Voices of Youth: AAPI leaders speak out on Asian stereotypes and how to combat them

In this installment of our Voices of Youth series, student journalists Ella Yip and Thylicia Babumba discuss the impact of stereotypes with local AAPI youth and adult leaders.
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student journalists Ella Yip and Thylicia Babumba discuss the impact of stereotypes with local AAPI youth and adult leaders.

For more from Ella on this topic, check out her design for a dress that challenges common stereotypes of Asian women.

The Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has gotten a lot of attention lately. Unfortunately, rather than largely celebrating these voices, a large factor that is bringing attention to the AAPI community is the recent rise in hate crimes directed at the community. Organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate work to report the hate crimes committed and create a positive rebuttal for the AAPI community. The AAPI community's resistance and rebellion makes space for a new surge of awareness in and for the community. 

A small section of the AAPI identity is the awareness of how others perceive you. From our conversations with people in the local AAPI community, the way the world sees them is not usually positive, or something they can control. 
Salem D.
"[Due to] the stereotypes of Asia being feminine, for men they have a toxic masculinity, so they have to prove their masculinity and force [it] onto others," says Salem D., a future 9th grader at Ypsilanti's Early College Alliance and former VP of Scarlett Middle School's Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Coalition.

The effect of stereotypes on AAPI individuals' lives is felt in many different ways. We spoke with local AAPI leaders, students, and community members of different ages and ethnicities, most of whom have seen and/or experienced positive and negative views of themself in society. Here's what they had to say about representation, the effects of stereotypes, and how we can combat generalizations about their community.

What is your perspective on Asian representation in our community?

Yen Azzaro, Ypsilanti-based artist and activist, believes that AAPI representation is not just your personal "Asian-ness," but spreading safety for other Asians in your community. She says there are a few groups or "pockets" in Ann Arbor that make her feel safe with her identity as an Asian. To continue to represent yourself you can step up and create safe spaces for you and your community. 

Lori Saginaw, Ann Arbor-based activist, says that from her perspective it's "hard to see others," and there are not that many Asians in Ann Arbor. She says the few who are more visible tend to be in academia, IT, or medicine, and they don't run for office and are not arrested very often. This can be damaging to the AAPI community as a whole because AAPI individuals may be viewed as conforming to the "model minority" stereotype, a cultural expectation that holds that Asian-Americans are smart, wealthy, and hardworking. 
Nani C.
Nani C., future 9th grader at Ann Arbor's Huron High School, feels that there are a lot of Asian-Americans in the community. She identifies as part of that community, even though she doesn't feel like she can add anything to the community yet. She does try to represent the community as positively as possible. 

Anna Gonzalez, Scarlett Middle School Spanish teacher, reports that she felt out of place when going to the University of Michigan as a Filipina. Even though there was a large Asian population, there was no representation of the Filipina identity. She says when she joined a sorority, there was only one other Filipino. Overall, she had a really hard time finding other people with the same identity. 

Salem states that being Vietnamese-American and being trans means not only being part of two communities, but creating a completely new identity. 

"You can't choose one or the other. You can't switch one off or on," they say. "You feel like you have to choose one identity or the other."

How do stereotypes /generalizations in Washtenaw County affect you in your own life?

Azzaro says a common generalization she experiences is being confused with a friend or coworker of Asian descent. This is a very common microaggression that often happens in workplaces, when two people of the same ethnicity are thought of or seen as the same person, and coworkers or peers do not bother to differentiate between the two people. 

Gonzalez talks about the assumptions people make of her when they first meet her. Most often she says she is perceived as the "pretty Asian girl" stereotype, which fetishizes her and views her as submissive, quiet, and subservient. People often tell her, "Wow, your English is really good," stereotyping her as a non-native English speaker.

Saginaw believes that she has subconsciously acted on stereotypes that surround Asian-American women, especially while raising her kids. At her job she was constantly stereotyped as "polite and quiet."
Lori Saginaw.
Saginaw has also witnessed other Asian-Americans' experiences with stereotypes. She once saw a white woman in a chair position tell a Chinese-American woman, who was passionate about activism work in the organization, that she was "too angry" and asked her why she didn't act as "polite and quiet" as Saginaw.

Nani responds that the use of stereotypes against her or the AAPI community is usually based on physical features or intelligence.
Fiza C.
Fiza C., future 9th grader at Huron High School, shares her personal experience with the generalizations the AAPI community experiences. She gives an example of a dear friend who is Chinese, and often is assumed to be from a different Asian country because of their facial features. 

"If [people] don't have much knowledge, they might start to assume things," Fiza says.

Do you see an awareness or presence of stereotypes and generalization? 

Azzaro says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, she's experienced people giving her a side eye or acting cautious around her. For example, a mother moved her kids away from Azzaro. Another example is when a doctor asked her if she had traveled in the past 30 days, instead of the standard question about travel within the past week. Standard questions were also longer because Azzaro was being stereotyped because of the false information spreading about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Yen Azzaro.
Small microaggressions become truths within people's minds, and then form into stress, aggression, and violence. The microaggressions, generalizations, and stereotypes can easily enter the minds of people who will believe them, which often results in violence against Asian-Americans.

"Words grow seeds and vehicles for actions of hate and violence," Azzaro says. 

Gonzalez says people assume that if you are Asian, you must be Chinese. Upon meeting someone, people fall back on bias and categorize them based on how they act. Gonzalez says the speed of generalization has been shocking to her. 

"Some microaggressions I have experienced are a white person talking to [another] white person rather than me," she says. "There's a generalization of 'good handwriting.' People compare features and say, 'You have long fingers,' or, 'Do all Asians look like this?'" 

How is the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti community breaking stereotypes/generalizations? 

Gonzalez thinks of AAPI women who are defying stereotypes by having tattoos or entering different professional fields than those which Asian-Americans are stereotypically expected to enter. 
Anna Gonzalez.
"Asian women are expected to go to school and graduate from college, because that's what everyone says they need to do," she says. "But Asian women are going to college because they want to and other Asian women are not going to college because they simply don't want to."

Stereotypes have also been broken with interracial couples in Asian communities. 
There are more AAPI community members coming out as bisexual, lesbian, or gay. They are confident in their identity, and admire seeing themselves as a race. They are not letting their race be a limitation in school. Gonzalez has also seen people who are not AAPI join the AAPI club at her school, just as people who are not a part of the Latinx community have joined the Latinx club. 

How do you personally fight stereotypes and generalizations toward the Asian community? What actions should we all be taking to address this discrimination?

Azzaro says that to fight stereotypes, she interacts with the people around her, making sure that she is seen and heard in the way she wants to be. A few other ways to smash the stereotypes projected on you is being creative in a space where you see no representation of yourself, and being loud and proud about your identity.

Azzaro is breaking stereotypes by surrounding herself with work that is meaningful to her, being an artist and creating art, surrounding herself with people who support her, and surrounding herself with safe spaces.

"The ocean that is life, that is whiteness – you never get away from it, and the ocean doesn't have to change," she says. "You can be a whale but you will still be in the ocean, but there are ways to swim against the tide!"

Gonzalez considers herself a tomboy. When people first meet her, she generally acts shy and quiet, but when people learn more about her, they learn how outspoken and fun she is. For example, she likes to rock climb. She says you don't often see a lot of Asian women who are tomboys because of the "baby doll" or "geisha girl" stereotypes. Saying you are the man of the house or a property owner is also very uncommon among Asian women. 

Nani says, "You have to confront the person and try to make them understand. If they don't, they may try to be more firm. The media can be biased, like, 'Oh, that person is right,' or, 'It's about what I think and not what others think about it.' If you listen to one perspective it can be hard to go about things and respect different cultures."
Emily N.
Emily N., future 9th grader at Ann Arbor's Huron High School, says people have to realize that you won't see the other person's perspectives, and you won't see the whole truth about them, but you can be an ally to them. 

Salem says you have to call people out when they use stereotypes.
"A lot of them are internalized, and they don't realize they perpetuate it onto Asian-American people," they say. 

Salem says Asian-Americans can also fall into assimilating themselves into the stereotypes placed upon them because it's easier.

"Breaking stereotypes is really within yourself and not caring how people view you," Salem says. "Don't stop caring, but don't care too much. If you think too much, you can think of how to wear, act, think and how you present yourself. A lot of people don't talk about how it affects the person and how it can hurt them." 

We hope that through this essay, we have brought you a new perspective on the AAPI community, and given you ways to support them. We hope that you now will be able to recognize the stereotypes that face members of the AAPI community in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and fight against those stereotypes. We hope that you will use the solutions given to you to join the push against harmful and problematic stereotypes towards this community. 

We want to thank every one of the interviewees for taking time from their busy schedules to talk to us. All of your thoughts were very important to us. Unfortunately we did not end up including all of your insights, but they were very important in building this essay, and contributed to what this work has become. Thank you.

Ella Yip is a future 9th grader at Huron High School. She plays the viola; loves to draw, knit, and crochet; and is an ARMY (BTS fan) through and through. She started becoming active in spreading awareness about Asian stereotypes during middle school, when she started her school's first Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Coalition (AAPI-SC). The coalition has released slides about AAPI holidays or matters that affect the AAPI community. She hopes to continue in social justice-related work throughout high school and beyond.

Thylicia Babumba is a future 9th grader at Huron High School. Thylicia is a very dynamic and energetic person, which is paired with her diverse interests, ranging from psychology to movie and cinematography analysis to serial killers. Thylicia's passion for social justice began during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, after police brutality caused the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. This effect sparked her interest in learning more about the injustice that was happening to marginalized groups. Later on she joined the Black Student Union club at Scarlett Middle School, where she formatted educational slides, met with the Ann Arbor Parent-Teacher Organization, and taught people about the African-American experience and history. She also joined AAPI-SC at Scarlett Middle School, where she also helped form educational slides that presented the overlooked history of Asian-Americans and their unfair representation in the media. She will continue her work through high school and beyond.

Concentrate staffer Maria Patton served as Ella and Thylicia's Voices of Youth mentor on this project.

Yen Azzaro and Lori Saginaw photos by Doug Coombe. All other photos courtesy of the sources.