Chattanooga, TN — The past year has been difficult for the entire world: quaratines, limited exposure to our community, a dangerous virus that took our loved ones. Yet, as a student advocating against gun violence, my daily positive throughout most of the past year has been the decreased number of mass shootings and school shootings in our country, until recent headlines. The relief I was starting to feel is now gone.
As our world has opened up, it has been clearer than ever that the threat of the American gun violence epidemic has not been halted. If anything, our country is now experiencing an intersection of a pandemic and an epidemic — both of which have continuously harmed historically marginalized groups of people including Black and brown communities. While each shooting headline that I’ve seen these past weeks have dampened my spirits and hurt my soul, I found reading the news reports about the Knoxville school shooting in Tennessee, my home state, and the Atlanta spa shooting which led to the deaths of many Asian women especially hard.
The Atlanta shooting was both devastating and unsurprising for me. Asians have always been part of the racism narrative, no matter how glossed over that truth may be. I’ve lived it. My eighth grade younger sister has lived it. The entire AAPI community lived it.
I’ve even faced it within my progressive, activist community. When I try to pinpoint my first confrontation with blatant racism in the advocacy realm combating gun violence as an Asian American activist, I hesitate because in some ways, it’s existed from the very beginning. Every time a news reporter approaches me for an interview among my entire advocacy group, a split-second thought runs through my mind — is it to highlight the diversity of the movement? Every time a speaker mentions minority groups and people of color, I see them glance my way for just a second too long. For me, racism became more blatant the more I exposed myself to difficult conversations and the harsh realities of the public.
And while being called racial slurs through Facebook comments and being told that the narrative of discrimination in the conversation around gun violence is invalid are difficult to swallow, my greatest struggle as an Asian American activist lies in my role representing both the AAPI community and marginalized communities. As the only person of color in my advocacy group living in East Tennessee, I learned that all too often, minority groups are often clumped together — an unrealistic portrayal of a falsely symmetrical reality.
In August of 2019, my local group hosted a Disarm Hate vigil, commemorating the people killed in the weekend shootings of El Paso, Dayton, and Chicago. As part of the program, I stood in front of the crowd and discussed how El Paso especially was the result of racial hate. Explaining how minority and marginalized groups were a vulnerable target for gun violence, I also mentioned that Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted — a fact affirmed continuously by gun violence research.
Yet, when I stepped off the stage, I was confronted by an older woman and almost brought to tears when she demanded to know why I had not focused longer on the Latinx community and instead shifted my focus to Black and brown communities. In that moment, I realized that there is an additional layer to my identity as an Asian American activist — I become the automatic representative for all POC groups.
But I don’t feel comfortable speaking for others because I know that not everyone’s experience is equal and fair in this country. In fact, I sometimes feel uncomfortable being a “spokesperson” for the AAPI community because I recognize that not all experiences are the same. I may face more mainstream racist jokes because I’m from South Korea, a well-known country, but similarly, I am granted more representation in the media as an East Asian.
The bottom truth is this: the experience of minority individuals is not transactional. Hearing my personal lived experiences does not equate knowledge of my community’s experiences or the experiences of a different group. Instead, we have to learn to uplift those most impacted and always integrate more voices into the conversations. And while we may never come to a perfect 100% on representation, it is our duty to the people we represent and the people we serve as advocates and public servants to try our best, continuously and fearlessly, to come as close to that 100% as possible. Because the issues I fight for are much deeper than gun violence. The issues I fight for are interwoven into the fabric of this culture and I am working to build a larger community of voices, voices that can stand together, voices that begin to tell the holistic truth about the discrimination and prejudice littering our daily lives.