With Gabi Kuhn and Riki Robinson
In the aftermath of the recent shootings in Atlanta, our Programs Coordinator, Riki Robinson, and our Program Officer, Gabi Kuhn, had a “check-in” with each other. As the two Asian American women on staff at the Jews of Color Initiative, this was a moment to connect, process, and reflect. This initial check-in then evolved into a conversation with the JoCI Communications Coordinator, Emma Gonzalez-Lesser. As scholars, leaders, and community members, Riki and Gabi felt it was important to share their perspectives on experiences at the intersection of anti-Asian racism and sexism with the larger Jewish community, leading to a formal interview with Emma. This article shares that conversation.
Asian American Jews simultaneously experience antisemitism and racism. As a multiracial people, Jews must fight for equality and safety for all groups, not only because of a Jewish obligation to stand alongside marginalized communities as “neighbors” or gerim (strangers), but because People of Color are an integral part of the Jewish community. The Jewish community must fight racial injustice not only for Jews of Color, but also for all marginalized people collectively, looking within the Jewish community as well as beyond it.
While you know Riki and Gabi as part of the Initiative team, they also come to their work with academic training in theoretical and historical frameworks on race and gender. Riki holds a B.A. in Asian American Studies and Sociology from Pitzer College. Gabi received a B.A. in Global Studies from the New School and an M.A. in Human Rights and Transitional Justice from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Gabi and Riki both did their theses on transracial Asian adoptee identity and belonging. Developed from their personal experiences, their academic knowledge, and their professional insight into how the intersection of anti-Asian racism and sexism have impacted other community members, Gabi and Riki invite you to learn with them through this conversation.
Where would the two of you like to start the conversation?
We’d like to begin by honoring the memory of the victims who were killed in the Atlanta shootings, though they are certainly not the only victims of anti-Asian violence or of racist hate crimes. May their memories be a blessing:
Soon Chung Park
Hyun Jung Grant
Sun Cha Kim
Yong Ae Yue
Delaina Ashley Yaun
Paul Andre Michels
The Atlanta shootings have brought to the surface a lot of discussion about how sexism and racism show up in particular ways for the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community. What would you want the community to know about that intersection of oppressions and how it may appear in unique ways for Asian Jewish women?
Everyone in this country is raised on a steady diet of stereotypes about Asian women. We are portrayed (and therefore assumed to be) exotic and reduced to fetishes and the objects of others’ desire. This has a name– ‘yellow fever,’ which entirely erases AAPI women’s humanity and complexity, steals from us our right to own our agency, and is often associated with violence against Asian women.
What are some perceptions and stereotypes you or others you know have encountered that are based on anti-Asian racism?
Far too many inappropriate racialized comments or jokes have been made at our expense and discomfort in Jewish and non-Asian spaces. These types of comments are not new; they date back to Western imperialism. Additionally, Asian bodies are seen as forever foreign, as something that came from elsewhere and are unassimilable. In everyday experiences, stereotypes are constantly reinforced in the media, making others believe that Asian women are all either “submissive flowers,” sexy “dragon ladies,” or sex workers.
These perceptions and stereotypes come to life when we are reduced to racial and gender stereotypes. Some of the most common racist comments we receive are about our English being good (even if we were born here or lived here most of our lives) or other jokes about “bad” and stereotypical Asian accents; racialized and sexualized comments about our bodies, especially our eyes; and racialized and sexualized comments about Asian men (often in a negative, emasculating or de-sexualizing way). Oftentimes there are “jokes” such as non-Asians pulling at the side of their faces to mimic eye shapes common among Asians, or cultural appropriation when non-Asians wear traditional Asian clothing like qipao or cheongsam as a Halloween or Purim costume, or spurting incoherent words like “ching chong ling long” to make fun of Asian languages. These are all experiences we and those we know have witnessed in real life, both inside and outside of the Jewish community.
Tell me about some of the anti-Asian racism you’ve faced that is specific to your identity as Asian Jews or the white Jewish community’s perceptions of the AAPI community.
Another way we, as Asian Jews, encounter racism is through the invalidations of our Jewish identities. This is unfortunately an extremely common experience among Jews of Color. A lot of Asian Jewish women have been asked if we’re Jewish because our partner must be Jewish or asked invasive comments and questions: “Did you convert? Did you have a bat mitzvah? Is your mom Jewish? You must be adopted. How are you really Jewish?” Alternatively, especially in the Jewish dating world, Asian Jewish women are told that they are one of the “good ones” or give their partners “the best of both worlds,” because they are both Asian and Jewish.
We also face so many Asian stereotypes and microaggressions, which are often minimized because they are “supposed to be compliments.” There is no such thing as a positive stereotype or positive racism. Racism against AAPIs is often dismissed because it is seen as nice or complementary, like the Model Minority Myth. Many Asian Americans have had colleagues say “You must be good at math and science because you’re Asian,” which reduces their accomplishments to a single factor of race rather than dedication, hard work, and passion. Or assumed that Asian Americans excelled academically because they have an Asian “tiger mom” who choreographed extracurriculars and academics with the sole goal of attaining admission to an elite university. Inversely, when Asian Americans deviate from these stereotypes, we are seen as less Asian.
People think “how can it be bad if you’re viewed as a model for others?” but this reduces Asian Americans to a single stereotype, erases the diversity of social circumstances across different AAPI ethnic groups, and paints non-Asian People of Color as the “bad” minorities, which just feeds back into the racist system that is harming all of us. We’ve seen this used to create a wedge between communities of color in the fight against racial injustice and to dismiss the reality of racism.
What are some experiences that Asian American Jews face that you want the Jewish community to be aware of?
In the Jewish community, the Model Minority Myth is often perpetuated by highlighting the similarities between Jews and Asians instead of acknowledging the ways that Asian Americans experience racism that white Jews don’t.
We are often stereotyped as submissive or silent because we’re Asian, and any deviation from such stereotypes are attributed to the fact that we are Jewish or adopted into white families. This separates our Jewish identity from racial identity and upholds two harmful stereotypes about our Asian and Jewish identities simultaneously.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are frequently tokenized; at conferences or in break out rooms we get grouped with other Asian American Jews, or people assume that we all know each other or are related. They actually ask! White Jews may assume our connection to Kai-Feng Jews, even if we have no connection to this community, simply because this is their only reference point to Asian Jews. All of this assumes that there is only one Asian Jewish experience and erases individuality.
We have both experienced many instances where we are not taken seriously professionally or are pigeon-holed into roles or work that is stereotypically associated with Asian American women. An example of this could be an Asian American Jewish woman regularly being picked to clean up after programming or to do the inventory because they are assumed to “naturally” be skilled at organizing or math. And as young Asian women, sometimes our authority is not taken seriously by others in professional spaces.
Since the Atlanta shootings, it seems like communities fighting racism are finally being made aware of the anti-Asian racism we’ve often minimized or dismissed. What would you like the community to know about the history of anti-Asian racism?
Stereotypes, microaggressions, and general anti-Asian racism don’t appear in a vacuum. Anti-Asian racism is a significant part of U.S. history that is often forgotten, erased, or ignored. Examples include the exploitation of Chinese immigrants to build the rail roads, fear of the ‘yellow peril’ (the belief that Asians threaten U.S. society) motivating immigration restriction laws, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, fights for citizenship and voting rights granted to Asian Americans only in 1952, multiple massacres of different AAPI communities, the colonization of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai’i, and American imperialism and wars in Asia.
There is also this general lack of understanding about the difference between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders or about race beyond Black and white, which often leads to the silencing of Asian Americans or erasing us all together.
What do you hope to see from the larger Jewish community moving forward?
There is a rich and deep history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in activism, the arts, education, and politics. While we spoke earlier about the very real existence of anti-Asian racism, we also encourage you to learn about AAPIs beyond stories of racism, colonialism, and survival. We are here to not just survive, but to thrive.
We ask our Jewish community to reflect on the ways they contribute to the racism that Asian American Jews and non-Jewish Asian Americans encounter, and work into their approaches to racial justice and building equitable Jewish communities an understanding of the experiences of Asian Americans, and all people of color.
Support Asian American organizations on the ground in Atlanta:
Resources & Readings from Other Asian American JoC
- AAPI Support Resource List, compiled by Terry Wunder
- 6 Must-Read Articles by Asian Jews on Anti-Asian Racism and the Atlanta Shootings