Other communities of color, other historically marginalized groups have made meaningful gains and long-lasting progress after vocally challenging the status quo. Asian Americans must do the same.
Georgia, the state where my family runs their chicken farm and calls home, has been ground zero for an AAPI awakening—one that started even before the Atlanta shootings, and which helped Joe Biden win the state. But even so, amassing real political power has proven difficult. The political parties still don’t perceive the AAPI community as having as strong a pipeline of political talent or as much influence as other groups. That’s despite, in the last election, record AAPI turnout, record AAPI elected officials and surrogates, record fundraising and engagement. At the highest levels of government, we are still unseen—without a single executive department head.
Amassing power is risky. It involves the kind of public conflict that many of us have been taught to avoid. But it’s also the only real way to change the political and bureaucratic structures that don’t take us seriously.
In my own life, this was a long and painful realization, learned after years of trying to climb the ladders of U.S. policy and global politics. It didn’t matter what grades I got; what prestigious internships, fellowships or jobs I held; the personal and familial sacrifices I made for the team, the organization and the mission. I found myself stuck, unable to reach the leadership roles others were promoted into. I wasn’t on a ladder. I was on a treadmill, working hard but going nowhere. Like the broader AAPI community, I was hiding within structures that weren’t working for me—that didn’t take me seriously. The challenge for me—and for the wider political community I’m part of—is figuring out when, and how, to say “enough,” and to fight those structures instead.
My first memory of politics was watching the 1992 presidential debate between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot with my mom. I was enthralled. So often, I would hear talk about the future first Black, Latino or woman president. But never once had I heard chatter about an Asian president. I asked my mom whether I could run for president one day. She paused and whispered to me, “Being in politics is dangerous. And they don’t think we’re American. Just focus on school.”
I assumed she was exaggerating about the danger, but I soon learned she was right about the rest. The next month I thought about running for fifth-grade class president at my suburban elementary school. When I told one of my classmates, he tersely explained that “no one would vote for someone who eats dog.” Later, I found a drawing on my desk of me devouring a four-legged furry friend. Kids erupted in laughter. I cried in the bathroom by myself until someone asked me if it was because of my math scores.
I never ran for public office. But I still wanted to get involved in public…