When Alex Hanesakda saw the tragic news that eight people were shot and killed in Atlanta on March 16, and that six of them were Asian women, he knew it was time for him to speak out.
Hanesakda took to the Facebook page of his Laotian restaurant, SapSap, to denounce the anti-Asian and Pacific Islander hate crimes that were surging across the country.
What he wrote in the post, he also submitted to the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (bit.ly/3dwZlBU). The editorial was titled: “ ‘I’m done keeping my head down:’ Why we must stop the hate against Asian Americans (and everyone else).”
“At first, I was like, ‘Do I say something?’ “ Hanesakda said, recalling when he first started seeing more reports of the hate crimes. “But then (the shooting) happened. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.”
Hanesakda’s thoughts directly reflected what he discussed in his editorial: the tendency for Asians in America (Hanesakda came to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos) to keep their heads down and not speak up about the racism they face.
“That’s kind of universal in Asian culture, especially in Southeast Asia,” Hanesakda said. “It was always like, ‘Don’t get yourself in more trouble by opening your mouth,’ or yada yada.”
But knowing that he has a voice in Racine County and beyond, from having spoken up before about his family’s struggles and journey toward helping heal his motherland of Laos, he knew he needed to say something.
His message was clear: First, violence against Asians, or any group identity, is unacceptable. Second, the way to destroy hate is to practice love and share cultures, food and stories.
“There’s no magic wand that’s gonna cure this,” Hanesakda said. “But awareness definitely helps.”
The news of the Atlanta shootings was a “gut punch” for Pardeep Kaleka, executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and member of the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin (AAPI), a division of the conference.
Kaleka said the AAPI Coalition came together about a year ago out of concern about the racialized violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which stemmed from rhetoric labelling the COVID-19 pandemic as a “Chinese” virus or the “Wuhan virus,” a reference to the central China city where the virus broke up in late 2019.
Anti-Asian hate crimes surged 145% in 2020, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.
Out of the 3,795 incidents reported to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center from March 2020 to the end of February 2021, Chinese people make up the largest group of victims of those hate crimes at 42%.
Linda Boyle, co-president of RIC, said she knew the group needed to make a statement to make the Racine community aware.
“We want to work toward the health and well-being of all people,” Boyle said. She added the coalition has numerous task forces working on stopping racism and discrimination.
The AAPI Coalition worked to ask law enforcement, federal, state and local governments “to keep an eye and monitor the sensitivity of the situation,” Kaleka said. The group also worked to educate people on where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders may be in Wisconsin, and what their cultures are.
“It was a gut punch because it was preventable,” Kaleka said.
Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was one of the victims of the Aug. 5, 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, in which seven people and four others were wounded by a white supremacist who later took his own life. That tragedy motivates him to educate others about the discrimination all minorities face so as to prevent further hate crimes.
“When you see racism, say something,” Kaleka said. “We have a responsibility — not just to ourselves, but to the world — to call out racism.”
Culture through cuisine
Alexa Alfaro — a member of the AAPI Coalition who co-owns Meat on the Street, a Milwaukee-based Filipino food truck — said her food truck was built on the belief that “food is love.”
“Our thing is culture through cuisine,” said Alfaro, who has spoken out before on Milwaukee’s lack of food diversity. “It’s the most palatable way to introduce a culture.”
Starting with a culture’s food gives those not in the community space to understand and learn more about that culture at their own pace, Alfaro added.
Hanesakda recalled how important it was for him, as he was starting out his restaurant, to share the story of his father, a war veteran who fought alongside American soldiers in Laos and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, Hanesakda worked with Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin in Racine, donating a portion of every meal he sold to the organization.
A lot of Americans don’t know about the Laotian civil war of 1959-75 that bred a lot of stereotypes in the U.S. about about Asians, Hanesakda said, especially of the Laotian refugees in Wisconsin. SapSap, which aims to heal communities through food, became a platform to tell his family’s story.
“Hearing like those small stories, just finding the commonality … I think really helps people get a better idea of why we’re here as refugees,” Hanesakda said.
For future generations
Alfaro said having constant conversations with younger groups will also help educate future generations and prevent hate crimes.
Kaleka said educating majority groups is necessary, but acknowledged it is exhausting for minority groups.
“It’s an exhausting thing to try to have to explain your existence to somebody who may not get it. But we have to live in this world,” Kaleka said.
Often, Kaleka added, minority groups are exhausted because they feel as if they are teaching “white America.” But, to ease this burden, he said, “it’s not to them. It’s to our future generations.”
How to help
What can people do to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community?
Kaleka said part of the effort is to raise awareness about anti-Asian violence, but also to educate others that the Atlanta attack was “a race-based hate crime,” contrary to what was initially reported by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia.
“There are intersections with misogyny and religion, but to say that it didn’t have anything to do with race is really irresponsible,” Kaleka said.
Alfaro said revisiting laws around hate crimes, and race discrimination in general, is needed to make change.
“There’s enough of us outside of politics to try and make the change, but we need more help on the inside,” Alfaro said.
Hanesakda said he’s doing his best to teach his 8-year-old son, Alex Jr., about his identity as a Laotian American. The teachings go from as small as watching “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which features Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine, to teaching his son not to blindly hate other groups of people.
Kaleka said his four children are watching him work against hate crimes. Since their grandfather died from a hate crime, his kids are eager to start advocating, too. But, he tells them, “slow down; you have to educate yourself first.”
Hanesakda wrote in his editorial that he’s done keeping his head down. Kaleka said when minorities “keep their heads down,” it takes away their internal value of bringing the richness of their culture to America.
“You’re keeping your head down while trying to become something in life,” Kaleka said, “when you should’ve just been yourself at the end.”
In photos: A look at the Chinese Lantern Festival at the Racine Zoo
Take a sneak peek at Racine Zoo’s Chinese Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival at the Racine Zoo, 2131 N. Main St., is on display Oct. 1 to Dec. 31. Attendees can take a stroll around the Racine Zoo to view works of art. From tigers, lions, pandas, exotic flora and a colossal dragon, the zoo is transformed into a world of illumination with custom-made Chinese lanterns.