Keynote by Daphne Kwok, Vice President of Diversity Equity & Inclusion, Asian American & Pacific Islander Audience Strategy at AARP, at the Museum Summit on Creative Aging, July 29, 2021.
Daphne Kwok: Good afternoon. What an honor to be with you here today. Thank you to Elizabeth Merritt for the invitation. What a small world. She knows my brother, they both fenced at Yale. I never would have expected that my work with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and AARP would meld into today’s opportunity to share the important role museums play in American society. My talk today will focus on three points that all tie into your Creative Aging Summit: belonging, MIH, and engaging our AAPI elders.
Belonging. Now, with this nation super focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, how do we ensure that DEI is not a passing fad, that we seize on this time in American history to unify this nation? One important element to the DEI work is belonging. What is saved, preserved, shared with society, acknowledges the people behind those stories. In 2021, the United States of America needs to focus on unifying all 331 million-plus Americans by acknowledging that they are Americans and that they belong here in America.
For the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community, there is an urgency to this call, because over the past two years, the AANHPI community has been the target of xenophobic, hateful rhetoric, which has resulted in assaults and even, unfortunately, deadly attacks, as we have been blamed for the root of the coronavirus. The backlash has been frightening, but unfortunately not new, as Asians have experienced hate and violence ever since we entered the US.
Ask the next Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander that you meet whether they feel like that they truly belong here in the United States. I would bet a large percentage of people would say no, even though they were born here in the US and may have been here for generations. This not belonging didn’t just begin over the past two years. It has been around since Asians first stepped foot in the United States in the 1700s.
I’ve been talking about it my entire career. For example, in the 1990s, I was invited to speak at the University of Virginia to the Asian American students. The keynote speaker that day was Sulu, the original Sulu of Star Trek fame, George Takei. He talked about how it seemed like Asians seem to have this flashing neon light on our forehead that just says foreigner, that we can never seem to be American enough. Despite having served in the US military, the very famed Japanese American 442 hundredth regimental unit during World War II, who is the most decorated military unit in American history, despite their families at that time being held behind barbed wires in the internment camps during World War II. Asian Americans, we have brought home Olympic gold, and we’re about to go into the Olympics just right now during this time period as well. During this COVID time period, a Chinese American was the inventor of the N95 masks that has been saving lives over the past two years. The perpetual foreigner label seems to be affixed to our forehead. What can we do to get rid of it?
Granted, Asians really have only been in the United States since the 1965 Immigration Act was passed. From 1882 to 1943, actually, Chinese Asians were permanently excluded, specifically excluded, from entering the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Now, about 46% of Asians in the United States are immigrants, but they’re already fourth, fifth, sixth-generation Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, especially on the West coast.
Belonging. Words matter, xenophobic, hateful words matter. Rhetoric can drive people to hate incidents and hate crimes. In this past two years especially, those numbers have dramatically risen, and especially attacks on our Asian American, Pacific Islander elders. Polling shows that AAPIs are more afraid of the hate violence than they are of COVID. That is truly a sad statement.
For me, as a Chinese American, I was born in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America. I, too, am on heightened alert, especially this year as well. The tension between the US and China means potential backlash against Chinese Americans here in the United States, especially those in the scientific and technical fields. They are being questioned for their loyalty to the United States, and this has been an ongoing issue. In less than two months from now, the United States will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and I’m so afraid of what may be happening and what may be coming to our South Asian community and the Muslim community as they will once again be questioned about their loyalty to the United States. As we, as a nation, are focused on DE&I efforts, let us focus not only about being inclusive, but also focus on genuinely making sure that everyone feels like they belong here in this country and in your institutions.
MIH. My good friend, the noted author, journalist, civil rights leader, Helen Zia, describes Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders as MIH. Don’t worry, she knows that I am using her term everywhere I go and then all my speeches. What does MIH mean? MIH means missing in history. Let me ask all of you to think back to your school days, your education, what did you learn about Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders through your school textbooks? For most people, perhaps it was about the Chinese railroad, the transcontinental railroad, and how Chinese were used to build it. For those lucky enough to be in California, the younger generation, you may have learned about the Japanese American internment. But let’s just take the Chinese transcontinental railroad. There is a perfect example of Chinese being MIH. The iconic photo of the joining of the transcontinental railroad, that celebratory picture, has left out Chinese railroad workers. They were missing in history, they were missing in that iconic photo. They were relegated to nowhere in history with that completion.
One step to rectify AAPIs as MIH actually occurred just a few days ago on July 9th of this year, when Illinois governor, J.B. Pritzker, signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American History, TEAACH, Act into law, making Illinois the very first state in the United States to require Asian American history to be taught in the public schools. I understand Connecticut is the next state that’s trying to pass legislation, but we need to make sure that all 50 states and the District of Columbia implement Asian American history into the curriculum.
You might be asking why I’m dwelling on AANHPI history being MIH. Because learning about and understanding AANHPI history as part of American history is a major pillar to stop the anti-Asian hate. We need to normalize AANHPIs and to accept us as Americans. One way that AARP is helping resolve AANHPIs as MIH is that as one of the 100-plus brands that signed the Association of National Advertisers Alliance for Inclusive Multicultural Ad Marketing pledge to take a stand against hate and violence targeting the AAPI community. AARP is focused on the pillar that states, “We will cultivate and share resources to support the awareness and education of the history of the Asian-American experience and celebrate their ongoing contributions to the US.” With AARP’s communication channels that touches our 38 million members and the many, many non-members, we can be a potent ally to break down the anti-Asian hate through education and through our communication channels.
Engaging our elders. In April of this year, the Pew Charitable Research released a report on Asian-American population, at 23 million, which equals about 7% of the US population. 17% are Boomers, and 5% of us are of the Greatest Generation. One other statistic I always like to talk about is that every single day in the US, 10,000 Americans turn 65 years old. Of course, in that 10,000, are Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, so it’s important that the time is now to engage, empower, actively include our community in the creative aging conversation.
In preparation for today, I reached out to my good friends who have been leaders in the AANHPI museum field for their insights. One of them is Dr. Franklin Odo, who’s joining us today. He was The first director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program. He said that the ethnic and place-specific institutions have long targeted our older members of our community for artifacts, oral histories, and of course, as donors. Ethnic and race-specific museums, like the Japanese American National Museum in LA, the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City do well when they engage our elders to participate and contribute stories and artifacts, manuscripts like personal diaries, and more.
Remember, AANHPIs are MIH, so to fill in the wide gap of American history, we must gather the histories, be it social, political, medical, health, immigration, cultural, as soon as possible from our elders. That is why the collection of the oral histories that so many of our community institutions are focused on, like the Densho project in Seattle had been doing over the years has been critical to saving and telling our history.
Sonya Chung-Hirano, one of my dear friends who worked for the Japanese American National Museum, said we need to turn history into our story. For the AANHPI community, storytelling is built into our family structures. For one, our revered elders pass stories down orally, talking about “back in the day.” The Native Hawaiian culture has “talk story,” the way of passing wisdom down through chatting. The multi-generational household, of which today about a quarter of AANHPIs live in, the multi-generational household is higher than for the general population, 27% to 19%. That facilitates the passing down of what Sonya refers to as the “family jewels.”
That passing down a family jewels is taking place actually right now in my Kwok household. Under COVID, since I haven’t been able to be on the road at all as I usually am, I’ve been spending most of the days, on the good weather days, taking my 95-year-old father out for walks. I, too, live in a multi-generational household, as I live with my parents. As we walk, I take out my iPhone, put it on record, and I ask him about his growing up, his own history, what it was like to live in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation, what it was like to come to the United States, what it was like to actually be accidentally drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, as he was actually out of immigration status at the time, but because of that fluke, it actually earned him his US citizenship. To be able to include the other generation of the Kwoks, I asked my nephew, who’s in college as a journalism major, to help me transcribe all of those stories so that he too can learn about his Yeye’s life and his journey to the United States.
What are other ways to engage and empower our older adults? Several years ago, I partnered with our AARP Texas state office, connecting The T. Chen Dance Company of New York City, the Asia Society of Houston, and the AAPI Seniors of Houston. This five-way partnership provided dance movement class for the elders, coupled with lunch, and then an abridged performance by the dance troupe, all held at that Asia Society location. It was probably the first time that most of those elders had actually stepped foot into the Asia Society.
This example illustrates not only the five-way partnership, but also how museums can be introduced to communities who may not have participated or stepped foot into the museum, by partnering with a trusted community organization, with trusted community leaders on a program specifically of interest to the audience. Providing the museum as a facility for a community is one of the most effective ways to bring us in.
Once you have people through your doors, my dear friends, Munson and Sue Ellen Kwok, they are the uber leaders of the Chinese historical community in Los Angeles as they were founders of the Chinese Historical Museum in LA, recommend when tapping into older individuals, don’t just see them for their professional experience, but really unveil their hidden talents and their hidden passions. They use an example of an attorney who, on paper, you would see him for his legal expertise since he’s a lawyer, but because they were able to get to know his true passion, he was passionate about being a photographer of California’s landscapes and so they used his talents in that way.
They had two more recommendations as well, to partner with companies to explore employee post-retirement interests. Before retirement through a company program, employees could volunteer their time at local museums. This could be a pipeline for volunteers. The other one is to create projects for institutions, utilize AI-driven online platforms, like catchafire.org, that can help design projects to capture skillsets and other attributes for a specified task or activity.
In closing, I hope that I’ve been able to seize upon this moment in time for the United States of America for a segment of Americans, the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, and how all of us can be necessary allies in helping to stop the anti-Asian hate by embracing, including, and building a sense of belonging for the AANHPI community in this United States of America. Thank you so much, and I look forward to joining you later this afternoon on two additional sessions. Thank you so much.