Three Asian American leaders talk about what got them to the White House

Tanzila Ahmed, Jason Fong and Jenny Yang are Los Angeles recipients of the award.
(Jenny Yang)

Today, 10 people were honored by the White House as “Champions of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling.”

Among them are three Angelenos – Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed, an activist and co-host of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast, Jenny Yang, a writer and stand-up comedian, and Jason Fong, a high school student and creator of the #MyAsianAmericanStory hashtag. They’re all from fairly different backgrounds, and I wanted to know what drove them to do work in their communities. So, I got them on a conference call.

We had a conversation about comedy, working with other communities, why they care about whitewashing in Hollywood, being “woke,” and the Peter Liang trial.

Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

DEXTER: Jenny, were you surprised to get the invitation to come to the White House to be honored?

JENNY: I was! I definitely didn’t grow up thinking that one day, I’d be a “champion of change.” I’m just doing what I always do. I’m a good friend of Taz, though, so I can see why she is worthy. She and I were part of a delegation for solidarity with Black Lives Matter. We went to Ferguson to work with Hands Up United. Taz was part of that. She’s always involved with things, across the community.

DEXTER: Taz, you also met Jason early on, right?

TAZ: Yeah. So here's why Jason is cool. I was working for an organization, helping get people to vote, and Jason came in to help with the phone banks. He was just 12 then.

JENNY: Wait, what?

TAZ: Yeah, he came in at 12, and remember, he can’t even vote until he’s 18. People would hear his cute young voice and of course they couldn’t hang up on him. He’s still only 16 now. And seeing him grow into a young leader, it’s amazing.

DEXTER: Jason, you’ve got a little more bass in your voice now. Have people started hanging up on you yet?

JASON: [laughs] Yeah, they have a little more excuse to, because I’m older now. But I would say I was really surprised to be called up by the White House. What I’m doing isn’t really traditional activism. People say, “That’s nice what you did on Twitter,” but they don’t consider it to be hardcore grass-roots activism, even though the #MyAsianAmericanStory tag did galvanize a lot of people. I guess that would be my question to Taz and Jenny, because you’ve actually been organizers – how do you all define “activism”?

TAZ: I think one of the things I had to understand growing up was that when I was trying to get people engaged in politics, they wouldn’t engage with me until I made it fun. One of the biggest tools for getting people “woke” is art. You can move people with art, and once you move them, you can create consciousness, and change. You can't just tell people to register to vote and be done with it.

JENNY: Yeah, I think political activism operates from your heart, your hands, your mind. Most people don’t change because you give them a rational argument. We know this. They change because they are personally touched. And the only way we can do that, without being their friend or relative, is through communication and art. That’s what is so powerful. Once you know my story, you know me. And if you have an opportunity to speak out, or vote, your relationship with me might affect that in a positive way.

TAZ: That’s what Jenny is doing with her comedy. Comedy is great because it’s disarming. It catches you unaware. I think there’s something special about moving people through comedy. People may be guarded in their beliefs, but you can get around that wall, and before you know it, their minds are more open.

JENNY: That’s the goal.

DEXTER: All three of you have done a lot with social media. I think when we talk about movements and social media, we have to talk about Black Lives Matter. Jason, you’ve been pretty open about your taking inspiration from Black Lives Matter.

JASON: Yeah, seeing how people used #BlackLivesMatter and how hashtags can give different things in the movement a signal boost has been eye opening. I thought maybe I could do something similar with a hashtag for my community. After a few weeks, #MyAsianAmericanStory kinda died down, but the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t gone anywhere. The fact that the hashtag is still being continually used to talk about inequality or police brutality, the fact that it was able to have permanence, I’m trying to learn from that. I think it’s awesome to see hashtags like #WhiteWashedOUT and #MyYellowFaceStory. But we have a lot of work to do.

The Peter Liang trial

DEXTER: You’ve also been writing a lot about anti-black racism within the Asian American community, specifically with the death of Akai Gurley, and the Peter Liang trial.

JASON: Actually, I was pretty surprised about the pro-Peter Liang response among some Asian Americans, because that section of our community is usually not very politically engaged. I didn’t think it would resonate with so many people. That’s part of the reason I try to write a lot about it. I want to show that there’s a side of the Asian American community that does not support police brutality. To a lot of people outside of the community, who aren’t as familiar with us, it might appear that we as a people all support Peter Liang. I wanted to disprove that.

DEXTER: So your writing is also faced toward the “outside,” not just inside the community?

JASON: Maybe, but not just outside. The pro-Peter Liang protests also revealed something about us that was disturbing to me. It showed that a lot of Asian Americans want to raise themselves to white privilege, instead of everyone coming down to an equitable level. It was pretty disheartening. But that’s why storytelling is so important. It puts a human face on it. My parents are pretty woke, but other people, sometimes family members, I have to talk to them.

JENNY: The AAPI community is so diverse. Even just within East Asians, it’s so diverse. Different economic classes, different cultures, everything. I read something about people who were using Weibo [a Chinese language, Twitter-like service] to talk about the Peter Liang trial, to say that he was being scapegoated. And I thought, oh my gosh, of course. That’s part of the problem, that we’re not even using the same networks to talk to each other! There’s such a splintering of how we communicate within our own community. There’s separate communication channels being used to support something that’s the complete opposite of what I believe. That’s one of the challenges we have as Asian Americans, to create a community out of something that isn’t a community.

DEXTER: What do you mean by that? A community that isn’t a community.

JENNY: We’re so diverse, and we’re all just lumped in together. A big thing that unites us is our invisibility. But we have to see each other as partners, and develop a place of solidarity. We need a numerical power, a political power. That’s why 18 Million Rising, where Taz works, is so important. We're the fastest growing “minority” population. But we’re a drop in the bucket for mainstream media, who doesn’t recognize us.

Who cares about “Ghost in the Shell”?

DEXTER: That makes me think of the conversations we’ve been having about whitewashing, with Scarlett Johansson being cast in "Ghost in the Shell," when the original character was Japanese, and things like that. How important is representation to you all?

TAZ: It’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s such a small part of the picture.

JASON: Media representation is one issue that brings a lot of people who are quote unquote “woke.” It does get attention. That’s why what Jenny does is cool, being an Asian American woman in the arts and getting others to participate in different media.

JENNY: I think sometimes people dismiss the talk about whitewashing, or yellowface. People wonder why we get so upset about that. They say that at least we’re not dying, it could be worse. But it does matter. We have a lot of problems in Asian American communities. Mental health, suicide, depression. It’s our job as storytellers to raise those issues. Otherwise we’ll fool ourselves into thinking that these things are something to be ashamed of, and be silent about them.

TAZ: I’m going to speak as a Muslim American. My concern now is I’m going to walk down the street and people will attack me because of my brown skin. This is stuff that’s been pushed by people like Donald Trump. He’s used his candidacy to fearmonger, painting Muslims as villains. We were already feeling unsafe, and it’s just gotten worse. We can’t even fly anymore. Our lives are being controlled by how media is representing us. We’re not able to shape our own narrative, because others are doing it for us. It’s horrible to be afraid for your life constantly. That’s what I mean when I say that representation in media, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. But it’s visible, so we should focus on it.

JENNY: It has real consequences for our lives. A movie casting isn’t all we think about, that’s not where our activism ends. But movies, TV, everything has an impact, it’s visible. So we might as well use that as a tool, as a starting point to address everything else.

DEXTER: That makes sense. I think a lot of people have been missing that point. But if you think about it within the larger context, making sure that you aren’t left out of the picture is important.

White vs. “Other”

JENNY: Dexter, you write about a lot of different communities. What’s your take on what is happening with Asian American activism right now?

DEXTER: This is obviously just my perspective, but I think a big part of what is making things difficult is that when we talk about race, almost always, it’s white versus “other.” How black people interact with white people, how Asian people interact with white people, how Latinos interact with white people. It’s almost like in the mainstream imagination, people of color can’t interact without it being mediated through white people somehow. I think that’s part of the reason that there wasn’t a lot of good reporting on the Peter Liang trial. There's some good analysis out there, but a lot of people just don’t know how to talk about race when it gets complicated. The concept that different people of color talk to one another seems to be completely lost on people.

TAZ: That’s true.

DEXTER: I blame a lot of things for that. I blame schools, I blame history books, I blame the media in general for that. I think a lot of Asian American kids, especially, have never heard of the history of organizing across Latino, black, Asian American communities. They have no idea. So their first step into “wokeness” is thinking that “I gotta stand up for my people,” when that actually might be a little simplistic, or misplaced.

JENNY: I agree. People feel like they need to speak up for themselves. That impulse to fight for your own rights is great. Speak up about not being oppressed. But let’s take a step further to see how your rights are being stepped on, and how that relates to everyone else who has a similar experience.

TAZ: I just learned that there was a Muslim Yemeni man who was working alongside Cesar Chavez. There’s Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs. So many examples of interracial solidarity work. It’s important that we understand the legacy of what we’re doing. Doing solidarity work is building on something that has been happening for a long time. It’s part of how we got here.

DEXTER: So how do we get further? How do these bridges get built?

TAZ: We need more storytellers. More resources.

JASON: We need to make connections. If we can do that, we can change attitudes of feeling entitled to white privilege. It will cause people within our own community to step back and ask, what are issues that I’m facing, and how are these similar to things other people of color are dealing with? We need to encourage greater self-reflection.

JENNY: Here’s the thing. We’re just ten people who are being honored today. But the only reason I can do what I do is because I’m connected to hundreds of people in the comedy world. I’m a political Asian, people don’t think we exist! But we do. There are a lot of people who care about the community. They may not think of themselves as political, but they are doing important work. We should shine a light on that.

Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.


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