By: Veronica Figueroa Fernandez, PRSA Orlando Diversity & Inclusion Chair

Each May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we recognize the contributions and influences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental to its future success. It is a particularly poignant celebration this year, given the challenges the AAPI community has gone through over the past year given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and discrimination.  

In January 2020, Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit which tracks incidents of discrimination against AAPI in the United States was founded, and began tracking racially motivated violence against AAPI as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their 2020-2021 National Report, covered 3,795 incidents received by their reporting center from March 19, 2020 through February 28, 2021, representing a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur. 

In early March, six Asian women were among the eight killed in a violent shooting spree in Atlanta. And a few weeks later, a 65-year-old Filipina American woman was brutally assaulted in front of a luxury apartment building, while onlookers, including the doormen, witnessed the attack and did nothing. She was knocked to the ground, kicked and stomped on, as the attacker shouted anti-Asian slurs and told her, “You don’t belong here.” 

Anti-Asian violence has surged in the US since the beginning of the pandemic, but it didn’t start there. The first wave of East Asian immigrants to the western United States during the gold rush were met with discrimination and violence right away. The AAPI community continued to face hate through the 1850s and onwards, with Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese internment camps in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing, and a rise in anti-Muslim violence following the September 11 attacks. 

We connected with three Orlando leaders from the AAPI community to discuss the importance of celebrating AAPI Heritage Month this year, their experiences, and upcoming activities and events to promote the rich history and diversity of the AAPI community in Central Florida. 

The Importance of Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month in 2021: 

“During this year’s celebration, it is vital for everyone to come together, regardless of color,” said Shally Wong, special assistant to Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings, and liaison to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. “Learning and celebration through activities and events such as those taking place during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month create connection, which is frequently the inspiration for not only an appreciation of a culture different from our own, but also a greater understanding and respect for the people.”

Valerie Boey, an award-winning reporter from FOX 35 and the president of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) Florida Chapter, agrees. 

It’s extremely important to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month this year, because we’re proud of who we are. We represent 50 different cultures, and at a time when anti-Asian hate is on the rise, we salute our heritage and speak out against hate crimes,” she said.

Kelly Ferris, PRSA Orlando board member and HR communications specialist at Orange County Government, sees this month’s celebration as an educational opportunity to raise awareness about the rise in anti-Asian sentiment. 

Unfortunately, anti-Asian discrimination is not a new issue. It’s simply one that hasn’t received much attention until now for obvious reasons, COVID-19 being the main one. This gives us the ability to demonstrate the beauty of our culture and heritage and bring light on the contribution Asian-Americans have made locally and throughout the nation. For the first time in my lifetime (that I can remember), people are actually having serious conversations about this issue and, more importantly, taking monumental steps toward change. That is also something to celebrate and bring attention to during AAPI heritage month,” Ferris said.

As a mother and as someone who grew up not identifying with her peers or the people she saw represented on television and in movies, Ferris says that AAPI Heritage Month allows us to better engage our youth by highlighting the culture throughout the community. She shares that she tries to do this year-round for her daughters, but it helps when the recognition goes beyond something she can provide. “Fortunately, Asian representation is much greater in most if not all industries these days, and people are more vocal about the importance of embracing the Asian heritage.” 

Contributing Factors of Anti-Asian Hate:

Boey believes that a lack of education is a contributing factor in the recent rise of anti-Asian hate. 

“Some uneducated people think all Asian Americans are to blame for the coronavirus, because it originated in China,” she said. “It is sad to see the attacks, especially on our elderly AAPI population. But the solution is educating people. Tell them the virus is called COVID-19 or coronavirus. Don’t call it other names that can cause people harm.” 

“To put it simply, a lack of knowledge, education and factual information have been contributing factors,” Ferris said. “It’s easy to get lost in the social media tunnel of commentary and “news.” I also think the previous administration contributed to negative light shed on the Asian community because of the pandemic.”

A recent peer-reviewed study, conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, found that former President Trump’s March 16, 2020 tweet, in which he referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” triggered a rise in anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter. He continued to use the term online and in person. The researchers examined 700,000 tweets in the days before and after Trump’s tweet and noted that in users adopting the #ChineseVirus hashtag, half did so alongside anti-Asian hashtags, which the researchers said are known to be a predictor of hate crimes and the formation of hate groups. Yulin Hswen, the study’s lead author, said using racial terms to describe a disease “can result in the perpetuation” of stigma.

To Wong, recent anti-Asian hate crimes demonstrate a lack of respect and understanding.

“Race-based hate, commonly fueled by ignorance and prejudice, is absolutely intolerable,” she said. “As a community, we must be proactive and stand firm against any type of hate crime.” 

New Hope For An Era of Accountability & Solidarity: 

These devastating verbal and physical assaults on the AAPI community have sparked a new hope for an era of accountability and solidarity across multiple communities. It is no longer enough for allies to say, “we see you.” These statements must be backed with intentional actions to show that we stand behind the AAPI community.  

“I feel hope, as I see so many different aspects of our community, from government entities to arts organizations, reaching out to combat the hate and promote diversity and inclusion,” said Wong. “As an advocate of Asian American representation for over fifteen years, I do not want to view “hate crimes” as a uniting factor.   I want to encourage everyone, no matter your heritage, to be yourself and speak up for yourself if you encounter any unfair situation, not just during AAPI Heritage Month, but all year long.”

Boey notes that while this has been an emotional time, it has also been a time of coming together and meeting new people who are interested in learning more about the AAPI community and how they can become better allies. As the president of the AAJA Florida Chapter, she has given guidance to journalists, public relations and marketing professionals on writing when talking about anti-Asian hate.  

“The AAPI community has also gathered to share our message, so I’m getting to know more local Asian Americans as well,” Boey said. “Many of them are so talented and inspiring. We’re working to find solutions in dealing with these issues, such as researching how law enforcement handles verbal attacks, and are looking for ways to tabulate the information locally.”

Ferris has seen a similar outpouring of engagement and concern by her peers and community leaders, with people reaching out to check in on her and her family, and ask questions to better understand what’s happening in regard to this matter. 

“Admittedly, I’m not one to be super vocal using social channels, but I’m all for productive conversations with the goal of educating and bringing about change,” she said. “Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of those over the past few months.”

Upcoming AAPI Heritage Month Celebrations & Fundraisers:

Orlando AAPI #FeedingPositivity Campaign

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Asian-owned local businesses have teamed up to reach a goal of $10,000 to donate to Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). This campaign will be taking place from May 1 through May 15. Read more about it on Ricky Ly’s TastyChomps.com blog. 

FusionFest MYgration Films Watch Party

Tuesday, May 11, 7:00 p.m. – Virtual via Facebook Live

Link: https://fb.me/e/4bqUDIpmN 

Screening:

 “Puxiao Cen” – Story of Puxiao Cen, MD by filmmaker Thuyvi Gates

 “Aloha Orlando” – Story of Teurehei Buchin by filmmaker LaMont Chaney II

Orange County’s 8th Annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Virtual Celebration

Presented by Orange County Asian Committee and Orange TV

Friday, May 21, 2021, 7pm – 8pm

Link: https://www.facebook.com/ocacfl 

Featuring: 

  • Mayor’s APAHM Proclamation and welcoming remarks
  • Asian American Cultural Performances
  • Distinguished Asian American Award and Outstanding Community Service Award Presentation
  • Art Contest Awards Presentation

Watch the program via Orange TV, Orange County Government Facebook and Orange County Asian Committee Facebook. 

Asian Cultural Festival Virtual Celebration 2021

Organized by Asian American Heritage Council

Saturday, May 22, 2021, 10am – 12pm

Link: http://www.aahc-cf.org/ 

Additional Resources & Organizations: