Representative Khanh Pham
When I was a young child, growing up in the safe suburbs of Oklahoma and Southern California, I was perplexed at how my parents seemed to see dangers everywhere. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about their own childhoods, growing up amidst the turbulence of war in Vietnam, and how those early experiences shaped their orientation to the world around them.
So many refugees and immigrants share this experience and trauma of having lived through violence and war before they come to the US, so it particularly pains me to see the rise of physical and verbal attacks on Asian-Americans (and vulnerable elders) in this past year, fomented and enflamed by the anti-Asian rhetoric spouted by the highest leaders in the country.
The truth is, anti-Asian sentiment has been part of the fabric of the US from the very beginning, We’ve never been a nation that welcomed all immigrants, and our government actively legislated against many immigrants, as demonstrated by the Chinese Exclusion Acts (of 1882, 1892, 1902, 1924) and the explicit deterring immigration quotas that kept out most immigrants from Asia until the 1960s and 70s. We aspire for higher ideals, but the idea of “yellow peril” is deeply woven into this country as well, a fallback for Western fears that Asians pose an existential threat to western culture.
As a kid, I got my share of racist taunting, about “Ching Chong” and slanted eye movements, but I just kept trying to fit in, and at 11, I changed my name to what I considered a more “American” name: Katie. My father talked about how hard it was for him to get a job in Oklahoma in the 1970s, with his foreign name and a fervor of hostility against immigrants supposedly ‘taking jobs’ during the Recession.
Given the discrimination he experienced, my dad urged me to change my name to a more “American” name, and so I went by “Katie” or “Kate” through middle school, high school, and college. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, working as a community organizer, that I went back to my birth name, Khanh.
Erasure is real, and I try to prevent it in my new legislative work. In my work on the Redistricting Committee, we have learned that Portland’s Asian population counts at the time in 1890 and 1900 represented 10% of the city’s population and was larger than all U.S. cities other than San Francisco. Oregon’s peak Asian population of 12,898 in 1900 (according to the Census) was not surpassed until 1970, 70 years later. Imagine adding back more than a hundred years of Asian population growth without the moral stain of Japanese incarceration and Asian exclusion, and our state would look very different, maybe for the better.
Now new hostilities are arising, with new conditions but the same old underlying root. Amongst many factors, white supremacy reigns large, and must be dismantled. It must be proactively and persistently combatted in our politics and policy-making. No policy is race neutral — it either promotes racial equity or further entrenches racial disparity and harm.
We can’t legislate for those who are no longer here in Oregon, but we can make amends for Oregon’s well-documented (but less understood) racist past, and we can look towards the future to reimagine Oregon. I welcome the opportunity to partner with the philanthropic sector to invest in and support the work of government to ensure that our residents can live free of fear and discrimination, as we learn to live together in community.