Sophia Li on Combating Anti-Asian Hate: ‘Our Fight Is Everyone’s Fight’
“Go back to China.”
The painful insult embedded in these four words is familiar to many Asian Americans, regardless of their heritage. Sophia Li is no exception. Li was born in Minnesota and, apart from a brief period living with her grandparents in Shandong, China, she was raised in the United States. She first heard this hateful comment at a young age. More recently, when she began using her social media platforms to speak out against rising anti-Asian racism, xenophobic, hateful comments started flooding her account.
But Li, a vocal advocate for the environment and social justice, didn’t let the haters stop her. Transforming negativity into positive change, Li donated $2 for every hateful comment she received to Apex for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to providing mentoring and educational programs to underserved Asian and immigrant youth in New York City. Li also wrote an article for Vogue in February on why we should all be standing up against racism, and how to support the Asian American community.
Li is a journalist and director known for her work on the climate crisis and social issues. She is currently a board member of Slow Factory, an environmental nonprofit that seeks to build antiracist community and grow climate-positive global movements, and serves on the council of Intersectional Environmentalist, a resource hub with a mission to craft a more equitable and just future for all people and the planet.
In an interview with Asia Blog, Li talked about remembering the lessons of Black Lives Matter, the pitfalls of “oppression Olympics,” the limits of social media in advocacy work, and more. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How has your upbringing — and your Asian American identity — influenced your work?
I think in becoming more self-aware of my Asian identity and embracing it as an adult, I've realized that, in fact, it's always been there. It's always influenced my work. I might not have realized it before because for so many years, I tried to assimilate as an “American” or “model minority.” Or maybe I was trying to push it away. Now, it is actually my biggest pride point — my heritage and my upbringing and my parents.
If you've experienced any sort of every day racism, micro and macro levels of racism, you just become more empathetic. My profession is as a journalist and a storyteller, surfacing voices that may not be able to tell their own stories. And I think that my advocacy for climate justice and racial justice is because when I was younger, I had a really hard time adapting when I moved back from China to the U.S., and had to learn English. I felt like I didn’t have a voice then.
I remember when I worked at Vogue, everyone would say I was a "people whisperer” because I was really good at getting people to open up. That’s because for so long, when I was younger, I felt like I was silent. All I did was listen, and that actually helped hone my interview skills as a journalist later on.
What made you want to start using your platform to talk about anti-Asian hate?
I was infuriated that anti-Asian hate was being talked about within the Asian community — but when my friends would bring it up to outsiders, no one had heard anything about it. And I just realized we’re siloed further and further in our own social bubbles, not only in the content we consume, but also the news that we are seeing. Anti-Asian hate crimes impact the collective, not just one community — and it affects everyone because it upholds institutions like white supremacy, white nationalism, and capitalism that Black Lives Matter and other movements have been trying to fight this entire year. Our fight is everyone's fight. Just as Black Lives Matter isn't just for the Black community, Stop Asian Hate isn't just for the Asian community. We can't fight Asian hate by ourselves.
I spoke up because there were so many things that we were forgetting — lessons we learned last summer with racial justice and Black Lives Matter that we just weren't talking about. When I first brought up anti-Asian hate, I said “we can be pro-Black and pro-Asian without being pro-police.” And I think that is a lesson that we have forgotten. At the very beginning when Stop Asian Hate was established, in January when anti-Asian violence was really spiking, there were a lot of calls for more policing. I wanted to remind everyone that all of these issues are so interconnected and intersectional. We can't forget everything we have already learned in the past year, when we've literally hurt our own communities by bringing in the police as an answer. It’s an answer that has never served us before. The police have never served Asians before. When there were two men of Asian descent that were killed by police, the young man in Philadelphia and the Filipino American in California, it just showed that the solutions that we think we might have aren't serving our communities either.
I wanted to remind everyone: “Hey, we can approach this not as an entirely new thing, so let's incorporate what we've learned from other communities' oppression and the institutions in place and apply it to Asians as well.” We must. We have to.
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You’ve used the term “oppression Olympics” to caution communities of color from turning against each other. Can you talk more about what that term means and how you think marginalized groups can work together to fight systemic racism?
I use the term “oppression Olympics” because I think there's a lot of comparison happening through the media, the public eye, and individuals in both the Asian community and the Black community. And — this is the thing — we cannot compare experiences. Our lived experiences are nowhere near the same, and that's okay.
Racial injustice and racial experience should not be compared. Racial injustice everywhere has the same roots — but the range of lived racial experiences is also valid. Even within racial groups, if you're half-Black or African or African American, the experiences with oppression are so different too.
Within the Asian community, when we're talking about oppression, there are so many different experiences. The wealth disparity between Asians is the biggest. I think a lot of my Asian friends who were born and raised in South Korea, China, or Japan had never experienced racism from a Western society while growing up. It's a little bit difficult for them now, living in New York for only the past few years, to understand systemic racism, because as members of the majority in their Asian countries, they didn't grow up with it. Also, “Asian” is not a monolithic culture — there are so many ethnicities.
The more we compare our lived experiences, we put the focus back on who will win the “oppression Olympics.” And that's not winning, at the end of the day. Someone saying “my painful experience is because my grandparents were slaves and your grandparents only had an Exclusion Act or exclusion law” is not focusing on what’s really important. In the “oppression Olympics,” the only winners are the judges — by that I mean systemic racism and white supremacy, the institutions that have gotten us to this place. When we engage in the “oppression Olympics,” we are bypassing the entrenched history of Asian and Black solidarity. Asian and Black people have stood up for each other time and time again. Early in U.S. history, Frederick Douglass made a speech about Japanese and Chinese people affected by the Exclusion Act — at a time when he himself didn't have any rights. I think comparing experiences further divides us, which then feeds into these institutions.
Social media has become a powerful tool for raising awareness quickly. Outside of social media, what more can we be doing to affect long-term change in the fight against racism and anti-Asian hate?
I think that social media is the most entry-level form of advocacy and allyship. You can share a post on Instagram, but not be doing the work in your day-to-day life. Having those conversations with your own subconscious biases, preconceived notions, shortcomings, micro-aggressions, micro-racism — we all need to be doing that. I'm not saying that because I think everyone is racist — I'm saying that because we are all byproducts of a society that has operated on systemic racism for so long.
If I say, “I'm not racist because I'm Asian,” then I am being completely ignorant of how the Western society I live in says I should hate fellow minority communities. If you grew up thinking you're not enough, or you should be a certain way, and these people should be this way — then of course, you're going to have subconscious biases. Having those conversations with ourselves is really crucial. Some people may not have the self-awareness or understanding to do so, because they're so deeply embedded in it.
I think people who say they aren’t racist view racism as a binary — either you’re a racist or you aren’t. We need to be having conversations with those people, helping them understand that while they might have had this perspective, things are changing. We can show them nuances of what's happening in today's society, which might feel uncomfortable for them.
But that's the thing — being an ally is getting over your own discomfort for the greater cause. I think that's definitely the most impactful thing anyone can do as an individual. Being antiracist is a verb, not a noun. I practice antiracism because it's something that happens every day. It's like working out — you have to do it consistently. You don't work out once and get fit and healthy.
You can also take a bystander training course so if a racist incident ever happens to you or near you, you can intervene. Checking in on your Asian friends is also very important, because people forget that this is very emotionally heavy for the Asian community. Especially if you're a boss who manages a team. You can set that standard by saying to Asian colleagues: "You're seen and you're recognized for what's happening. I'm not going to bypass it because it's uncomfortable for me as a boss to ask you how you're doing as an Asian right now.” That would make your employees feel more connected to the workplace.
It’s important to have those conversations outside of our social groups — such as our families and neighbors and other progressives — and advocate for it on a larger scale. To address systemic racism, we need systemic change. This is going to be a lifelong process where we need to close the equity gap between Asians. Asian females are the least likely to be promoted in Fortune 500 companies. That dynamic in business needs to change. We need to approach it from 360 degrees — equity, job opportunities, everything — while also addressing our own subconscious biases, first and foremost.
You call yourself a “climate optimist” and are a vocal advocate for the environment. How do climate justice and racial justice relate to each other?
They are so interconnected. It is scientifically proven that environmental racism is one of the biggest impacts of the climate crisis. The climate crisis affects the whole world, but the majority of people experiencing it are in the Global South — and, you know, most of Asia is part of the Global South. It's the Global North that has caused these really detrimental changes to the climate. Only 100 companies contribute 71 percent of greenhouse gases. And of those 100, a majority are from the Global North. That's just, at a broad level, how climate justice and racial justice are interconnected.
If we're talking about just the United States, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) are heavily represented in the poorest communities, which also have the highest levels of asthma, cancer, and other health problems, often because they're communities that are being taken advantage of by business interests. Living in these areas — where people can’t afford to go anywhere else — has health repercussions. You look at Flint, Michigan — no running water, high percentage of BIPOC — and that's because of the behavior of the industries there. You look at the South Bronx — it’s called “asthma alley” for a reason. It has the highest levels of asthma anywhere in the world, because there's such a high level of industrial production happening in the South Bronx. The researchers for this podcast I’m about to do were telling me that they interviewed a girl who lives in the South Bronx — she was in the third grade, or something — who told them that she would go into a classroom and 80 percent of her classmates would be out sick because of breathing problems or asthma. So those are just a few examples on a broad level, and more in our backyard, of environmental racism and how climate and racial justice are so interconnected.
What message would you give to Asians and Asian Americans who are afraid of the attacks?
I would want to say that we can't let fear affect how we operate in the world as Asians. When you see these headlines about the skyrocketing of hate crimes against Asians, it makes you a little bit nervous to go outside. Of course, I'm sure every Asian has their own experience with verbal assaults, attacks, and discrimination during the past year. The journalist Kimmy Yam reported that more Asian American kids are staying home from school, choosing digital school. I think because they don't want to experience racism … they're scared. And that just made me so sad.
We need to be careful; we need to be safe. I don't want to encourage people to go outside if they don't feel comfortable doing so. But we can’t let the fear get to us. When the media finally started reporting on the attacks, it was almost framed like the only thing we should be thinking of is that we were being targeted‚ when actually I would want people instead of being afraid, to find their Asian joy and really make that the priority. I think fear has overtaken so many. I know so many Asian friends who don't ride the subway, for example. There’s always going to be some danger, but if we give in to the fear, then that doesn't produce any solutions. Staying at home doesn't produce any wins for our community.