AAPIP Voices

Racial Justice – Where are all the Asian Americans?


 By: Crystal Li, Associate, Living Cities

I’m an ABC – American Born Chinese – born and raised in Chinatown, NYC. My friends growing up from elementary school to college were all Chinese either born here or immigrated here when they were kids. Everyone was pretty much Americanized with the exception that we all loved dim sum and spoke Cantonese with varying degrees of fluency. Being insulated in Chinatown and with Chinese friends, I never felt the brunt of racism beyond racist slurs. Even after graduating college, I worked with predominantly Asian colleagues and always had an Asian female manager. In a sense, I grew up with what many identify as a “white male” mindset – colorblind and gender-blind (but of course without all of the unquestioned privilege that a white male enjoys in daily life). I didn’t understand racism and I didn’t think I needed to. All of this was my truth until I joined Living Cities, an organization that harnesses the collective power of philanthropy and financial institutions to improve the lives of low-income people, particularly people of color, and the cities where they live. Living Cities recently embarked on a new journey to focus on anti-racism both internally and externally. The year I joined would also happen to be the year that we as a country elected a president whose only “electable” credential is that he’s a blatantly racist white male. There was a strong sense of urgency within our organization for change.

In the last year and a half, I’ve been on a journey to understand what racism is, how it shows up in daily life, and how I have perpetuated racism with my own implicit bias. In my organization’s internal conversations about race, I quickly realized that Asians occupied a specific corner in the room.

In America, if you’re a non-Black person of color, you’re caught in the middle. Asians aren’t white; we never had unbridled power and privilege. Asians aren’t Black; we did not feel the full weight of the systematic enslavement and disenfranchisement across generations. In these conversations, I struggled to participate in a meaningful way because ultimately I felt I didn’t belong. I didn’t know how to ask for help, how to be a part of the conversation and how to offer support to show that I care. I realized there was so much American history that I didn’t learn in school and there was even more Asian American history that I didn’t know about.

I went to my first AAPIP (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy) national convening in April to see if I could be connected to a community that could share their knowledge on how Asians can be part of a broader racial justice movement. How do I address the fact that we do have more privilege than Black Americans and at the same time address the sentiment amongst AAPIS in general that we don’t matter in racial justice conversations?

At the convening, hearing about the experiences of my peers, I realized that sometimes, it might feel paralyzing to ask yourself these questions and it might feel like there is no place for you to engage in racial equity conversations. As a result, many of us are waiting to be invited to the conversation, waiting to be invited to the movement, but the movement begins with one person. It begins with us as funders and as individuals in our organizations. It begins by being vulnerable to your colleagues and to your grantees to open up the path for an authentic dialogue that can be heart-wrenching but also healing. That’s the power of storytelling. The act of sharing and receiving builds bridges that you didn’t even know needed to be built. I know this is easier said than done. A year ago, I also never believed I had a worthy story to tell and worse, I believed nobody would want to listen to my story. That was my own internalized oppression.

After attending the convening, I’m challenging myself to take risks to bring my full self to work by sharing more of what it means to be ABC so that I can build bridges and be more engaged in the racial equity conversations internally and externally.

Crystal Li joined Living Cities as an Associate in October 2016. She is currently working on Public Sector related projects. Prior to Living Cities, she was the Executive Project Manager at New York Film Academy, and the Department Manager of Asian Intellectual Property at TransPerfect Translations. She received her Master’s from Columbia University in Sustainability Management and her Bachelor’s from Binghamton University in Financial Economics.