'Role Models': Asian American Parents in the Bay Area Step Up to Rally Against Racism

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Bay Area parents and families demonstrate against anti-Asian hate during a rally on the San Francisco Peninsula on Sunday, March 28, 2021. Parents say they want to be role models for Asian American youth and empower them to stand up against racism. (Esther Lee/KQED)

On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators on the San Francisco Peninsula marched from Hillsborough to Burlingame in support of Asian and Asian American communities, chanting, “Hate is a virus, we won’t be silenced!” and “Where are you from? America!”

But unlike most other rallies that have sprung up across the region in recent weeks in support of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — including youth-led demonstrations in Berkeley and downtown San Francisco, and an LGBTQ solidarity march in San Francisco’s Castro District — this one was organized by five Asian American mothers.

“We want our children to know that their parents are engaged, that their parents have a voice, and that they have a voice as well,” said Catherine Dao, one of the organizers of Sunday’s rally.

Catherine Dao, one of the five moms who organized Sunday's rally in support of Asian communities, addresses the crowd. 'We want our children to know that their parents are engaged, that their parents have a voice, and that they have a voice as well,' Dao said. (Esther Lee/KQED)

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Amid the recent wave of violence against Asian and Asian American people in the Bay Area and across the nation — including a mass shooting in Georgia earlier this month that left six Asian women and two others dead — a growing number of Asian American parents are making a concerted effort to serve as strong role models for their children. Many of those involved say there was a lack of such role models when they were growing up, largely because their parents were recently arrived immigrants who were simply trying to survive in a new country, or who lacked the resources and know-how to collectively advocate for themselves.

Natalie Louie, another organizer of Sunday’s rally, said one of her goals was to help start conversations around the recent attacks against Asian and Asian American people, “because we know coming from an Asian American background, we don't talk about these things” she said. “We've never had that conversation with our parents. Our parents don't talk about it.”

Louie added that in trying to arrange Sunday’s event, organizers initially had trouble finding speakers due to a general reluctance within the AAPI community to speak out. But to help find solutions, Louie stressed, people must first engage in discussions, and be open and willing to be uncomfortable.

“Anything that you're feeling, it's OK,” she said. But when we begin talking about it and sharing, that's when we can begin to take action.”

Bay Area families on the San Francisco Peninsula march from Hillsborough to Burlingame on March 28, 2021, in support of the Asian American community, (Esther Lee/KQED)

Among the speakers at the rally was Yul Kwon, who 14 years ago became the first Asian American winner of the TV show "Survivor," a challenge he said he took on to be a role model for Asian American children and to defy stereotypes.

Now married to one of the organizers of the rally, Kwon said his 76-year-old mother was accosted by a man at a gas station in Martinez several weeks ago. And more recently, he said, a friend of his was verbally assaulted while walking down a street in Washington, D.C., with her 10-year-old daughter.

Incidents like these aren’t new, Kwon noted, recalling being frequently bullied and harassed throughout his childhood in the East Bay city of Concord, including once being attacked by his elementary school classmates in the bathroom.

He vividly remembers when someone spray painted “gook lives here” on the street in front of his family’s home, and how almost every year, someone would smash their Christmas lights.

Natalie Louie (right), one of the five moms who organized Sunday's event, said she wanted to help start conversations around the recent rise of hate crimes and racist acts against the AAPI community, “because we know coming from an Asian American background, we don't talk about these things." (Esther Lee/KQED)

While growing up, Kwon said, he didn’t see members of the AAPI community speaking out against injustices, and believes that maybe if they had, things may have been much different for him.

“No fault to our parents or the first generation. They just weren't even in a place where they could organize,” said Kwon, whose parents left South Korea after the Korean War to find better opportunities for their children. “They knew it was going to be super hard,” Kwon said, adding that during his childhood, “financially, it was always a struggle.”

But Kwon said he and his brother have been able to take advantage of opportunities that his parents didn’t have. “We were able to make a better life for ourselves,” he said.

Yul Kwon addresses demonstrators at Sunday's rally. Kwon was the first Asian American winner of the show 'Survivor.' He says he went on the show to serve as a role model for Asian American children and to defy Asian stereotypes. (Esther Lee/KQED)

But that success, he said, comes with the responsibility to speak out against injustice — a message he emphasized on Sunday, after making his way on to the stage to address the crowd.

“Our parents came here and they're just struggling to survive,” he told demonstrators. "They didn't have the voice, they didn't have the platform — but we do.”

Toward the end of the event, several Asian American youth, including Kwon’s daughter, also took the stage.

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Matthew Huo, a YouTube celebrity, urged parents to keep coming out to demonstrations to encourage Asian American youth to take risks and assume leadership roles, as they “will soon be taking the baton.”

Huo also urged his own generation to “take that baton” and stand adamantly against racism and bigotry, and understand that being vocal “is not making a scene, it's standing up for yourself.”