ATLANTA — To feel underrepresented is, so often, to feel at a distance from the wider world: on the fringes of discussion, distilled into stereotypes and assumptions.
Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood is standing in the Kids Zone at an event called SouthEATS. It’s a celebration of Asian American culture in the heart of Midtown Atlanta, a city where, like in so many cities, that culture is often pushed to a distance.
“I think it's just so important for us to be able to build an identity for our communities that goes beyond just existing,” Mahmood said.
Each May brings Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. For the last three, it’s also brought the STAATUS Index, a survey from The Asian American Foundation about perceptions towards Asian Americans.
Norman Chen runs the foundation. This year they found nearly 80% of Asian Americans do not completely feel are accepted in America. More than half felt unsafe in America. And when non-Asian Americans were asked to name a famous Asian American figure, the top three responses were Bruce Lee, who died 50 years ago, Jackie Chan, who’s not American, and at the top, “I don’t know.”
“If you do research on hate and violence, a lot of times it starts with stereotypes of one group versus another and seeing them as others,” Chen said.
A separate survey from the Asian American Journalists Association found nearly a quarter of stations in the top 20 local TV markets had no AAPI individuals on the air. Nearly three quarters didn’t have enough AAPIs to represent the population of the market.
“The number one source of information about Asian Americans still remains news,” Chen said. “It’s mostly stories about trauma, about attacks. But there are more and more stories to celebrate, right? Over 50 ethnicities, over 100 cultures … that makes a wonderful kaleidoscope.”
Atlanta is an example of the kaleidoscope expanding. The foundation hosting SouthEATS is among those working to empower more AAPIs to vote. In the last decade, their voting share in Georgia has tripled.
Restaurants fill not just international corridors but the busiest neighborhoods. Jane Ewe, who spoke at the event, owns a restaurant and bakery in the heart of the city.
“Hopefully," Ewe said at the event, "my foreign cultural background won’t feel so foreign to people anymore.”