As the co-director of Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership (OPAWL), Tessa Xuan fights every day to combat anti-Asian racism. In 2014, Xuan was already an active member of the Asian American community in her area, but didn’t consider herself an organizer. However, the suicide of Emily Olson, a 13-year-old transracial adoptee from China, ignited Xuan’s desire to fight for justice and set her on the path to her current position with OPAWL.
Xuan led a movement that demanded action from her governor and local public officials, asking them to speak out publicly against Asian hate. Xuan and OPAWL’s advocacy worked and since reaching out to public officials, the Ohio State House has introduced two new bills focused on combating anti-Asian racism.
Xuan opens up about her political upbringing, finding her identity as an Asian American person and how to be a good bystander and ally for the AAPI community.
What was your political awakening?
For a long time, I felt like I was following this path that I was supposed to—I was supposed to go to college, get a job, try to make a lot of money and reach these goals of personal ambition for myself and my family. But my political awakening came around my identity, understanding that being Asian American and being perceived by others as Asian had such a big impact on my life.
How does Emily’s story relate to the larger story of violence against people of Asian descent
When I heard about Emily’s story, I immediately felt connected to Emily because I knew what it was like to feel invisible and to feel othered and to be mocked and seen as less than human. Anti-Asian racism is about so much more than these interpersonal acts of violence against individuals—it’s about a systemic form of violence where we are being seen as less than human. We’re being deported, we’re being killed and exploited.
Emily’s death is connected to this centuries-long history of our community being seen as less than human and being harmed and killed. Then, after the violence happens, there’s this pattern of trying to cover up what happened and trying to forget about what happened, which just makes the pain even worse.
What are some ways to be a good bystander?
What’s heartbreaking to hear is when our members are being verbally assaulted while riding public transportation or if they’re being spit on while they’re walking down the street. Not only is that happening but other people around them are doing nothing and acting like it’s okay. So we really need people to become active bystanders to recognize their own agency and power to make a choice in that situation to support the victim. And, if it’s safe, to directly intervene or distract the person who’s causing harm.
There’s a variety of things each of us can do when we’re seeing a racist or sexist incident taking place and it’s on all of us to show up in those moments if we really consider ourselves allies.
What makes you hopeful for the future?
I’m hopeful for the future because I know that I have the strength and the wisdom of my ancestors, both my blood ancestors and my chosen lineage. I have their strength and wisdom and joy within me. And I am also so inspired by the young people in OPAWL and in the AAPI community who have been taking leadership and taking risks, showing there’s a better way that’s possible.