Celebrating AANHPI joy and combating anti-Asian hate: An AFT and APALA town hall

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the AFT and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance hosted a “Politics of Hate, Labor of Love” virtual town hall on May 24. The event featured panelists who used the moment to lift up the histories, cultures and contributions of AANHPI people and discuss issues facing the community as well as ways to combat anti-Asian hate.

AAPI-APALA town hall

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union and an AFT vice president, guided the conversation. Tang is also the national treasurer of APALA, as well as the co-chair of the AFT’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Task Force. The panelists included Kent Wong, Arlene Inouye and Tracy Lai. They were joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, founding president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, voiced the urgent need to address the distressing spike in anti-Asian hate. He shed light on the troubling attacks not only on the AANHPI community but also on well-known national leaders like Rep. Judy Chu and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

“We are celebrating the rich traditions and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders within the United States, [but] we also do need to talk about … a major spike in anti-Asian hate and anti-Asian violence that we have witnessed, especially during the last three years of the pandemic,” said Wong, who asserted that the attacks on the AANHPI community were linked to the prevailing anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments perpetuated by national leaders and right-wing media. “This whole notion of Asian Americans being others and not true Americans is also very much connected to the hateful anti-Asian and anti-immigrant messages.”

Wong noted the role APALA plays in the fight for racial justice and unity and underscored the importance of building multiracial alliances to combat racism and hate. “We see it as critical for us to build multiracial unity, to oppose racism and hate, and to understand that what is impacting Asian Americans also directly is related to anti-Blackness, the legacy of slavery and mass incarceration, the discrimination against Latinos, the history of genocide against Native Americans, and other acts of discrimination,” said Wong.

AFT President Weingarten drew attention to the fact that too often people fail to truly see and acknowledge members of the AANHPI community. “I'm going to go back to something that Arlene said to me several months ago: We can’t just say people of color, we need to see everybody,” she said.

Weingarten acknowledged the reality of hate and made it clear that hiding from it was not an option. Instead, she said, we must both fight hate and celebrate identity. “We have to be out there, proudly, not just fighting hate but proudly supporting identity,” said Weingarten.

Tang echoed the sentiments expressed, underlining the importance of celebrating the AANHPI community's rich tapestry. “So much of the history that we learned is about the struggle, … but you're so right, there's so much to celebrate. What are we fighting for, if we can't celebrate the joy of our community and our own identities, and be proud of our identities?”

Panelist Arlene Inouye, secretary of the United Teachers Los Angeles, joined the conversation by talking about the term Asian American and its meaning. She has been working on an AANHPI multimedia textbook curriculum, which is a project of the UCLA Asian American Studies department. Inouye explained that the term Asian American emerged from the student movements of the 1960s, the Black Panther movement, the Chicano movement and the Native American movement. She said the phrase highlighted the rich fabric of Asian American identities and the blending of various languages, cultures and history.

“I think we have to really understand that we're all fighting together to have this ability to fight oppression, racism, sexism and classism … that we’re experiencing, uniquely, in some cases, but also very commonly, in terms of a white supremacist culture,” said Inouye. “It’s about all of us together, not only fighting for democracy and for a better world, but … also … for, in some cases, our survival.”

Inouye shared her personal journey as a third-generation Japanese American, scarred by feelings of isolation and difference. “I made a choice to be the good little quiet girl. Because I thought that's how I would be loved and accepted in this country. And it was a huge detriment to me. But what concerns me today is that I'm hearing the same thing from young people,” said Inouye, who feels that young people grapple with the same pressures of perfectionism and acceptance she experienced.

Inouye discussed the forthcoming Asian American studies curriculum produced by UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, which she hopes will be a way to educate and empower future generations with knowledge of their history and political context. “I had no history of my people or AAPIs at the time that I grew up. It's the same today; for the most part, people across the country are not getting Asian American studies, they do not know the history. … It’s going to make a difference for people like all of us who are growing up and need to know who we are.”

Tracy Lai, the co-chair the AFT’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Task Force, a member of AFT Washington’s executive board and a member of the APALA national executive board, shed light on APALA’s efforts to uplift AANHPI workers and leaders within the labor movement. She rewound the clock to May 1992, sharing a video put together by the AFL CIO about how APALA was founded. Lai also talked about the book Asian American Workers Rising, which celebrates the organization's first 30 years highlighting AAPI labor leaders.

“We always work towards the representation of AAPI workers’ voices and promote and develop organizing institutes where representation transforms into leadership,” she said.

As the town hall reached its conclusion, the panelists shared what Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month meant to them. Wong highlighted the organizing campaigns led by Asian American workers and said, “This is a great time for APALA and the American Federation of Teachers to work together to mobilize within our communities to build power and to fight for a better future.”

Inouye emphasized the power of solidarity to transcend divisions and conquer oppression. “I feel like we live in precarious times, and yet I feel that solidarity is what's going to carry us.”

Lai urged listeners to recognize the power they possess: “We have the power. We just need to do all the things to organize and to lift each other up, and we will get even further than we think we can. So, I am very hopeful about what we can do together.”

[Adrienne Coles]