Mari Watanabe

White nationalism and anti-Asian hate have been a part of America since the Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1800s. It is nothing new. The pandemic exacerbated hate against Asians and Pacific Islanders (API). We know from history that in times of crisis, people project blame onto a group or race. In the case of this pandemic, people think that all Chinese are to blame. This, of course, is founded in ignorance.

Back in January 2020, we started to see things happen here in Portland, perhaps even earlier. People accused those of Chinese descent of bringing the virus to Oregon. In reality, the first person found to have the virus lived in Lake Oswego, had not traveled and hadn’t been in contact with anyone who had recently traveled.

This is another example of ongoing xenophobia and racism toward Asians, and how APIs are perceived as threats to Whites. These false perceptions led to policies enacted specifically against APIs, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the incarceration of 120,000 west coast Japanese Americans during WWII, which is my family’s story. I am a third generation Japanese American whose American parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles lost their civil rights, and were all incarcerated during WWII because of racism against Japanese.

The pandemic brought back the same type of bad behaviors against our Asian community as we have seen throughout American history.

In my work in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) world, I help employers build a workplace culture where professionals of color feel safe, respected and valued. When the pandemic hit, as employers began defunding their DEI work to save money, hate crimes against Asians started to rise because of misinformation, ignorance and racism.

We immediately expanded our programs by increasing the cadence of our educational programming and introducing more provocative topics, including trainings on Oregon’s White supremist history and how to be an ally. We also leveraged our newsletter and social media platforms to provide resources to our communities of coloring, including information about ways to report hate crimes against APIs.

A year into the pandemic and I continue to receive stares from people at the grocery store or on the street. I often wonder if they were staring at me because I am Asian or if they just like the design of my mask. I assume it is the being Asian since no one says, “cute mask.” Sometimes, the looks are not friendly and come with the “go back to where you came from” statement. But I feel fortunate that, so far, my family and I have not been pushed to the ground, beaten up or killed because of blind hatred.

When I think about what can be done and where can philanthropy be a game changer, I keep coming back to education. Facing our history of discrimination, racism and suppression is imperative to moving forward. Facing the truths about each other’s story will bring about understanding that can stop these hateful actions. Facing the need for healing and how social justice philanthropy can help.

Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations once said that “education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family.

It’s time for real progress.

There are many other ways philanthropy can help. This is just one.