On my first day of college, just before moving into school, I went on

a supermarket snack run with my family. Ahead of me in line was a very nice lady who was having a very nice conversation with the cashier, also very nice.

As I bagged my groceries next to her, this very nice lady looked over at me, leaned in and said, “If you don’t know how to behave here, then maybe you and your family should go back to your country.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d experience racism in public for being Asian, nor would it be the last. But it’s the one that’s stuck with me while all the others blur together — how in one moment, a moment to which I bore witness, this person was so very kind and warm; and then, in the next moment, so cruel. 

I write to you, a little more than a decade later, amid a surge in targeted violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that shows no signs of stopping; one that seemed to start last year, around the time our former president started referring to COVID-19 as “the China virus.” I’m writing to you just one month after a Filipino man was slashed on a New York City subway train, his cries for help ignored by his fellow passengers. I’m writing to you the morning after a gunman opened fire at an Asian-run spa in Georgia, killing eight people, at least six of them Asian women who worked there. According to a witness, the gunman screamed, “I’m going to kill all Asians.” While in custody, the suspect told police that he was driven not by racial animus but by a drive to “eliminate… temptation.” 

And as I write to you today to tell you that I am afraid, that I am grieving, and that I share in your fear and your grief, I am also thinking about that moment in that supermarket. I am thinking about how these problems may have been exacerbated by our last president’s rhetoric, but they didn’t start with him. And if they didn’t, then the solution cannot be short term, either.

Building it back better for all of us means that the solution must advance justice for every last one of us. The solution must start with acknowledgments, at the federal and state level, of the centuries of racism and systemic violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

We cannot fix this if we do not name it first.