By Eddie Wong
In response to the onslaught of anti-Asian hate, Asian Americans and allies have organized hundreds of rallies, marches, and workshops in large cities, suburban enclaves, and small towns throughout the U.S. Several of these rallies were organized by Asian American youth, often in collaboration with new multi-generational Asian American community organizations. My friend, Steve Hom, has been active in Millbrae, CA with the Millbrae Anti-Racist Coalition, and he told me about one such dynamic Asian youth, Grace Xia, the founder and Executive Director of Asian Uplift in San Mateo. San Mateo County is just south of San Francisco and Asian Americans comprise 29% of the population.
After viewing her speech at the April 10, 2021 rally against Asian hate, I’m sure you’ll agree that Grace’s passion and vision will inspire us to be active in the fight for social justice.
One of the hallmarks of the recent rallies is the theme of Black/Asian solidarity. Claire Mack issues an urgent appeal to “get off your rusty dusty” and work to promote inclusion and solidarity. Renowned for her famous crunch cake, Claire Mack is also a champion for fair housing and civil rights and served three terms as Mayor of San Mateo.
Interview with Grace Xia, April 30, 2021.
Eddie: Tell us a little about yourself.
Grace: I’m currently a junior at Aragon High School. I live in San Mateo, and basically last summer I came together with a few super passionate friends to form Asian Uplift where we try to empower Asian activism and serve Asian communities.
Eddie: Were you active in high school previous to this?
Grace: For my entire time high school, I’ve been involved in my student newspaper which is the Aragon Outlook where I’m the editor. I haven’t done a lot of activism work, but I think being part of the newspaper really brought me to know about the world and the issues that are happening.
Eddie: Was there any single incident or that made you want to begin Asian Uplift? What sustains you emotionally during this period?
Grace: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been really passionate about Asian-related issues, asking myself why are there no Asians in film and why don’t I see Asians in positions of leadership. Growing up with parents who immigrated from China in their 30s, I think that the immigrant story is really powerful, but it’s seldom told. I’ve always felt that stories about the Asian communities weren’t really amplified and I really wanted to have a place where the stories are brought to light and not just kind of lost or glossed over.
Eddie: Growing up in San Mateo did you experience any anti-Asian feelings?
Grace: Asians do you make a big part of the San Mateo Community. I was born in Florida and I lived there when I was little and there were not a lot of Asians there, but I was so young. There were little microaggressions like kids being just saying things like “yellow kid.” But I also lived in Vancouver for a year where there were a lot of Asians and lots of those Asians had recently moved there from China so their English wasn’t very good. On my very first day there, a guy mockingly said, “Oh, you know how to speak English.” I remember this one time there was this other kid who was reading a book and said re-spear-tory and I said respiratory and then he just looked at me like why are you telling me like how to say an English word. I’ve never experienced an attack.
Even though our community seems very diverse, even at my school, people of certain nationalities or background tend to cluster together. I think people feel that they’re not really fully accepted. It is really diverse, but I think that there are still things that could be discussed.
Eddie: Was there any particular incident or situation that made you want to the start Asian Uplift and get on get all this activity going?
Grace: I think with the start of the pandemic and as you know in 2020 there are so many hate crimes that even my grandma and her friends were afraid of being attacked if they went out. I think that when these headlines came out we thought it’s time that we start trying to do something about it, not only to discuss this kind of visible violence but also the systemic roots of it.
Eddie : Was it hard to convince your friends to become activists?
Grace: I’ve been seeing in general an outpouring of support which I think is so heartwarming. But a lot of people they’re hesitant, but with things like this you’ll never know unless you try.
Eddie: Do you think that’s related to how our parents were raised us to be quiet and not be outspoken?
Grace: In the US, Asians aren’t really seen as super pro social justice and it does have a lot to do with the way that a lot of immigrant families raised their children telling them if you just work hard and keep your head down, things will be fine. And if you try to speak up, you don’t know what will happen. I think the model minority myth has perpetuated this; some Asians have the perception that if they conform to this kind of myth, people might not attack them thinking their proximity to a stereotype that white people have given them is going to make them a little bit safer. You know that’s not the case. I think it’s just as important to have Asians feel more empowered and proud about who they are.
Eddie: Is there interaction among ethnic groups at your high school?
Grace: There tends to be clustering even within our own school which is diverse. I think that it’s really important for minorities to be united. We’re all under attack and I think it’s important to realize that we’re all fighting this common fight against racism and hate.
Eddie: It might make you feel better to know that we’ve done this before. I’m 70 but when I was 20 years old, we fought for ethnic studies and we did it together with African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. So I think you guys are at exactly the same moment we were at where you’re all against hate but what are you for? What kind of society do you want to build?
Grace: I’ve also been seeing a lot of anti-blackness perpetuated like when I read comments from our rally when people say it’s a people of a certain race who are attacking Asian people. Historically white supremacists have pitted minorities against each other by using things like a minority myth and also other really harmful things. Minorities must be united and just remember that it can be Asians today but it will be a different group some other time. The next step is also to just keep this kind of momentum going. It’s not just because we’re seeing this visible violence in the headlines with our elders and with Asian people. It should be something that we consistently fight. Our work doesn’t end here; we have lots more to do whether making ethnic studies a mandatory graduation requirement across all high schools or just making our regular history classes more inclusive and diverse.
Eddie: What types of organizing are you going to do next? Is it working with teachers and administrators to implement those things?
Grace: We’re going to reach out to school districts about promoting more inclusivity and maybe preparing something in honor of AAPI Heritage Month and also just discussing the hate crimes and the impact that it has on our community because we haven’t had a discussion of hate crimes explicitly in any of my classes. We’re also planning a minorities unite rally, and we want to do a mental health campaign focused on destigmatizing the negative stereotypes around issues with mental health in the Asian community. We’re also working with Millbrae TV to have a series on Asian American figures specifically in the LGBTQ + communities throughout the month of May.
Eddie: In the course of doing this rally what’s it like working inter-generationally? What are some of the pluses and minuses?
Grace: I think there are only pluses to working inter-generationally because we could not have done this without the guidance of people like Steve Hom of Millbrae Anti-Racism Coalition, getting to talk to all these different types of people who have more experience on how to deal with different types of situations that you might run into when you’re having a rally. And it’s also so interesting to talk to so many different types of people through it like Dawn Lee, an ethnic studies professor, or Amourence Lee, who is a councilwoman, and hearing them tell their stories and give their advice and wisdom. It’s so powerful and eye-opening. I’ve learned lessons that I’ll take into my future.
Regarding the speakers at the rally, I just remembered Claire Mack whom I actually worked with on an article on the history of redlining in San Mateo. She was also kind enough to speak at our rally. I definitely want to stress the importance of trying to keep those friendships.
Eddie: Next fall you will be a senior. What are your plans?
Grace: I’m going to focus on choosing classes that I really like and that I really think I might want to pursue. Longer-term, I’m still not sure completely what I want to major in or specifically what school I want to go to, but I’m going with the flow and I am hoping for the best.
Eddie: That’s a perfect strategy, just listen to your heart. Thank you.