current rise in anti-Asian racism reminds me of my other-ness and how important it is to combat the stereotypes.
Representation matters. Working in the beauty industry comes with the unique responsibility of defining beauty standards in the images we create and the aspiration we sell. [The industry can help:] Include Asian faces in your imagery, influencer campaigns, and on your team. And include all kinds of Asians — not just the thin, porcelain white skin, jet-black hair beauties. Growing up in the U.S., there were rarely Asian models or celebrities that looked like me. But as a medium-skinned Asian, I also did not fit the Asian standard of beauty either. Let's work together to set a new, more inclusive, standard for what Asian beauty looks like.
As the "model minority" the Asian American experience is often discounted. Asian includes many different races which are not all the same. We have different cultures, histories, and we don't all look the same! Be curious and get to know the differences.
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