Amanda Nguyen ’13 posted an Instagram video in early February calling on journalists to cover the recent wave of violence against Asian Americans, who have been falsely blamed for the spread of COVID-19 after some conservatives, including former President Donald Trump, began referring to it as the “China virus.” Nguyen’s video went viral and its impact went as far as President Biden, who denounced the violence in his first prime-time presidential address a month later.
That video was the starting point for Friday’s virtual JFK Jr. Forum discussion, “Protecting the Civil Rights of Asian Americans,” between Nguyen and CBS News senior White House correspondent Weijia Jiang. Jiang was one of the journalists who was originally tagged, and she asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki whether Biden had seen the video. (She wasn’t aware that he had, but promised that that he would address anti-Asian discrimination.)
Jiang recalled being struck by Nguyen’s video: “She was simply speaking in a very genuine and empathetic way, to demand attention.” And she asked Nguyen what had motivated her to post it.
“Quite simply, I was so done being invisible,” Nguyen replied. Already an activist during her Harvard years, Nguyen went on to co-draft the 2016 Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights, which led to new rules for prosecution of sexual assault crimes being passed in 21 states. She is also the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Rise, which has helped pass 33 laws related to civil rights and sexual assault protection.
In addition to the event that inspired her video — the murder of an 84-year-old Thai American in San Francisco — she referred to the 2020 stabbing of a father and two Burmese children at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, along with more recent acts of violence. “There was so much grief that had been building. … It happened so sequentially, and in such a short amount of time. But when I tried to find out more about it I thought, ‘This is a pattern, and why aren’t people talking about it?’ That’s why I turned on my camera.”
Jiang pointed out that Biden had made a point of referring to “our fellow Americans” in his speech and asked Nguyen how it felt to have brought the issue forward. “Honestly, I was waiting with bated breath. Because our community was and still is being slaughtered on the streets. That is not an exaggeration. Although his speech was before the Atlanta shooting, I was waiting to hear it. Although I had expected the president of our country to address it, when he did I felt seen. The majority of what I felt was gratitude.”
She said she is even more grateful to Jiang. “Looking at that White House press corps, you represent me. I wonder if you weren’t there, would anyone else have asked these questions?”
Jiang then discussed the shooting deaths of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16. She acknowledged that it was an uncomfortable topic that needed to be examined, and remarked that suspect Robert Aaron Long reportedly blamed the violence on a sexual addiction — and that the sheriff’s department’s showed some sympathy for this viewpoint.
“I’m sure you felt the same way as me, as an Asian woman — immediately thinking, ‘Wow, there is a lot to unpack there,’” Jiang said.
Nguyen agreed. “Time and time again, the AAPI [Asian American or Pacific Islander] experience is one of fighting for validity, of fighting for our trauma to be seen; it’s an experience of being gaslit as a human in this country. And it was on full display that this empathy was given to someone who had massacred eight people, rather than to the victims and their families. I think every single Asian woman and friend that I have texted me right after saying a lot of things we can’t say right now.”
She particularly called out Atlanta police spokesman Jay Baker for allegedly promoting T-shirts with the slogan “COVID-19 imported virus from CHY-NA” on Facebook, and Trump for having popularized that phrase. “That’s literally state-sanctioned racism. Both of these people are supposed to be serving us, and yet they are the ones perpetrating these racially charged words. It made me feel like, ‘Do we really belong? Are we really Americans here?’”
When Jiang asked what the next step should be, Nguyen said, “I hope it’s a sense of realization that we can change our future collectively. That sounds corny, but I have passed 33 laws, and have done so in less than a decade. In this moment that we are in for anti-Asian heat, I want people to know that you have so much agency. And if you have ideas, go out there and enact them.”
The JFK Jr. Forums are sponsored by the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government.