"Go back home. How many of you have heard that before?" Richard Lee, director of advancement at the Asian American Christian Collaborative, asked rhetorically at the Bergen County Unity Rally on Sunday afternoon.
Under overcast skies at Overpeck County Park in Leonia, over 200 people gathered for the first-ever rally to bring together Asian Americans with people of all backgrounds, unified against hate and violence. The event, hosted by the recently formed Bergen County Diversity Coalition, paid homage to May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, recognizing the contributions of the communities to the history of our country, while grieving over the spate of violent acts against Asian Americans over the past year as they were scapegoated for the pandemic.
Lee was among over a dozen speakers from different backgrounds to address the issue of racism against Asian Americans. Others included Rep. Andy Kim, D-3; Reyn Cabinte, senior pastor of Uptown Community Church in Washington Heights, New York; Justin Adour, pastor at Redeemer East Harlem Church; Kasai Sanchez, organizer of the Teaneck Black Lives Matter Mural Committee; Sahib Singh, a member of the Sikh Youth Coalition; and Han Ik Son, president of the Korean-American Association of New Jersey.
Lee told the crowd that Asians have long been targets of racism when it comes to being denied opportunities in the country, from personal to professional, but they have been reticent to speak up.
"For far too long, far too many of us have believed that the path to belonging was by following the cultural command to keep your head down and don't make trouble," Lee said. "I think you and I have grown too comfortable in that assimilation."
The narrative since the pandemic started in Wuhan, China, is that "we do not belong," he said.
"Now we are a threat. Now we are expendable," Lee said.
Kim shared his personal stories of growing up as a Korean American in New Jersey to immigrant parents. He related an incident, from when he was working at the State Department, in which he was banned from involvement in issues related to Korea because he is Korean American — despite the fact that he was born in this country and can barely speak Korean.
"This country that I risked my life to serve in Afghanistan as a civilian diplomat was now telling me that they didn't fully trust me," Kim said. "They were telling me they didn't trust me to work on Korea because they worried if I did, I wouldn't be able to represent the United States of America. This, my only home I've ever known. And they were saying they questioned my loyalty."
Kim touched upon what other speakers noted: that despite being Americans, Asians are often still on the outside.
"No matter what you do or how hard you try, there are going to be people that think you don't belong here," Kim said.
Cabinte, the Washington Heights pastor, recalled the Atlanta mass killings that took the lives of eight people, six of them Asian Americans. While communities of color immediately knew it was a hate crime, law enforcement initially gave the killer the benefit of the doubt, saying he needed "to take out that temptation" and that it was a "a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,"
"When empathy was delayed, it was hard to feel as a part of the community," Cabinte said.
In addition to the sharing of stories of racism, the event featured cultural performers to entertain the crowd. The Pro Sono string group played a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace," Korean Traditional Dance of Choomnoori lit up the stage with a colorful fan dance, and Kulture Kool engaged with a classical Indian dance.
Holding the Bergen County rally was symbolic for AAPI Heritage Month, especially this year, said Cecilia Chan, an organizer.
"It really is a rallying point for all of us to join together to fight for what's right," Chan said.
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news out of North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.