I was recently asked to contemplate a question about racism: “In light of recent hate crimes and violent events in our country targeting Asian American communities, what should the beauty industry do now and going forward to show support for Asian Americans and to combat racism against them?”
As background, a spree of hate crimes has escalated against Asian Americans due to the opinion that Chinese people are responsible for the onset of the COVID pandemic. The latest Pew Research poll taken in July 2020 found 73% of American respondents have negative attitudes toward China, and 78% of respondents put “a great deal or fair amount of the blame” for the coronavirus pandemic on how China initially handled the first outbreak. Asian American men, women, and children are being victimized with racist remarks and outright violence in cities from coast to coast. On March 16th, eight people were killed at massage spas in Atlanta at the hand of a white gunman. Six of them were Asian American.
I must first be clear that I cannot speak for the entire beauty industry. I can only speak for myself – of what I have done and what I will do to help support fellow Asian Americans at this critical moment. All change starts with a commitment of individual action that might help to inspire collective action toward a common outcome.
I also want to be clear that what I write here is intended to be informational. Few things disappoint me more than marketers seeking to capitalize on crises through their own publicity disguised as goodwill. I feel it incumbent to bring awareness for the need to stop racism against Asian Americans because it is an issue I have unfortunately been battling for quite some time.
A Personal Story
I want to share a deeply personal story with you. It is one that I share only as an example of how unconscious bias can root itself into even the kindest human beings, lying dormant in the recesses of the psyche until rattled out into the open. By sharing this story, I do not seek to disparage anyone mentioned. Rather, I wish to shed light on the “humanness” we all have – no one is perfect. If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize our own biases and proclivities and see that some are more dangerous than others.
I was born in South Korea, abandoned as a baby, rescued, and brought to an orphanage run by Holt Children’s Services. A loving Caucasian family adopted me when I was 2 years old. My new parents were big-hearted people, the kind that most others would rightly call angels. They raised me along with their own three children, and they went on to adopt two more children from South Vietnam. Our home, aside from its inhabitants, was quite a typical one for a suburban, upper-middle-class, Long Island neighborhood.
During the summer before my senior year in high school, an incident occurred that stayed with me for the rest of my life. I remember it vividly because it was so hurtful and bizarre. I was sixteen at the time.
One day, a friend of mine asked me to join her and do a modeling shoot for her sister’s local upscale hair salon. I asked my mom for permission. She said it was okay as long as they didn’t cut my hair. I thought it was a strange condition given that she knew the job was for a hair salon. I suppose I didn’t take her statement seriously.
Off to the job I went. My hair was cut into a chic, chin-length bob. Photos were taken. A poolside fashion show followed. I returned home happy and proud.
I was not prepared for my mom’s reaction. She took one look at me, screamed, and cried. Her face turned crimson-purple. Through tears and horror, she cursed at me, outraged that I defied her instructions. She shouted at the top of her voice, “You let them cut your hair! I told you not to let them cut your hair! Look at you! You’re ugly! You look Chinese! Now you look like every other ugly Chinese girl!” Over and over she shouted these slurs at me until she ran away from me sobbing.
I was stunned. I just sat on my bed frozen and completely bewildered. Up until that point, I would have never have known that my own loving mother – who adopted me from Korea and two of my siblings from Vietnam – had a bias against the Chinese. She weaponized her words against me at that moment, because she felt that I blatantly defied her orders. Calling me Chinese was her way of insulting the way I looked.
My mom would never admit to what she said, nor would she ever apologize for her words. I think she was ashamed. When the local Nightlife magazine came out with my picture in it, she bought dozens of them and gave them out to all her friends. She was suddenly proud of me and the way I looked. Funny how advertising can change the way people see things.
End White Privilege
For a long time, Caucasians were conditioned to believe they were better than other races. In White America, nationalistic pride colored other races as unseemly. Other cultures, norms, values, and beliefs were deemed unsavory, primitive, low-class, threatening, or downright evil. Attitudes towards Africans, Hispanics, and Asians created societal rifts associated with customs, language, and appearance. Even though Caucasians would be hard-pressed to admit it, the insidious effect of White pride presents the opportunity to control perceived eugenic destiny.
Hate Is A Virus
Of course, it would be wrong to pin all problems of racism in America on Caucasians. The trouble with hate is that it is not so much about the color of skin as it is about upbringing and experiences. It spreads from person to person, generation to generation, passed on like a virus. That’s why it must be inoculated individual by individual.
Stop Asian Hate
It may seem to some that Asian Americans are being targeted now for starting “The China Virus”. As the saying goes, all Asians “look the same” to non-Asians. I would surmise, however, that Asian Hate has gone on for decades, stemming from deeply rooted loathing against the Japanese for World War II, the Koreans for the Korean War, the Vietnamese for the Vietnam War, and the Chinese for trade wars and COVID19. The wounds of war and conflict run deep. Healing takes time.
Say Its Name
No matter how you slice it, I recognize racism for its real name: FEAR. Fear of lost power. Fear of lost control. Fear of lost jobs. Fear of lost culture. Fear of lost customs. Fear of lost language. Fear of lost superiority. Fear of lost identity.
Ending racism starts with recognizing the fear, learning to let go, leaning into the lost sense of control, and working from tolerance to acceptance to inclusion and ultimately on to love. After all, cultural blending is not only inevitable, it is beautiful. When we stop fearing others and erase our need for control, we end racism for good.
No one deserves to be blamed for a situation that is not directly his or her fault. Nothing is gained by harming another person verbally or physically just because that person exists. Being vexed by another person’s existence is a sign of one’s own self-loathing. The anger being expressed through hateful speech or actions is a cry for help.
That’s where things get tough. So often our reflex is to return malice for malice. But we must vigilantly return wrongdoings with justice blended with compassion. Yes, we must condemn racism and bigotry. Yes, we must hold ourselves and others accountable. Yes, we must see past our own pain to understand the suffering of others.
Today, let’s commit to finding more common ground. If a movement is to start with one small step, let’s take that step together to appreciate the preciousness of our similarities while celebrating the beauty of our differences.
The Human Beauty Movement has donated funds to the CommUNITY Action Fund by Hate Is a Virus and to the Asian Mental Health Collective. It is not enough to just offer words of support. The community needs dollars and action to energize the power of change.