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  • September 5, 2023

To Move Forward We Must First Look Back: We Can’t Allow the Whitewashing of the AAPI Experience

by Judy Tso, MAA, PCC, CMF

I looked at my phone as a text came in, pointing to an article in the Washington Post. I clicked on it right away. It described the racial covenants for home ownership governing neighborhoods around DC and Maryland – including my own. That covenant bans my very own right as a person of Asian descent to live in my home except as a household servant.

This ban, established in 1941, while not currently enforced, is still on the books. It states:

That no part of said land shall ever be used occupied by, sold, demised, transferred, conveyed, unto or in trust for, leased, rented or given to any person or persons of any race other than the white race, except that this paragraph shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy by domestic servants of the owner or tenant.

Here we are, three years after the racial reckoning due to George Floyd’s murder and mainstream society is urging us to move on as if the saturation of news coverage, the angst of White people, and the various “conversations” should have solved everything by now.

But the current stipulation on my property says otherwise. What we hoped to leave in the past is chasing us right into the present. To be able to move on, we must first face this fact: the rationale that those categorized as White are better than everyone else is alive and well.

Many well-meaning White people refuse to acknowledge that this rationale is still embedded in society. It manifests frequently in the seemingly positive sounding phrase, “I don’t see color” when referring to racial issues.

I know what they are trying to say: They want to communicate that they treat people fairly. That they won’t use my color against me. That they are not prejudiced. Therefore, it should be the end of the story but the on-going violence, such as the unprovoked attacks in New York or the Atlanta spa shooting against people who look like me, is a reminder that all is not solved.

When we refuse to acknowledge the inequitable system based on race, we also refuse to acknowledge how this legacy shows up today. Take companies: we still have leadership teams of companies that are remarkably homogenous. This means the beliefs represented in the covenant still operate today.

I have compassion for this wish to forget and move on. I wish we could, but we cannot move on by denying what happened before.

Instead we start by making a distinction between what we refer to as behavioral inclusion and structural inclusion. Behavioral inclusion is about learning to be aware of unconscious biases and having genuine respect and inclusion of people who are not like you.

But behavioral inclusion is not enough. The racist exclusion of the past has been codified in structures (like the racial covenant) that continue to discriminate systemically and covertly. Even when not enforced, they reinforce the message that we people of color are less than. To achieve equity, we must address structural inclusion and that starts by acknowledging the past.

Behavioral inclusion is the inclusive mindsets, skillsets and relationships.

Structural inclusion is about putting equitable and transparent systems and processes in place that prevent unconscious-bias from occurring—and correct it when it does.

If you are truly committed to equity, here are three actions we can all take to face the discomfort of this collective history.

1.   Acknowledge what is and what has been

The system has not served people who are non-White well. We can also acknowledge that this racialized system has not served people in the category of White equally either. The racial caste system in the US combines race with class. There are many people in the category of White who now nurse an aggrieved sense of failed entitlement. They thought that this system guaranteed them something more and it did not. It pitted low-income White people against people of color from the beginning. No one wins in an unjust system. Any unfair system harms everyone in it: not only is the victim dehumanized, so is the perpetrator.

2.   Let’s not blame individuals, let’s take collective responsibility

People may fear being blamed for this racialized system. We cannot make change through blame, but we can move forward if we take collective responsibility. Once we can acknowledge the past, we don’t engage in blame; we can take action to create the world we desire. We are all responsible for creating a just world.

3.   Find courage through community

We must confront a painful past rather than sweep it under the rug. It requires that we work with and through pain, loss, and grief. We may want to run or hide, avoid, or deny. At the same time we also have the capacity, especially when in community with others, to bear witness, to be resilient, to grieve together, apply our compassion and support each other through this tough and uncomfortable journey.

If we can embrace these three approaches, we can go toward what is on the other side — a world where each person fully inhabits their place in the human community, with a sense of dignity, shared purpose, compassion and contentment. Then we can truly move on.

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Editor’s Note: To celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May 2023, we have written a 3-part series for VOICES, our deconstructed digital magazine that unpacks the complexities of our AAPI identities in the workplace and world.


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