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Top Stories of 2017: What Motivated an Asian American Woman Denied Housing to Stand up and Fight

Dyne Suh

(Editor’s Note: AsAmNews continues its countdown of the top 5 stories of 2017. Story number two is the Airbnb incident heard around the world)

By Dyne Suh

In February 2017, my then-fiancé-now-husband, two friends, my two puppies, and I found ourselves stranded on a mountain during a snowstorm when an Airbnb host cancelled my reservation saying, “One word says it all. Asian. I won’t be told by foreigners what to do. It’s why we have Trump.” I still vividly remember the all-too-familiar feeling of my heart sinking, the tears welling up, the anger and sadness clenching up in my stomach, the numbness seeping through my arms and legs. I had felt that feeling many times before growing up, when people have said racist things to me in passing, in the schoolyard as a child, catcalls walking down the street as a teenager, wherever – “ching chong chinaman” “[insert kung fu noises]” “konnichiwa, nihao, hey Asian girl, you no speak English?” “hey I’ve got yellow fever! sucky f*cky? love me long time?” I’d had racism directed at me plenty of times before. Except this time, this act of racism had gotten my friends and me stuck in a snowstorm up a mountain with nowhere to go.

The host had assured me that the roads up the mountain were safe and we would make it. Because of the nearby road closures and flash flood warnings, we had thought about cancelling. But her cancellation policy was strict, so we weren’t sure if we would even get our money back, and she had agreed to accommodate all four of us and our two dogs, and she assured us it was safe and we wouldn’t even need to put on snow chains. So we headed up the mountain … only to get stranded … by something that the weather forecast didn’t prepare us for, but perhaps the political barometer should have.

Suh Screencap

Three months earlier, in November 2016, the four of us were disappointed Berniecrats. Back in Santa Barbara, Bernie Sanders had polled most of UCSB for the Democratic primary, and for every 10 Bernie 2016 bumper stickers I saw, I’d see maybe one Hillary or Trump sticker. We had done what a lot of people on the Left had done – blocked/defriended people over time for posting xenophobic, racist, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist, classist, etc comments, and incubated ourselves among like-minded Leftists. We had never dreamed of a Trump victory, but there it was before our very eyes. We knew that the U.S. had a racism problem, but the magnitude of it became more apparent than ever with the election results, and breakdown of racial demographics.

I had moved to Riverside, and my husband and I searched on Facebook for any inauguration day protests. We were unable to find any. So we organized our own. I had some organizing experience. I had organized a Black Lives Matter rally (a candlelight vigil) along with some caring community members that previous summer in Santa Barbara, as well as several pro-worker, pro-student, pro-police accountability, environmentalist, anti-racist, feminist, immigrant rights, and anti-war protests in my life before. So I knew that all it took to start a protest was starting a Facebook event or putting up some flyers, and hope that some like-minded people will come. And they did. We invited complete strangers to a sign-making party in preparation of the protest, quickly became friends, and everyone who came made brilliantly creative and unique signs. On inauguration day, we each took those signs marched through the pouring rain. Though the crowd was tiny compared to ones in nearby Los Angeles, our protest still made the local paper. We all felt that it was important to let our Muslim, LGBTQI, immigrant, Latino, female, and sexual assault victim friends in particular know that allies like us were out here too in Riverside county.

In the wake of the election, two of my Iranian friends in particular stood out in my mind after Trump’s Muslim Ban. Both were international graduate students working on Ph.Ds. One was stuck in Iran after visiting on holiday, and unable to come back to the U.S. to continue his studies (though fortunately, the university allowed him to continue towards the degree abroad). The other was stuck in the U.S. now, unable to see his mother and father back home until he finishes his degree in a few years, even though they are extremely close. I remember crying for these friends when I heard the news. I also thought of one of my mentors – a veteran who is trans, trans friends, female friends, sexual assault victim friends, and of course the many hard working undocumented and vicariously documented people who had escaped poverty and terror in search of not only better lives, but for survival.

Yet I also remember seeing loving posts of solidarity shared across Facebook reaching out to trans, undocumented, and sexual assault victim friends reassuring that they are not alone, that their rights will be fought for and protected. In the face of what looked like a nationwide endorsement of hate, love and solidity emerged and blossomed with unprecedented purity and strength. Perhaps seeing such an outpouring of love and solidarity within my own network of friends is what left me off guard … when it shouldn’t have.

Not long after the election, I remember being on the bus in Los Angeles when a man started shouting at an elderly seemingly homeless Chinese woman with a limp, “Build a wall! I voted for Trump! Get them out!” or something to that effect when the woman begged the bus driver if he could let her off because it hurt for her to walk (I think she had missed her stop in retrospect, so she needed the driver to stop sooner than earlier before the next stop). I was disgusted by the man. He just heard an accent and his racism and xenophobia went into full swing. She had done nothing to him, yet he was so hostile to her, a complete stranger, vulnerable because of her English speaking ability, her age, her gender, her disability. He was kicking someone who was already down. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t stand up for her. He was a big, belligerent man, and I was scared. I still regret not speaking out that day, and I remember the look on the woman’s face as her eyes darted around at other passengers’, including mine, looking for help, solidarity, or at least some sympathy. But no one spoke. The bus driver kindly let her off before the next stop. This was brewing inside me for several weeks before Big Bear.

Friends in other parts of the country reported their own witnessed or personally-experienced incidents of racism since the election over the first months of the presidency. Maybe it had always been this way but technology and social media made it easier to capture and share, or more people just felt more supported from the outspoken critics of Trump and thus felt more able to talk about it with vocal anti-Trump, anti-racist (thank you BLM), feminist, immigrant rights, trans rights, etc movements having their backs. Or maybe things had in fact gotten worse as people felt emboldened by Trump’s electoral victory to openly engage in acts of discrimination. Or maybe, a bit of both. I wasn’t sure. But when this particular Airbnb host decided to cite Trump explicitly to me, when we had never discussed politics at all before, it seemed to suggest that it really was getting worse – that racists felt emboldened, like Trump’s election was some bat signal but for innermost demons. I remember thinking, is this how things are going to be now? Is this just the beginning of something about to become much worse? I was full of dread. And the news kept rolling in about increases in hate crimes.

When the video went unexpectedly viral as a result of news reporter Steve Cuzj, who was also up the mountain that evening covering the snowstorm, posting it on his You Tube page, I tried to avoid reading comments to spare my sanity. Law school finals were creeping up, as was the California Bar Exam (I’m an attorney now, yay!). But I couldn’t save myself from curiosity all the time, and I was flooded with Facebook messages from people I had never met all around the world.

The vast majority of messages were messages of love, solidarity, sympathy, encouragement, even welcoming me and my husband and our dogs into their homes around the world (so so so generous, melted my heart but I just couldn’t accept any …) But a disappointing number of people in comment threads were skeptical – as if it would take a conspiracy for something like this to happen, when it happens ALL THE TIME!!! The fact that it was so hard for so many people to believe was really eye-opening as to how uninformed of racial experiences so many people really are. An unfortunate number of people sent me hateful angry messages, calling me a liar, or saying I was in the wrong when I uploaded all of the screencaps and other people were there!! I was personally shocked it turned out to be such a big deal because people of color, including Asians, face this kind of discrimination all the time. But for every comment like that, a person of color or ally would jump in and reply exactly that – this kind of stuff happens all the time.

Then there were comments saying, whatever, big deal, I didn’t even die. People get less news coverage after being shot or brutally beat up than I did over an inconvenienced ski trip. I agree, and I was confused about all the attention this incident got for the same reason. I’d been crying at BLM vigils over people who had actually died, but whose stories had not been shared widely enough, who did not get justice. Every time I’ve been interviewed about this, I’ve brought up the same concern – far worse is happening out there to people darker-skinned, poorer, less heteronormative, non-U.S. citizen, and otherwise more marginalized and oppressed than me, so why me? Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and people have convinced me that what happened to me with the Airbnb matters too.

Racism doesn’t only occur when a corrupt White police officer kills an unarmed Black person or when a homicidal KKK member burns a cross on a Black family’s lawn. Focusing on just these extreme incidents of racism make racism appear to be an anomaly – an aberrant thing done by aberrant people. But the reality is, racism is an everyday thing done by everyday people. Racism occurs on many different levels, from war to shooting deaths to immigration policies to employment discrimination to being sexually fetishized to cancelled Airbnbs to being followed around the store to locked car doors to being asked if you speak English or where you’re really from to dehumanizing stares to being called “you” versus “ma’am” or “sir” to calling a teenager a “boy” versus a “thug” to being treated a little worse but you can’t quite describe that feeling in words … all of that. We need to talk about racism more broadly because it operates broadly, manifests in many forms. My story matters because your story matters too. If you tell someone you are hurting because you broke your leg, and their response was, “So? That person over their broke their leg and their arm.” What a jerk! Or if I don’t get my leg treated because, well, it’s not as bad as that other person’s, what’s the point in that? We need to tell our stories. One quote of many of Malcolm X’s that I love is “If you want something, you better make some noise.” Think about when a baby cries. If you are hurting and you want the pain to stop, you cannot sit in silence. In sharing stories about our painful experiences, we realize we are not alone, and there is power in numbers. My story never would have gone viral if my friends hadn’t validated my feelings by expressing their own outrage at what the Airbnb host had said, encouraged me to speak out, listened to what I had to say, believed that it mattered, and shared my experience with others. To my friends, the news reporters, and everyone who took the time to read and share my story, thank you.

White People Organizing to Undo Racism
White People Organizing to Undo Racism

Also, despite caring a lot about anti-discrimination, I actually didn’t know very much about anti-discrimination law agencies in the U.S. and California. And if a law student in the public interest program doesn’t know about it, what is the likelihood the general public knows about it as an available resource? Until this Airbnb incident, despite being a law student, I had not heard of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. After hearing about my incident through the social media grapevine, an attorney from DFEH reached out to me and asked if I wanted to file a complaint. I agreed, and it was only then that I learned from the DFEH attorneys that this department receives complaints and then takes action to enforce anti-discrimination laws against people who violate them. The Airbnb host was required to pay a penalty of $5000 for discriminating against me. I’m very thankful to the ferocious female attorneys who rigorously stood on my behalf and fight for other victims of discrimination every day.

RELATED: Airbnb Host Fined for Discriminating against Asian American Guest

California Investigating Airbnb Incident

Some Still Express Serious Doubts about Victim in Racist Airbnb Incident

Host Dumped by Airbnb after Racist Incident Leaves Asian American in Tears

What I thought was best about the outcome, is that we came up with a creative resolution requiring the host to take an Asian American studies course as part of the settlement – a very restorative solution. Large scale, it could also a preventative one if every primary school in this diverse nation of ours had ethnic studies as part of their curriculum. Just like sex ed, to prevent accidents and unpleasant outcomes ahead of time through preparation, teach – use education to better equip people for functioning in society. Also, I believe in humanity and I believe people want to be good people and are willing to learn from their mistakes, so a little education can go a long way. The Airbnb host was very apologetic and very cooperative in working towards a solution to make things better together. I appreciate her for that, and as hurtful as that moment was, I wish her the very best and have faith in her personal growth. I don’t believe in racists – I believe that there are human beings who wrongfully hold racist beliefs and do racist things. These beliefs are based on a lie. If they learn the truth that we are all just human beings and equals, that racist stereotypes are myths, through education, through integration, through friendship, through dismantling of policies and institutions that perpetuate White Supremacy, they can change their beliefs and behaviors.

You and I and everyone we know is a little guilty of perpetuating racism (and other isms and phobias) in one way or another. The important part is to identify the beliefs we hold or things we say or do that are problematic, and stop holding them and stop doing them. And when someone else calls us out, instead of getting defensive, we need to listen. When I first moved to California from Texas at age 11, I used to say, “that’s so gay.” My LGBTQI-ally friend called me out on it, taught me why it’s problematic to say, and by age 12 I didn’t say it anymore. Ableist words “retard” and “retarded” were the next ones to go, then “tranny”, then “slut”, and so on. Learning words like “cis” and unlearning words like “bitch” … why not?

I took an implicit bias test early in college, and my results were the same as most of the class – biased negatively towards Black people. After years of taking Black Studies courses and working hard to de-bias myself by becoming aware of all the racist myths I had been spoonfed all my life through the media/pop culture and de facto racially segregated socioeconomic realities I saw without knowing the underlying cause was actually not racial difference but capitalism … I took the implicit bias test again and found that the negative bias had not only gone, but now my bias had become positive. De-biasing is a thing. People can change, and we should encourage them to change instead of assuming that some people are hopelessly racist forever. We need to believe in each other and build bridges, not walls.

Other Top Stories of 2017 : #3: Doctor who Tweeted about Incident with White Supremacists Hopeful for Change

#4:  President Wakes up the Asian American Community

#5: Seattle Reverses Decision to Remove Manilatown from International District

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