Standing Up to Bullying in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community

Cross posted from the Huffington Post

By Maulik Pancholy, actor and activist

In 2014, I was appointed by President Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). As a Commissioner, I was horrified to hear statistics like:

  • Half of Asian American students report being bullied
  • 2/3 of Sikh American students report being bullied
  • Half of Muslim American students report being bullied because of their religion

The verbal, physical and emotional violence that students endure is distressing. To know that AAPI youth who are bullied also face unique cultural, religious, and language barriers that can keep them from getting help was a call to action.

So, in 2015, I helped launch #ActToChange (ActToChange.org), a public awareness campaign to address bullying among youth — including Asian American, Pacific Islander, Sikh, Muslim, LGBTQI, and immigrant youth — and to empower students, parents, teachers, and communities to report, stop, and prevent bullying.

Sadly, this work is more important now than ever. AAPI communities have been severely affected by an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and xenophobic political climate. We’re seeing Muslim, Sikh, immigrant, limited English proficient, and LGBTQI kids, among others, being targeted by their peers and adults for how they look, how they speak, their perceived citizenship status, their sexuality, and their religion. For example, there was a 91% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes during the first half of 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016. In the first three months following Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 1,372 bias incidents, and more than a quarter of them were motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments.

Where are people learning to be so hateful? What is motivating them to hurt others? We may all have different views, but we’re at a moment where bullying and prejudice from the top down is setting a tone that gives permission for hatred and bigotry. Our country and our kids deserve better.

So, for National Bullying Prevention Month, I wanted to take a moment to let young people hear a different message – to let them know that they’re not alone, and that there is help.

As an Indian-American, LGBTQI man who is the proud son of immigrants, and who happened to be a total nerd with braces, glasses, and the works, I know how it feels to be “different” or “weird.” I’m here to tell all those kids out there struggling, that it is okay to be “weird” but it’s not okay to be “bullied.”

I’ve asked some of my friends to offer young people some hope as well. Here are a few words from folks you may recognize:

    • “People who bully are insecure. It doesn’t seem like it at first, but then you realize that they’re doing it because they enjoy getting a rise out of someone, they enjoy making someone else’s life harder. That’s so sad. I feel bad for people like this, whether they’re a kid at school or the President of the United States. Try not to take their bait. Instead of believing them, focus all that energy on something positive, something you’re passionate about. Don’t let a bully’s insecurity make you insecure about your amazing, beautiful self.“ – Kal Penn, actor

  • “As women of color, we endure endless amounts of micro-aggressions and outright aggressive behaviors from all areas of our lives. Sadly, the majority of us are always told to just “shake it off” or “keep your head up.” But how can you shake off thousands of tiny cuts when they draw blood again and again? How can you keep your head up under all those negative assertions? Here’s the trick: you don’t do it alone. You ask for help. You ask your friends. You ask adults you trust. You ask your teachers. You ask your school counselor. You reach out to mental health hotlines. You reach out to therapists. Ask anyone whom you trust or is a professional. There is power in community and in knowing that you are not carrying this burden alone. You might feel all alone but there are people in your life who want to help you. There are even people who don’t know you who want to help you. You are incredible. You are beautiful. You are not alone.“ – Elizabeth Ho, actor, Netflix’s Disjointed
  • “There are those who seem to go out of their way to make you feel, sometimes in the most painful ways, that you don’t fit in or you don’t belong. One day, you’ll realize the things that make you an “outsider” are the very things that give you a sense of identity and community.Find strength, hope and purpose in identity and community.” – Phil Yu, blogger, Angry Asian Man
  • “I guarantee that if you are being bullied it is because you are doing something right. You are some combination of incredibly talented, unique, smart and sensitive. You may look different, sound different and act differently than your peers but that is what will one day make you amazing. You probably can see how you’re “supposed” to act, look and believe – but you just can’t bring yourself to be like everyone else – and even when you DO try to fit in, you only seem to stand out MORE. You might think you’re alone, but I’d bet that there is probably a select group of people who feel like you – and they will become your lifelong friends – and you will be able to live as your genuine, true self in their company. Protect each other, love each other, and celebrate how incredibly beautiful it is that you all are so “weird”. If you are being bullied – it’s because you are doing something right. You are special. You are strong. And one day you will be able to write a note like this to someone else and let them know it.” – Utkarsh Ambudkar, actor, Pitch Perfect and White Famous
  • “I exist in this hyphen. I’m an Indian-American-Muslim kid, but am I more Indian or am I more American? What part of my identity am I? I struggled with that as a kid. I wanted to be accepted. I experienced bullying in high school – a kid peed on my shoes, I was called the ‘color of poop.’ A lot of immigrants feel like if you come to this country you pay the American dream tax: you’re gonna endure some racism, and if it doesn’t cost you your life, hey, you lucked out. But I actually have the audacity of equality. I want to tell kids that no matter what anyone tells them, they’re not alone. There is help. Despite whatever is going on in the White House, I believe there is possibility for change, which I think is awesome.” – Hasan Minhaj, comedian
  • “I went through high school not feeling safe. I was the butt of most jokes, teased, and mocked often. And all I did was push it down. I pushed my feelings down for years: laughing with the jokes, pretending everything was ok when my parents saw me sad and just pushing through. Please don’t do what I did. If you are feeling bullied or made to feel unsafe, talk to someone – that could be a guidance counselor, a teacher, or family. When I finally took the chance to be vulnerable with my family and tell them how I felt, the support I got was stunning! When we are bullied we believe that it is our fault and no one loves us. That’s NOT true. You are loved by more places than you know!” – Arjun Gupta, actor (Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and Syfy’s The Magicians) and producer
  • “As a child, it’s awful to feel less than because of who you are. Differences are what make our communities so rich. And I’ve often found that, the thing you’ve been made fun of for the most, is generally what will make you stand out, when you are older. Stay brave. Stay bold.” – Sheetal Sheth, actor, producer, author, activist
  • “I was a little immigrant girl from Taiwan and remember feeling so lonely and confused because I felt so different. Before I could fully understand English I remember I was six years old and playing freeze tag with the neighborhood kids. It was fun until a boy from the other street came by and started to taunt me in English words that sounded mean. My face felt hot with tears at the anger that was coming from him. Lucky for me, I had a friendly, freckle-faced girl defend me and yell at him to stop. I won’t ever forget how awesome she was for standing up for me. We all grow up feeling different and weird. Some people like taking advantage of our insecurities. But we can make the choice to not make others feel bad and to stand up for others when you see them get hurt. Growing up and finding our way is hard enough, be a leader in your school and community and encourage each other to practice kindness and support.” – Jenny Yang, comedian
  • “I was the only Indian kid in my class and I remember being nervous every time the teacher would read my name out loud. I was worried it would be mispronounced, the students would laugh and then I’d have to explain it’s more like “Pootie and the blowfish” not like “Silly Putty”. Writing and performing gave me a chance to explore my feelings, gain confidence and meet lots of cool people from multicultural backgrounds. That helped. And I was already running from my feelings metaphorically speaking so when I started to physically run that also helped. I wish I would have talked about my feelings more and I wish I would have asked more questions, but over time I learned I am not alone. And you aren’t either.” – Danny Pudi, actor
  • What you are being bullied for might actually be your superpower. Speak up. Protect it. It will make you fly, later.” – Janina Gavankar, actor, True Blood and Star Wars Battlefront II

If you or someone you know is being bullied, please check out #ActToChange. The campaign website, ActToChange.org, includes video and music empowerment playlists, and encourages you to “Take a Pledge” to join the #ActToChange movement and stand up against bullying. As one out of three AAPIs does not speak English fluently, resources are available in ChineseHindiKoreanPunjabiUrdu, and Vietnamese. The campaign encourages AAPI youth and adults to share their stories, engage in community dialogues, and take action against bullying.

Now, more than ever, we need to fight hate, discrimination, and bullying, and to empower our youth to embrace and celebrate differences in race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and background.

Let’s #ActToChange our schools and communities, so that all youth feel safe and proud of who they are.

Stand up against bullying. Join me and take the #ActToChange pledge today.

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