Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

In The Pandemic's Wake: Fight the Virus, NOT the People

In The Pandemic's Wake: Fight the Virus, NOT the People

Aired October 18, 2022

Andrea Neighbors:

Good evening, and welcome to In the Pandemic's Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders. My name is Andrea Kim Neighbors, and I serve as the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's Head of Education. I am a dark-haired woman wearing a yellow sweater sitting in front of a blurred background, and on the screen is our introductory slide with photos of today's speakers as well as the title, date, and time of today's program In the Pandemic's Wake Fight the Virus, Not the People. The Asian Pacific American Center is pleased to partner with the National Museum of Natural History and our esteemed panelists for this important discussion about COVID-19 related hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic, histories of discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders before 2020 and much more. As we reflect on our historical and current context, we encourage you to join us in thinking about how history can shape and inform community wellbeing today and in the future.

This program is offered as one part of a virtual series presented by the National Museum of Natural History and the Asian Pacific American Center, and it received federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool. To learn more about the rest of the series taking place in November and December, please check the Q&A box below. The Q&A box found on your Zoom toolbar as well as where we'll be sharing relevant links and information throughout the program. That's also where you can submit your questions for our panelists anytime this evening so that we can have them ready for them during the audience Q&A toward the end of our time together.

If your question is for someone specific on the panel, please be sure to share their name in your question. This program offers closed captioning and ASL interpretation. You can turn on the closed captioning by clicking the CC button on your toolbar. The recording will be available at the link found in the Q&A shortly after the program. We have an exciting panel of guests speaking tonight, but before we introduce them, Sabrina Sholts, curator of biological anthropology from the National Museum of Natural History is here to contextualize this conversation against the backdrop of an exhibition at the museum.

Sabrina was the lead curator of Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World, which opened at Natural History in 2018 and closed earlier this month after four years of highlighting some of the social issues related to pandemics that we're discussing today.

Sabrina Sholts:

Thank you, Andrea, and hello to everyone. I'm a blonde-haired woman wearing a green plaid jacket with a blurred Zoom background behind me. I'm really delighted to help welcome our attendees and participants to this very important conversation about how epidemics and pandemics can intertwine with xenophobia, racism and social exclusion, which we see clearly throughout history as well as today. The Outbreak exhibit at Natural History and its related to programming have this overarching message of global connectedness, which would be emphasized how pandemic risks are shared by everyone worldwide.

It was our mantra that an outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere, but we should not overlook the fact that people's experiences with pandemics can be quite different. And for some of us, the threats aren't limited to illness and death. So with the focus of today's discussion on Asian Pacific American communities, I am just so glad that this Smithsonian continues to give these issues the attention that they deserve, and I'm excited and honored to join everyone who's come together to be part of it.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce our moderator for this event. Theo Gonzalves, Ph.D., is a scholar of comparative and cultural studies. He has taught in the United States, in Spain, and in the Philippines. He previously served as interim director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and he is currently a curator at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, Washington DC. He served as a Fulbright Scholar to the Philippines and was most recently a fellow at UNC Chapel Hill at the Asian American Center.

He also served as the 21st president for the Association for Asian American Studies, and he is currently on the board of directors for the American Council of Learned Societies. Theo, thank you so much. Take it away.

Theo Gonzalves:

Thank you for that introduction, Sabrina. As we begin tonight, I'd like to introduce our three panelists. The first is Melissa Borja, who is an assistant professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, where she's a core faculty member in Asian Pacific Islander American Studies. She researches migration, religion, race, and politics in the United States and the Pacific world. And as an avid public scholar, Dr. Borja aims to improve public understanding of refugees through her work as an advisor to the religion and forced migration initiative at Princeton University and the Vietnamese Boat People Project.

She also addresses anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic as the lead investigator of the Virulent Hate Project, an affiliated researcher with Stop AAPI Hate and an advisor to the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University.

Next, we also have Catherine Ceniza Choy, who's a professor of ethics studies and the associate dean of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging and Justice at the University of California Berkeley.

As an engaged public scholar, Choy has been interviewed and had her research cited in many media outlets including ABC 2020, the Atlantic, CNN, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, the New York Times, ProPublica, San Francisco Chronicle and Vox on the topics of anti-Asian coronavirus related hate and violence, the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on Filipino nurses in the United States and racism and misogyny in the March 16th, 2021 Atlanta Spa shootings.

Nayan Shah is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. He's a historian whose books uncover how people struggle with incarceration, migration, and illness in the United States and across the globe. He has worked with the National Park Service, Angel Island Foundation, the California Historical Society, and the New York Historical Society to interpret the Asian American past and present. Shah was born in Washington, D.C., went to public schools in Silver Spring, Maryland, and worked in the information desk at the Smithsonian National History Museum as a high school student. How about that? Before his appointment at the University of Southern California, he was a professor at SUNY Binghamton and the University of California San Diego.

My thanks to all three of you and welcome to all three of you tonight for this discussion. I'd like for us to get started with thinking about the past, and we do that by focusing on an object in our midst. One of the most recently acquired objects at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is a banner, a protest banner, that was acquired from a march and a rally that took place on February 29th, 2020, in San Francisco's Chinatown. Now we have to think about that date because February 29 seems so long ago. February 29th, 2020, it was actually 11 days before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. And so what was fascinating about this is that the Chinatown community of San Francisco assembled a rally of a thousand persons strong.

They marched from Portsmouth Square to Union Square like I said, with a thousand people, and they had a very clear message about what was about to happen. They were anticipating what was about to happen because they had seen a lot of this in the media, but they also happened to be informed by Chinese-American and Asian-American history. And the very simple phrasing on the banner serves at the title for our event tonight, "Fight the Virus, Not the People." This is on display now at the Flag Hall and the second floor of the National Museum of American History, and I urge all viewers to come to Washington DC to come to that exhibit to see for yourself this banner. So it measures about 11 feet wide, and the other two lines also indicate support the businesses and we're fighting racism. So I want to ask the three of you about this particular moment because any historical moment also has precedence.

I guess as we think about how our lives have changed during this pandemic and where we think we might be going, I want to ask all three of you, how did we get here to this date? Again, we could start with that banner, February 29th, 2020. Now it's October 18th, 2022. How did we get to this particular time and place? I know I'm asking folks to think in terms of decades and centuries. I know I'm opening a can of ones when I'm talking to historians, but we need to address this topic with the deep well of information that you folks have. So Nayan, if you could lead us off with this answer, how did we get to this particular moment?

Nayan Shah:

Sure. I think that the people in San Francisco who rallied together and created that banner were really thinking about more recent events, but also events that went back 150 years in that very site. So they were thinking about the kinds of fears that were generated about Chinatown businesses and people and how the idea of people of Chinese race or Asian races were the source of disease. And they felt it more recently with SARS, with Swine Flu. There were these ideas that percolated that sort of lodged vitriol and violence against Asian people because they were perceived to be the source of disease.

And I think living with that history, both a deep history and a more current one, made them feel like they needed to actually put out a defense for what they perceived might be emerging and what had already begun to happen in February 2020.

Theo Gonzalves:

Yeah, so it was not as if they were predicting the future. They, of course, didn't have the ability to predict the future. They were being informed by these deep historical lessons from their own histories as Chinese and the Americas. Cathy, your take on this particular question as well.

Catherine Ceniza Choy:

Well, I love the question, and it makes me reflect on what it means for each and every one of us to be here. When we say, how did we get here? What does here mean for us? And for me, since 2020, I think about certainly the surge in anti-Asian hate and violence, but how among those Asian American and Pacific Islanders who are being targeted with that violence due to this historical association with their bodies as disease carriers as Nayan was pointing out. Among those being targeted, were Asian American healthcare workers including Filipino nurses, which was who were the subject of my first book, Empire of Care, which explored how and why the Philippines became the leading sending country of Filipino nurses to the United States.

And so when I think about here, I think about how by the end of 2020, National Nurses United put out a report pointing out the devastating and disproportionate toll that Filipino nurses comprised a little over 30% of US nursing deaths while even though they were only 4% of the US nursing workforce. So how did we get here? For me, it's about our history of actively recruiting Asian immigrants to healthcare, but it's also about confronting historically and in the present day how so few of us know about these histories that we're going to be talking about and the histories of our immigrant caregivers.

Theo Gonzalves:

Right. Melissa, again, what we mean by here is both time and place. I know you're based at the University of Michigan. What does that question mean to you? How did we get to this particular time and place?

Melissa Borja:

Well, first of all, I want to say thank you to Dr. Choy for calling attention to Filipino American nurses. As the proud daughter of a Filipino nurse, I am always indebted to people calling attention to the centrality of Filipino Americans to a lot of the healthcare that's provided. So when I think about that banner, I think it tells two stories. I think it tells the story of years and years of seeing Asian and Asian-American people as a threat, as a yellow per threat, a multifaceted threat, a threat to national security, a threat to the racial order, a threat to public health. But I see that banner also telling the story of Asian-American power because we see Asian-American communities coming together and saying it's not okay for us to be scapegoated, for us to be targeted in acts of racism and violence and discrimination and vandalism. One thing that I think is really important is to think about that banner as building on decades of infrastructure of community organizing.

I'm located in the Midwest. As you know, I live in Indiana, although I teach at the University of Michigan, and I pay attention to how organizing takes place and looks different in different locations. And in the Midwest, especially in Michigan where I was born and raised and where I now teach, there are a lot of references in the spring of 2020 to how that moment felt like the 1980s in Michigan. I personally was born in 1982, the same time Vincent Chin was killed. So it was interesting to me was to see some of the same leaders in the fight for justice for Vincent Chin in the 1980s coming out and saying in 2020 we've been here before, we know what to do, we're prepared to respond to this problem. So I love how that banner is telling both the story of racism, but also strong resistance in power and strength.

Theo Gonzalves:

Melissa, I'm glad you raised this reminder of the 40th anniversary for the passing of Vincent Chin. It's 40 years of a story that has meant quite a lot to anyone who studies Asian American history and particularly violence and to tie it to the banner, again, the organization that's sponsored the creation of that banner was called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of San Francisco. And they traced their origin to 1882. We're now 140 years since the founding of that organization, and they did so directly as a response to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. So in many ways, you're absolutely right, Melissa, it's as if these historical moments cycle, rather than pop up and leave us.

We seem to be going into another kind of cycle in which Asian Americans and public health are with us again. Since we're on this topic of learning about these histories, let's get to our second question because I think it allows us to consider your particular strengths, all three of you, in terms of being teachers and scholars. It's not enough to simply learn Asian American history as all of you know, but what is it that we need to unlearn as well about AAPI history? So I guess this is directed to all three of you in terms of not only what we need to learn because there's still quite a lot to learn in these topics, but you could choose which way you want to go with it in terms of either what we need to learn or unlearn about Asian American and Pacific Islander history. Cathy, let's start with you.

Catherine Ceniza Choy:

Sure. There's quite a bit we have to unlearn. I've said in response to different kinds of questions that it's not as though the American general public doesn't have an understanding of Asian Americans, but that it's often a misunderstanding. And the misunderstanding is in part due to some very persistent stereotypes of our incredibly diverse communities as perpetual foreigners and as model minorities. I think in this particular pandemic to connect with what I was saying earlier about that there are histories of Asian immigrant caregivers, the Filipino nurses who I interviewed and who I wrote about, they've been here for six decades at least many of them. So they're now these multiple generations of Asian immigrant healthcare workers. And yet, as I was saying earlier, we know so little about why they're here, what they've contributed. And so I think on learning this association of Asian Americans as perpetual newcomers is certainly one of the major things we need to unlearn in order to learn these deeper longstanding histories.

Theo Gonzalves:

Cathy, I'm so glad you reminded us of that. I think for those in the audience if you haven't already picked up her book, Empire of Care, one of the things that helps us to understand quite deeply is that this phenomenon of understanding Filipinos as nurses is not a new phenomenon. It's not simply post 65. I don't know, some people might think that that's already old in just in terms of a decade, but in a lot of ways, the histories can be taught in terms of pre 65, post 65, but the experience that Cathy you write about in Empire of Care directs our attention to the idea that Filipinos were being trained as nurses by the American government as early as 1907. So now we're talking about the US colonization of the Philippines, that early 20th Century era in which people are being trained for that massive export, that global export throughout the world, and it's become a decades long tradition, as you've pointed out. So again, good visitors, if you're here, make sure you pick up that book because you'll certainly get quite a lot out of it no doubt. Okay. What do we need to learn and unlearn? Melissa? What's your take on that?

Melissa Borja:

Especially since the Atlanta shootings, but honestly since 2020, because I have been involved in a lot of research on anti-Asian racism related to the pandemic I've been doing a lot of talks with high school students, church groups, universities, and it's very interesting to know what people know and what people don't know. I would say that in general a lot of people don't know about Asian American history. If we're talking about things we need to unlearn, well, maybe we need to learn first. I would say that. And one of the things I would say that we have to learn is all of the different ways that Asian Americans have experienced some form of vilification on the basis of this idea that they are ratched to America, and that can take different forms.

It could be because, again, they are seen as a public health threat or a national security threat or religious threat or a racial threat. But another thing that I think people are hungry to learn and audiences regularly tell me they're delighted to learn when I tell them, is all of the different creative ways that Asian Americans have responded to racism and found ways to make change in their own locales. I often hear people say when I talk to them, "Oh, it's just our culture to keep our head down and stay quiet." That model minority thinking is just so pervasive, but people love it when I tell them, let me tell you about the Tate family in San Francisco and how they really pushed to have access to education, and they were anything but quiet.

I love to tell stories about people drawing on their values, being activists in their own communities, and it really disuses people of this idea that Asian Americans just keep their head down and don't make waves because, in fact, we have been making waves for a long time, and it's extremely empowering for people to know that their predecessors have been doing this work. And by talking about this issue, by making change in their own specific context, they are continuing an amazing tradition of activism.

Theo Gonzalves:

I'm glad you stated that, Melissa. There is quite a lot to learn in terms of Asian Americans being very loud and noisy. The stereotype of the Asian American model minority does no one any service, and learning about the noisy tradition of Asian America is something that we all need to be able to embrace just in terms of the fullness of all of our experiences. That's a great reminder. I'm happy you reminded us of that. Nayan, what's your take on this particular question of either the learning or unlearning that's needed concerning Asian American Pacific Islander histories?

Nayan Shah:

I want to thank Cathy and Melissa for those great insights. I was just trying to think maybe we could think a little broader about these ideas about threat and about making noise. I think that one way of trying to think about that, what I really explored 20 years ago when I wrote contagious divides about San Francisco's Chinatown and Chinese immigrants as a source of disease going from medical menace to model citizen is I learned a little bit of what Cathy was talking about, about how it was that second generation Chinese and Japanese Americans that were in San Francisco. Some Filipinos at that early time in the twenties and thirties were also beginning to access areas that they had felt like they were rebuffed from nursing care, public health, medicine. That's they where they went to study to help and change and transform their own communities.

But they went there because in San Francisco in the 19th Century, they were called out as being the source of disease by public health officials, by physicians. That was something that was very different in the 19th Century than we have here in the 21st, but they were really the vitreal and the ideas about who they were and what danger they post was really being fomented by people who we thought of as scientists and protectors of our society. They were using all kinds of different ideas to do that, and they were denying them entry into the hospital. Even when Chinese Americans wanted to go into the hospital for tuberculosis care or some other care, they were just completely rebuffed. People had to fight through petitions, through lawsuits. They had to also do things to protect themselves and to create community around them.

So when the bubonic plague epidemic hit San Francisco, and the first idea of what to do was to quarantine the entire district of Chinatown, people in that district who were not just Chinese and Japanese, but were also European immigrant, were also from Latin America, they had to figure out a way of surviving without being cut off from food and from support.

They had to figure out ways of helping themselves and also of rebuffing what they saw was the strong hand of public health authorities, the city police, people who really saw them as expendable and disposable, not as worthy of care. I think trying to turn that story around using that story of health security or economic insecurity as the ways in which Asians have been perceived, sort of seeing that people who are sort of targeted that way also see themselves as trying to make their lives viable. They're going to try to create alliances. They're going to try to mobilize in different ways, and they're going to resist in ways that are completely uncomfortable.

I also think that banner we want to go back to it. There was almost a kind of message to the public health authorities like, Hey, get your information together and see us as people who are worthy of care and need access to care and resources, not just in terms of this idea of being a threat or being an embodiment of the virus or the source of it.

I think that really has a lot to do with also the experiences people were having around a strategy that was used in East Asia and Southeast Asia, which was masking, which was totally alien to Americans, which was misinterpreted in lots of different ways. I mean, we've gone through all these years of the pandemic, but masking produced a signal, which was very odd, very strange about how people were responding and reacting to it, seeing it as an indication that where somehow disease was inherent in you, that your life didn't matter, which was the exact opposite of the intention. The intention was, I'm trying to protect you from something I might have, but we're all in this together.

Theo Gonzalves:

That's fascinating. And, Nayan, could you talk a little bit briefly about the range or the repertoire of resistance actions that people would have available to them in the 19th Century? I mean, we're talking about a community that was initially drawn to California and to other parts because they were welcomed by capital for the fact that they were cheap labor. And so, again, we kind of think that these populations were vulnerable from the very beginning because they were beaten and discriminated almost immediately, and that's not necessarily true. The idea was that capital had initially welcomed them because they fulfilled a very specific niche for cheap labor.

And yet the decades that would follow concerning nativism and these questions of hardcore nationalism that would try to answer the question who really belongs in this place would be answered with some nasty laws in terms of 1875, 1882. What would be the forms of resistances that people would have available to them given the fact that they're so far from home, and, again, their resources are thin and they're trying to navigate what is a proper way to defend oneself after having initially been welcomed by capital?

Nayan Shah:

Right. I think people came for a variety of different reasons, and they stayed for a variety of different reasons. Some of it was about opportunities to make money in the United States, to advance themselves, to flee unhappy circumstances, both economically but also socially and politically. I think when people what was interesting is the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association is just one of the opportunities that people took of banding together to fight through lawsuits and through sort of mobilizing, trying to get the very best lawyers to defend them, to have equal protection under the law.

I mean, they really fought hard in the ways in which they were discriminated about with their businesses such as laundries and restaurants or how they were treated in terms of immigration. Just the idea, I mean, the early bestige of the idea that the sort of image of Asian women as both being docile and subservient and desired comes from the Page law.

I mean, the Page law was the first immigration restriction law that really sort of put all Asian women in the category of, well, you're a prostitute unless proven otherwise. And the people that supported that were missionaries, Christian missionaries. They were labor activists. They were people who you would think would actually be sympathetic, but they actually were mobilizing in ways to not be. I think people pushed back in terms of their personal conversations, trying to reckon with a different reputation of who they were and what they were doing. But they also, when dealing with these health crisis like the bubonic plague epidemic, like smallpox, they would also find ways of showing how they were suspicious of people who might or may not have their best interests at heart, including a really important class cleavage that occurs in Asian American communities. They didn't trust the merchants and the people who said that they were their spokesman when they suggested, oh, you should try that experimental vaccine or don't worry about the fact that those animals might be dying because they've eaten this poison that was also maybe intended for you.

This kind of sense of how they could push back and create a different sense of protection for themselves, who they would summon as their allies, which was really a range of different kinds of folk. I think that it's really important for us to understand that there are different kinds of solidarities that are building and being created because people find themselves in similar circumstances of being disregarded, seen as expendable, seen as disposable. I think that the kind of activism that you see about people trying to make those connections are really important. I think that was also really important for this pandemic. I think it was really important for people to connect Stop AAPI Hate with Black Lives Matter. Not to say that they were the same experiences, but to actually say, we are sharing vulnerability and we share solidarity, and we are looking to have people look out for each other and support each other because this virus knows no difference between bodies. And we should be careful about what we do to care for each other, to support each other and to protect each other.

Theo Gonzalves:

Right. Thank you again, Nayan, for the reminder of those lessons from 19th Century San Francisco. And for viewers here, an excellent book that should be on your shelf is Nayan Shah's Contagious Divides. It really gets into the drama of this particular time period and is absolutely instructive for where we are, I think, in 2022. So let's get to our next question here then. Because if history serves as a guide, then we may end up here again. I think for anyone that studies race relations, certainly health class and gender, the idea of the cyclical nature of how these experiences then become not new, it really then falls to us to figure out how to address what will be the next formation, the next set of propositions that our communities will have to face. I'd like to ask all of you in an interesting way to cast your minds forward, to anticipate how do we prepare for the next pandemic.

What are the kinds of repertoires? What are the kinds of actions? What are the kinds of things either we need to be reading or who do we need to be talking to? How do we develop different kinds of skill sets? What do we need to learn that we didn't learn in the middle of this pandemic in the last two to three years? How do we prepare for the next one? I don't know of any sober observer of history or contemporary events that will say that this will never happen again. What is next for us? Melissa, how would you like to start us off with that?

Melissa Borja:

Sure. I would like to just frame the thinking about time here, and when we think about the next one, we are still in this pandemic. I say this as someone who had COVID last week, so I think that we are still in this pandemic.

Theo Gonzalves:


Melissa Borja:

I think that one mistake I made when I started my research is thinking that the primary framework would be COVID-related racism. The reality is that COVID-related racism is taking place on top of or in addition to the broader context of geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China. And so you'll see a lot of if you look at how politicians were talking about anti-Asian racism and vilifying Chinese and Asian American people in the press in 2020 and 2021, you'll see a lot of mixture of things. You'll see people talking about China being national security threat. At the same time, they're using stigmatizing rhetoric that scapegoats Chinese people for the pandemic. This is a very long way of saying, I think we're going to see a continuation of what we've seen in the past two years, but the context will be geopolitical tensions with the US and China.

I think some of the organizing infrastructure that we've seen built up, especially in the wake of Atlanta, will help us be nimble and respond effectively at all levels, at the local level, at the state and national level, even at the hyperlocal level, at the level of the neighborhood school that's now teaching Asian American studies in their classroom. That's very exciting. So, yeah, I think continuing to build up the structures that allow us to build communities that are resilient to violence and racism is really helpful.

I would also say continuing to encourage Asian Americans to sustain some of the political energy that we saw in late March 2021, in April 2021. We have an election in a few weeks, and I wonder if we are going to see a different level of political engagement among Asian Americans, if they will remember some of the things they were really concerned about that compelled them to march in the streets, especially in March, 2021, that they will turn that into taking action at the ballot box. But I don't know. So I think that's another thing that I am curious to see moving forward. I would like to see a sustained mature political movement among Asian Americans at all levels.

Theo Gonzalves:

Nayan, what do you think about that question? And also given Melissa's caveat about next being part of the present?

Nayan Shah:

Right. I mean, we're definitely in a continuing mass pandemic, and I think we'll be in pandemic endemic times for a long time. And I think another dimension of what Melissa's getting at is there's so many reveals around disparities about how people live, their housing situation, that make people vulnerable, particularly to infection and to their experiences with healthcare. Their experience with access to health care also is something that's going to continue to live with us. We have people in many different dimensions of that. We have people who are Asian American who have very splendid access, and they also have habitations, which remove them from overcrowded situations. We have people who are on the other side of that as well, people who live in difficult, over crowded unventilated housing, people who are really vulnerable to access issues around healthcare. I think we're going to continue to see those dimensions continue for many people.

I also just think that it's very important for us to appreciate that this idea that was part of the project that was in the museum exhibit at Natural History, the outbreak is everywhere, and it is affecting us where wherever it is. Whether we think in terms of our localities for our nation, we really have to think globally in a variety of ways because the idea of understanding what we do know about the pandemic is that what's happening with public health and care here, which is itself pretty vulnerable, and other parts of the globe are all interconnected in ways I think we really have come to understand. The one thing I worry about with COVID is that this particular illness has become something that we are all very alert to do a testing protocol, figure out how to isolate around, have a vaccine, and then boosters.

This is not the case for every disease out there. And I wonder if we'll have a heightened anxiety around COVID that will continue, and then we will also lose sight of all the other different kinds of diseases, both endemic and pandemic that we face and have a heightened alert system built in, structurally built in, but not recognize the other kinds of dimensions around health and wellbeing, around care, around disease that are happening. It's been kind of instructive to see what happened with Monkeypox, right? How you thought a public health system would be a little more elevated in concerns. But what's happened dramatically across this country is that public health has also been highly politicized, and it's become under-resourced without the federal government pouring extraordinary amounts of resource into it. So when the emergency is over, state level, local level, public health is in still a very vulnerable position, and that doesn't even get us close to understanding what's happening globally.

Theo Gonzalves:

Right. Before we get to Cathy, I want to remind everyone who's in the audience to be able to send your questions to the Q&A box and would be happy to take those as well. Cathy, your turn with this particular question. What does next look like given the present being involved with the next?

Catherine Ceniza Choy:

Well, I think the next or our future is also dependent on how we know our past and how we learn from Asian American and Pacific Islander histories. And we've seen how this pandemic has created a sense of urgency among our schools, K12 and the curriculum, and have pointed out that we need to have AAPI history taught at all levels of our education in order to develop empathy, compassion, and care for one another. So that has to be part of our future. I also think we can learn lessons from some of the present day efforts regarding this pandemic that have been led by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And two, I'm thinking about are Heart of Dinner, which is based in New York, which is providing meals for our Asian American elders and presenting it in a way with handwritten notes, some in their first languages, first Asian languages, but also with decorated bags.

I think we need to learn from these everyday acts of kindness and care. Another example I can think of which was related to the mask issue that I believe Nayan brought up was the work of the anti sewing squad and providing homemade PPE for the most vulnerable in our communities. And the final lesson I think we can learn from both the past and the present is how we need to center our community health organizations moving forward as we combat outbreaks, but also the social discrimination that emerges alongside outbreaks. And here I'm thinking about the work of the Mabuhay Health Center in San Francisco that created videos to encourage the Filipino community in particular to understand vaccines and to not be so afraid of them through their community health centered pedagogy. And that's something that has been with us for decades, if not much longer, how communities have taken it upon themselves to teach us, and we would do well to listen to these community centered health organizations in the future.

Theo Gonzalves:

Cathy, I love your example of the anti-sewing squad among the others. The book that they released that documents their work is an amazing way to think about Asian American traditions. It's not just a fluke. That's kind of like the heart of the movement, what the heart of the movement has been about for many, many years. They want to make sure that it's called radical care and not just philanthropy. And they actively tried to remove themselves from the normal way of doing business, if we can think about that. It was not about profit per se, it was about providing actual care to people precisely at the time when a crisis is happening.

And so it kind of reminds me, what are the values about a movement? I mean, we all often think about Asian America and Pacific Islander movements as striking for this or that, but at the heart of it, there are these ethics that are very deep and can remind us about the radical notion of care.

I hope all of you can... We didn't go over this in our pre-meeting, but I hope you can all indulge me with this one last round of questions because I'd love to hear more about this from each of you about your particular origin story concerning Asian American histories. How did you get to this particular moment? How did you come to this field of study, which is now needed more than ever? I know certain states have passed a requirement to teach it in certain grades, and I know for many of us that were teaching for many, many years had wished that we had been with students before they got to us as college freshmen. But what does it mean to you to think about this current experience as an educator, as a scholar and a researcher? Could you talk to us about how you got into this field and what it means to continue to practice in this area of study? Who wants to start that off? I'm just going to ask for volunteers rather than calling on you folks.

Catherine Ceniza Choy:

I don't mind starting.

Theo Gonzalves:

Okay, Cathy, go ahead.

Catherine Ceniza Choy:

Even though I talk about my childhood and how growing up as the daughter of Filipino immigrants in New York City really influenced me, I have to point out that because I never learned about ethnic studies and Asian American history K through 12, I really couldn't imagine ever being in this field then. I just didn't have the tools. And it wasn't until I went to college, I went to a small liberal arts college, Pomona College, where I had faculty mentors who specialized in African history and Mexican American history, and who welcomed me as a student, but also as a potential scholar of race, gender, ethnicity, and immigration. And for me, the entry into the field was also being recognized, I think, by them as a complex, multidimensional human being as well as a scholar.

Theo Gonzalves:

And isn't that the truth? I mean, we're looking to take the measure of the fullness of Asian Pacific American realities, not just at stereotypes, not just its high points and not simply just its victimization, but the fullness, all of it, and how wonderful it is that someone saw that in you. And I'm sure other students have been benefiting from you as well for all these years. Nayan, I know we had you for a brief moment as the information desk person at Natural History. The road not taken, I guess, with Nayan Shah at Smithsonian.

Nayan Shah:


Theo Gonzalves:

But, briefly, what is your origin story in terms of getting into this field?

Nayan Shah:

Well, I mean, in high school, when I applied to volunteer for a Smithsonian, I think it was a docent program and information specialist. They didn't want to have me as a docent, so they put me as an information specialist, and I was dispensing information, all kinds of stuff. But what was interesting for me is in high school, I was finding myself, it was so impossible to imagine as an Indian American growing up in the suburbs of feeling like there was an Indian American or Asian American history, that it just didn't even seem like a possibility.

But what did seem like a possibility was looking at the world all over. And so all through college, I just studied any other part of the world. I refused to study any US anything. Actually, it was traveling to different places, and I had a fellowship where I looked at Indian immigrant communities and looked at race in England and Kenya and South Africa and Trinidad.

Then I began to understand a different way of thinking that I brought back with me to the United States when I went to grad school. And even then, I wasn't going to study the history of Americans, but I connected like Cathy did to people who were teaching African American history and Mexican American history and relationally trying to understand what was going on in all these different dimensions, but also connecting it to the world, not leaving the US as a silo and a container that everything starts and begins here, but rather it's connected to the world.

And so I think it's really important to sort of see that. I also think that our own histories in the pandemic, I was reflecting back on how my mother's side of the family, her entire family in 1919, 1920 was destroyed out of the influenza that went through India. And there were three survivors in this family; my great-grandfather, my grandfather, a great-aunt, and they collected with other people around them that weren't family and lived together.

My mother tells all these stories about how this collective of people, all these different aunts and uncles and cousins weren't really her blood relatives, but her world changed because of that. I have a feeling that maybe the need for that dramatic world changing may have also had something to do with the histories by which my mother at 1958, 1959 came to the United States, a 19 year old, to study. There were disruptions that occurred. So I think there are disruptions that are happening now that are going to have profound effect for decades and centuries to come, and I feel like that's part of a story that's unraveling for many of us.

Theo Gonzalves:

Thank you for sharing that. Incredible. Melissa, a little bit of your origin story as well as we close out this conversation.

Melissa Borja:

Yes. I think I mentioned earlier, I was born in 1982, a month before Vincent Chin was killed. And I always cite that when I talk about how I started researching anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic and before that decided to become Nation American Studies professor. It is because I saw, because my family experienced throughout my childhood anti-Asian racism at a time of concern about Asian people being a threat to American jobs. I had family members whose car was spray painted. I just know that it had a big impact on my family, on me.

Then 9/11 was another turning point, a moment when I was in my sophomore year of college really thinking about a scholarly career and decided to pursue it because of 9/11 because I realized that scholars played an important role in helping us make wise choices in the world.

I always say we can't change the world until we understand the world, and that was the goal I had in deciding to pursue a career in Asian American studies. And so when we began to see a lot of people get scapegoated, get attacked, friends, loved ones get spit on in the grocery store and yelled at as they were going about their daily lives in the winter of 2020, I knew that that was a chance for me to live out what I had committed to do, which is use my skills as a researcher and also as a community organizer and a teacher and a general community member to address the problem I was seeing that were affecting people all around me. So that's my origin story, both as a scholar, but also my work with the Virulent Hate Project.

Theo Gonzalves:

Well, thank you all for sharing all of that, and thanks for indulging me with that as well. I think we want to be able to understand that these fields of study are not so clinical. Of course, they're heavy, but we carry oftentimes the debts of our ancestors with us, and we want to do right by these histories that we've inherited. So thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and the generosity of your spirit. I really do appreciate it.

So visitors, thank you for staying with us with this conversation. I hope you enjoyed our opening session for tonight. What I'd like to do is to hand it over to my colleague, Andrea Kim Neighbors, for some closing remarks.

Andrea Neighbors:

Thank you, Theo. Thank you, everyone. That was an amazing conversation. I want to thank all of you for being here today. These conversations go by so quickly. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today, but I hope we can continue this conversation next month and in December for our next few programs. Next month, we'll be talking with artists, Monica Jahan Bose and Hina Kneubuhl, and the APA Center's curator of Hawaii and the Pacific, Kalewa Correa, about how their works and artistic practices have been affected by the pandemic. Please look to the Q&A box below to register for that program. Please join me in thanking our esteemed moderator and speakers, Theo, Catherine, Melissa and Nayan. I'd also like to give special thanks to those who made today's program possible; Amanda Sciandra, Naimah Muhammad, and Sabrina Sholts, and to you, our virtual audience for your support and for being an important part of this conversation. Thank you.

When you exit the webinar, you'll be linked to a survey which you can also follow with the link provided in the Q&A, and we hope you'll take a moment to respond. We read every response and appreciate your feedback. Your feedback only makes these programs better and more exciting. We want to talk more about these important topics, so please share your thoughts with us in the survey. All right, everyone, thank you again, and we hope to see you next month.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar aired October 18, 2022, as part of the "In the Pandemic’s Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders" series.

Accessibility Notes

This video includes closed captions and American Sign Language interpretation.


Eleven days before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, a banner that read, "Fight the Virus, NOT the People," was carried by members of the Chinese American community at one of the first rallies to protest COVID-19-related hate crimes against Asian Americans. Although it was one of the first rallies of its kind during the current public health crisis, the ongoing discrimination existed far before 2020.

How does history shape and inform community wellbeing today? Watch a conversation moderated by Smithsonian Curator Theodore Gonzalves with Melissa Borjas (Assistant Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan), Cathy Choy (Professor of Ethnic Studies and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Justice at the University of California Berkeley), and Nayan Shah (historian and Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California).

Host: Andrea Kim Neighbors, head of Education at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Webinar Series: In the Pandemic's Wake

This program was offered as part of the virtual series, "In the Pandemic’s Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders," presented by Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and Asian Pacific American Center with federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Other Videos in the Series

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Anthropology and Social Studies