HomeAsian AmericansOpinion: I'm Asian American. I see DEI as a bridge for communities.

Opinion: I’m Asian American. I see DEI as a bridge for communities.

This op-ed was originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 12, 2024. It is being republished here with the permission of the author.

by Ed Shew

Cultural differences, stereotyping, unconscious bias, struggles with identity crisis,  the myth of the “model minority,” and the “perpetual foreigner” syndrome are  challenges facing Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. 

When “We the People” is bandied about — a phrase meant to represent all  Americans regardless of the differences among us — too often it is drowned out by taunts of “Go back where you came from,” or the more subtle, “But where are  you really from?” 

America this month celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific  Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. It’s ironic that this comes amid a continuing  backlash against the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in our  nation. 

May commemorates the first known Japanese immigrant to the U.S. on May 7,  1843. In addition, the first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10,  1869, by over 12,000 Chinese laborers. Their reward? The Chinese Exclusion Act  of 1882, the only major U.S. law to ban immigration for a specific nationality. 

In echoes of that sentiment today, some elected officials openly push racial  segregation, race- and religious-based nationalism, race-based immigration  barriers, and a rollback of women’s reproductive and LGBTQ rights. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are organizational frameworks which seek to  promote the fair treatment and full participation of all people, particularly groups  who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination on the  basis of identity or disability. 

Yet that hasn’t stopped officials like Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft  from tweeting last year that a job posting for a “diversity, inclusion and  belonging leader” within the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was an  example of “left-wing indoctrination in the workplace” and the wrong use of taxpayer dollars. 

Politicians’ criticism of DEI has an impact. The University of Missouri announced  last year that its four campuses are eliminating DEI statements in their job posts.  The Francis Howell School Board recently attempted to eliminate elective courses in Black history and in Black literature from the district’s curriculum, before  public outcry and national publicity forced it to backtrack.

Some lawmakers and school boards want to bar public schools from teaching  “divisive concepts” like the alignment of slavery and racism. Ashcroft and this ilk  consider it divisive to even mention such truths. They argue that DEI is toxic and  has no place in our workforce and schools.

Contrast that with the words of Danielle Tormala, superintendent of Wentzville  Schools. “The terms diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be dirty words in this  district,” she said last year, during controversy over alleged bullying of Black  students in the district. Tormala later resigned after what her allies say was  relentless hounding by right-wing activists. 

DEI is mistakenly identified as discrimination against white people. Never mind  that DEI isn’t only about race; it also helps women, the LGBTQ or those with disabilities. 

I believe DEI connects people, forming a bridge between what communities need  and what opportunities and resources we can access. It’s on this bridge where  concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion serve as our guides, helping to ensure  fairness in how we get to our destination. But attacks against that bridge are escalating. And it’s taking us, unfortunately,  back to a time that failed to acknowledge the inequities that persist today based  on discriminatory practices.

That’s why it is important this month to recognize the contributions and  influence of AANHPI Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. They now total 23.8 million people, or 7.4% of the nation’s overall  population. They are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. The  U.S. AANHPI population is projected to reach 48 million by 2060. 

This month calls on us to uplift underrepresented AANHPI ethnic groups. Watch  films, read stories and support organizations like OCA-Asian Pacific American  Advocates, Very Asian Foundation, St. Louis Chinese American Collecting  Initiative, and St. Louis Pan Asian Collective. 

Learn the diverse histories and experiences of Native Hawaiians, Pacific  Islanders, South Asians, Southeast Asians, East Asians and Central Asians. Our  celebrations for AANHPI Heritage Month should be about promoting unity,  understanding and appreciation among all communities. With empathy, respect, and a willingness to understand, none of us needs to be  intimidated by diversity. None of us needs to be frightened by the humanity that  is inclusion. Not one of us needs to be disconnected from the promise of equity, a  promise of systems that deliver benefits for us all to thrive.

(About the author: Ed Shew is the author of Chinese Brothers, American Sons, an Historical Novel)

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