It’s been nearly a week since the Atlanta spa shootings that left six Asian women dead, plus two other individuals, and I, of course, can’t stop thinking about it or about all the events that led up to this moment. All the hate directed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, blaming our community for the COVID-19 pandemic, perpetuated by our former president, is also a recurrent theme of our history.
I’ve been thinking about my own experience growing up AAPI in America and the experiences of my opa as an Indonesian man in the Dutch Royal Navy during WWII. I have had the advantage, and sometimes disadvantage, of appearing racially ambiguous; many people are unsure of my racial and ethnic heritage. I’ve also had the experience my whole life of having others place their own ideas of my racial and ethnic heritage upon me.
I just appear vaguely Brown to a lot of people, and most people assume I’m Latino — and honestly there have been many times in my life that I related more to the Latino community than the AAPI community, since I grew up around more people who identified as Hispanic or Latino than Asian. Even during my time in the Assembly, when I was admitted in and became the leader of the API caucus, I felt myself gravitate toward members of the Latino caucus and developed strong working relationships with members of both my own caucus and the Latino caucus that have held to today.
My opa (Dutch for “grandfather”), Rene Diets, was the one who kept me connected to our Indonesian-Dutch heritage. He grew up in Java and was expected to put his life on the line for the preservation of the colonial order that dictated that he was a second-class citizen. As an Indonesian in the Dutch Royal Navy, he was subjected to racism; when the Navy was in the run from defeat, he received no rations since most food resources were given to the white soldiers. He would always tell me, with his sense of humor, that after he was captured by the Japanese and put into a POW camp in Nagasaki, the food got better.
His experiences were instructive for life, but the one at the end was germane to our topic. After being rescued from the POW camp, he was transferred to an American vessel. He always told me that these Americans were the first white people who treated him as somewhat of an equal. He would tell me, “America is not always the ideal, but in this country, you can be what you want to be.”
His story has always given me hope in America and in the fact that people from all over, who look totally different from each other, can come together and have opportunity. There’s a dark side to that too — for those who feel threatened by that vision of America. That’s the white supremacy that is baked into how the country was founded and built — on the backs of Indigenous and Black people, and also, later, Asian immigrants who worked as miners, railroad builders, farmers, factory workers, fishers, and more. And like all American immigrants, they too were met with a violent backlash that culminated in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act that passed in 1882, which also led to an increase in immigration from other parts of Asia. All of this history for our family culminated in my grandfather ultimately ending up in America, like many others of Asian descent.
Hatred toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is not new — although the level of violence is reaching a boiling point. The violence is steeped in white supremacy, and it is the same violence that has been increasing in other communities of color across our country. The answer to ending AAPI hate is ending white supremacy. This violence did not end or change because Biden was elected as President. It’s not that simple. It takes constant diligence and commitment from all of us. And not just in the wake of tragedy.
Das Williams is a supervisor for the 1st District in Santa Barbara County and here speaks only for himself.