(Social Justice)

What AAPI Leaders In Fashion & Beauty Wish They Didn’t Have To Say — But Are Speaking Up Anyway

The Asian American & Pacific Islander community is taking a stand.

by Kristin Corpuz
Collage of three AAPI leaders in Fashion & Beauty and people protesting against racism

I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood in Tampa, Florida and always understood that, as an Asian American person, I was different: I looked different than everyone else, and kids pulled their eyes back saying, "Look, I'm Kristin!"; my homemade lunches smelled different than my classmates', which made them want to scoot away from me at the lunch table; I mispronounced words because I had learned them from my parents, whose first language wasn't English.

I've been tokenized my entire life. In high school drama club, the nickname on my sweatshirt was just the word "Asian". At the time, I thought it was my peers' way of honoring my heritage, but I've since realized that, while everyone got nicknames that resulted from inside jokes, I was reduced to nothing more than my appearance. My personality didn't matter because my almond eyes and tan skin were enough of a punchline.

Throughout adulthood, I've been catcalled by men saying "me love you long time," or "konichiwa" and "ni hao", as if I'd respond to any Asian language. I've been told I'm "pretty for an Asian girl" and that I'm so lucky I'm Filipino, because "you're like, the least-Asian Asian." Just last week — mere days after the shooting in Atlanta — a man followed me around a convenience store repeatedly saying, "I'm so mad that the Chinese people brought COVID, because now you have to wear a mask to cover your pretty face," as if he couldn't tell that what was under my mask closely identified with the very people he was insulting.

I'm proud of my parents, who sacrificed everything immigrating to this country for a better life. I'm proud of the comfort meals I cook when I miss home that maybe smell "funky" to the untrained nose. I'm even proud of my lapses in cultural understanding (read: American ways) because they weren't commonplace in my house growing up; they remind me where I came from.

While I'm still processing last week's events and coming to terms with the fact that Asians are still seen as "other," no matter how hard we try to assimilate, I hope this opens a broader conversation that our communities have been trying to initiate for years. We deserve to be seen, heard, understood, and most importantly, welcomed for everything and all that we are. It's not just Stop Asian Hate, but also celebrate Asian joy, stories, and excellence.

In this spirit, I reached out to Asian American leaders in the fashion and beauty industries to gather their thoughts on last week's events, as well as the steps they're taking to engage with their communities, and what they hope to see in the future.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Joseph Altuzarra — Creative Director of Altuzarra

Like many, I have been processing the rise in Anti-Asian violence with fear, anguish and anger. I am the son and grandson of strong Asian-American women, and the father of a beautiful Asian-American daughter. I have always felt proud of my heritage, and of my community, and I feel that now more than ever, the AAPI community and their allies need to unite and raise their voices together to condemn these acts of senseless violence. But more than that, I believe that we are in the midst of an Asian-American reckoning, which has been long overdue. As a traditionally invisible "model" minority, the Asian-American diaspora has endured years of Anti-Asian rhetoric and discrimination, which has been largely ignored by the larger cultures. Furthermore, Asian-Americans have been conspicuously denied visibility in culture: our stories are cast aside, not told, deemed unimportant. We are relegated to a supporting cast in the story of our own country. I believe that that has to change and change now.

Jason Wu — Founder & Creative Director of Jason Wu

Growing up, there was not a lot of Asian representation in fashion. I think it is more important now than ever that we stand up as a community to push for change and acceptance. We will not stand for racism and intolerance.

The Distance Yourself From Hate campaign was initially developed late March 2020 in response to discrimination against Asian people, but has since taken on a larger meaning. With everything that started happening with the pandemic in March, I worked with GMHC and my friend Jae Choi at the Collective Shift creative agency to come up with this campaign. Being Chinese myself, I felt singled out, just walking down the street.

Since we started this, a lot of things that have happened in our country have revealed that we have a lot more work to do as a society and as a country in terms of systemic racism and bigotry. As one marginalized community to another, we understand how that feels. We want to be spearheading the idea of leading with a voice of love not hate.

Phillip Lim — Creative Director, Designer and Co-Founder of 3.1 Phillip Lim

The attacks on the Asian community have been going on for far too long and many haven’t even been reported. The period of fear and reaction should be finished now; now is the time for action and unity. The first thing I urge everyone to do is to listen and learn; make space in your mind and heart to hear the stories.

We also need to keep spreading the word and encouraging more people to stand up for our community. Standing up for what is right and humane. Those that choose to stay silent are complicit and they have just as much power as us to fight for change. Please donate to the GoFundMe Community Fund! This super fund is directly supporting, benefitting and uplifting the AAPI community in America.

Amy Liu — Founder of Tower 28

The recent attacks on Asians in America have made me fearful for my community, loved ones, and family, especially because the most vulnerable (women and seniors) are often being targeted. While they've shed light on racism in America against the Asian community, these inexcusable and despicable racist crimes are sadly only the tip of the iceberg.

Much of the blame and resentment from COVID has been unfairly put on the AAPI community, and it's dangerous. My kids have experienced bullying at school, as other students have picked up on the pandemic being falsely labeled as the "China Virus". It breaks my heart to think about how they are absorbing and digesting these difficult times. Even as an adult, I've become hyper-aware about coughing in public for the fear of being perceived as unhygienic or dirty.

As a proud Asian American, I have always looked for ways to uplift others in my community. I love supporting fellow entrepreneurs like Ally Maki and David Yi. David and I recently teamed up to co-host an AAPI screening of my friend Alice's movie, The Donut King. It's a touching story about a Cambodian refugee who comes to America with nothing, to build a donut empire – the American dream. It reminds me so much of my own family's struggles and how they, like so many other brave immigrants in the US, have overcome them.

I strongly believe that we must all show our support in this fight against racism and vote with our wallet. On March 19th, we decided as a company to donate 100% of sales on our site to support the AAPI Community through GoFundMe. Our loyal community listened, and we ended up donating nearly $25,000 to the StopAsianHate movement! I'm so grateful for the opportunity to engage with the community we've built in this way and give back.

But the fight doesn't stop there. I hope that everyone in the beauty industry starts to see the importance of real Asian representation – from building their internal teams to launching marketing campaigns. Growing up in America, I rarely saw models or celebrities that I could identify with, and it's time that we do better for ourselves and our younger generations.

Sarah Lee & Christine Chang — Co-Founders & Co-CEOs of Glow Recipe

Lilly Lawrence/Getty Images North America

It's been an incredibly difficult time, and as Asian American women, we've been distraught about the recent surge of hate crimes targeting the AAPI community. We built Glow Recipe proudly upon our Asian heritage and while we've experienced great success and support, it hasn't come without hate, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. From experiences of harassment while walking on the street to users posting hateful comments on our brand's Instagram profile, these are incidents far too many Asian Americans can relate to.

We were so inspired by our Asian American peers speaking out and using their platforms to shed light on these acts, while also sharing their personal experiences as an Asian American within the industry and the world. To further amplify these voices, we've shared stories from fellow Asian American founders and beauty experts to create a safe space for these kinds of conversations. As a brand, we've also donated $20K between Act to Change and GoFundMe's Support the AAPI Community Fund. We invite our community to stand with us and contribute to the cause and have gathered a number of important resources highlighted on our website.

Vanessa Lee, RN — Founder of The Things We Do

The brutal shooting of the victims in Atlanta cut so deep for me that I was stunned for a while. I didn't know how to grieve for the victims and my community in the same way I have grieved for other communities because of the shock of it feeling too close to home. And then, I remembered who I was and remembered who we are as an Asian people.

I prayed to my ancestors. I spoke to my Asian American friends, I cried with them on Facetime. There are truths that have come to light that I didn't want to face because of the discomfort they cause but they are truths nonetheless and are ultimately empowering when dealt with. The AAPI community has been aggressively under attack in the past year, fueled by a hateful rhetoric and we demand it to stop. We demand safety for our elders and family members. We demand those outside of our community to view us open their hearts and look at us through a lens of love.

I work in medical aesthetics and have been pushing for years for my colleagues to step away from the old habits of injecting and treating all faces in the fashion that serve the purpose of creating a more Euro-centric face. In my field, physicians have dangerously taught that there are perfect ratios and measurements in the face that depict beauty, and if a patient doesn't fit into that specific mold, we can perform aesthetic procedures on you until you do (which is complete bullshit, by the way). As providers, it is our responsibility to respect the features of all patients, and also further educate ourselves on the anthropological differences between facial anatomy in different ethnicities and truly embrace those differences amongst our patients.

My staff is composed of 90% POC and we strongly uphold the values of providing inclusive beauty treatments and supporting beauty in all shapes and shades. We often hear from our patients that they choose us to be their providers because they can finally identify in feel safe in a setting that authentically shows before and after photos of women who look like them. They trust us because they see themselves in us and this goes to show how much representation matters in every field.

I celebrate my AAPI community and I protect it fervently. This week, we are donating 100% of online sales to GoFundMe's AAPI fund to help the victims and family affected by the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community in the past year. We have a lot of work to do but we will survive this. Our elders went through very damaging, difficult times throughout their lifetimes and they did their best to survive and come out better. So will we.

Chriselle Lim — Co-Founder of Bumo Brain & Bumo Work, Fashion & Beauty Influencer/Content Creator

Last week's attack in Atlanta that resulted in the murder of eight people, including six Asian women, has left me shaken to the core. This incident was a hate crime that is a result of the convergence of so many struggles that Asian women have endured in this country, including misogyny and racism intersecting with the stereotype of hypersexualized fantasy that society has placed on our bodies.

Unfortunately, this tragedy was not a surprise, nor was it isolated. The conversations that are happening in this moment are long overdue, and now is the time for this country to learn about the history of Asians in America and create a change. It's also time for Asian Americans and our allies to speak up against the hate. I do hope that something will come out of this that will support more Asian-owned businesses and I am encouraging everyone to support the APPI Community Fund, which helps trusted AAPI organizations working to rectify the racial inequalities in our society.

Alicia Yoon — Founder & CEO of Peach & Lily

The shootings in Atlanta were devastating. Violent hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community have been dramatically rising over the last year. Our most vulnerable — the elderly, women, and children — are being targeted. Anti-Asian racism is not new. There's a long and ugly history of exploitation and violence directed against the AAPI community in the US. Most Asian Americans can also share numerous stories of racist aggressions and micro-aggressions they face on a regular basis — the everyday attacks that don't end up in hate crime statistics.

I can't count how many times I have been asked "how I speak English so well" or "where I'm from," accosted and harassed with racial slurs, and made to feel like a perpetual foreigner in my own country. Since March 2020, the floodgates of hate have opened even wider. I'm "f*cking coronavirus." I should "go back to dirty China." For the first time after decades of living in NYC, I'm afraid to go outside alone. I'm Korean and pregnant. A target.

How can we stop the Asian hate? Words matter. Certain political leaders and their enablers use racist rhetoric to scapegoat the AAPI for the coronavirus pandemic. We must all reject and correct this dangerous and baseless falsehood whenever and wherever it emerges. Support matters. Reach out to your AAPI co-workers, employees, friends. They are not okay right now. If you witness an attack of any kind, please help. A crushing part of these anti-Asian hate crimes is that many bystanders do not stand up for the victims or offer support and help.

Silence after such attacks reinforces the isolation and fear felt by so many Asians in this country – and signals that racism, intimidation, and violence are acceptable here. Don't be silent. Money matters. If you're able, contribute to the Stop Asian Hate fund. This fund allocates donations to vetted grassroots organizations across the country working to track and prevent hate crimes and support victims. Work with your company to see if they can donate as well. I've been inspired to see our Peach & Lily community rally behind our newest launch campaign – 100% of net proceeds will be donated to stop Asian hate.

Together we can – and must – make a difference in stopping Asian hate.

Vicky Tsai — Founder & CEO of Tatcha

Courtesy of Michi Chishaki

The rise in hate towards the AAPI community is heartbreaking, but we've known we would have a target on our backs the second the words "China Virus" and "Kung Flu" were uttered. As an Asian American leader and mother, I worry everyday for my family, our employees and our community. My daughter is only 11 and she's had to deal with children in her school wishing death upon all Chinese people. When I reported it to the administration, I never received a response.

I've had to ask myself why I've stayed quiet on this topic for so long, and I realized that it's because my community has never felt truly safe or seen in this country. Our solution for generations has been to stay quiet, keep our heads down, and work to prove that we won't cause trouble. But the continued escalation of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans over the past year has pushed us to a breaking point.

Over 3,800 cases of violence and discrimination have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate in the last year, and the number grows by the hundreds each day. The massacre in Atlanta followed by the unfathomable explanation that the murderer just "had a bad day" has shaken us to our core. But as we've begun to use our voices to ask for support, we have been met with limited interest and support — or worse, attempts to silence us, accusing us of racism for calling the attacks what they were: hate crimes.

We need allies to stand with us. I am deeply disappointed by the silence in the beauty community, who for so long profited off of Asian ingredients, beauty rituals and clients. To the brands and influencers who were so vocal in the fight for social justice in 2020 — where are you now? The silence is deafening.

Patrick Ta — Co-Founder of Patrick Ta Beauty & Celebrity Makeup Artist

Seeing last week's mass shooting in Georgia and the spike in anti-Asian violence in the past year, I am heartbroken. I'm angry to see that Asian Americans, specifically immigrants, women, and the elderly, are being targeted as victims of senseless violence. In these victims, I see my mom, my dad, my aunts, my sister, my family — and it hurts. The Asian American community has been taught to keep our heads down and stay silent, but we are speaking up now.

Taking action can range from correcting family and friends when someone makes a "harmless" joke about Asians, to giving Asian Americans a seat at the table. Let's recognize the beautiful diversity within the Asian community. We're not just one group, we are Indian, Korean, Taiwanese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai, Punjabi, Lao, and so much more. If you can, support financially by donating to organizations like AAPI Women Lead and community funds like Stop AAPI Hate or shop from your local Asian businesses.

Charlotte Cho — Co-Founder of Soko Glam & Founder of Then I Met You

As a Korean-American child of immigrants, I shoved a lot of the racism I've experienced under the rug in my lifetime. I've internalized the chants at the playground, when they called my eyes too small to see out of. I've internalized the jokes I've had to laugh off, when they made fun of our food, the way we drive, the way our Korean names sound, and the microaggressions at work when I've been told that "you all look the same." I'm sure it has a lot to do with the fact that growing up, I watched my parents internalize and downplay the racism they've quietly endured too.

Now is the time to unlearn these experiences. Now is the time to be angry, to speak out and reach out to our allies for help, and do what my parents didn't have the power to do. My cofounder Dave Cho and I, both children of Asian immigrants, vow to be the leaders in the beauty space. What we do is more than just skin care. We've vowed to use our unique position and platform to be the voice for the powerless, for the elderly, for our parents. We'll focus on storytelling, education and sharing our experiences so that others won't have to.

Last week we donated 100% of our proceeds from the Good (Skin) Day line to nonprofit organizations like Stop AAPI Hate, totaling to nearly $16,000. We've arranged virtual seats to our community to watch movies like Minari so they can understand and empathize with the Asian immigrant story. We've spoken out about the rise in anti-Asian racism and hate in multiple channels and mediums. It's just the beginning. We'll continue to proudly be the bridge between Korea and the US through Soko Glam, and through it all, we'll never forget that we are Asian American and that we belong.

Bretman Rock — Social Media Superstar

Courtesy of Simone Kimone

A few weeks ago, prior to this attack, I had a meeting with AAPI students via the organization Act to Change, and so many of the young Asian American students asked me for advice on how to grow up in a world that has so much Asian hate and ignorance in it. What made me so sad to hear multiple questions like this was that it made me realize each and every one of these kids will have to grow up and endure the same racists ideology that we try to act like is behind us in history.

But the fact is that it is not, and as we saw in Atlanta, this racist way of thinking is still getting people killed. The attack in Atlanta hit so close to home because we as Asian Americans saw our mothers, our aunties, our cousins, and our sisters in the faces of the women whose lives were so tragically cut short.

I am finally starting to see fashion and beauty brands speaking out towards #StopAsianHate and I am taking note. I do appreciate them using their voice — that is the first step and a vital one. Now I would like to see us Asian Americans represented in your businesses: who is making the decisions at your company and which creators are you paying to promote your businesses?

Claudia Li — Designer & Founder of CLAUDIA LI

Courtesy of Claudia Li

Hardworking but invisible. That's what a lot of people think Asians are. Personally, I think the root of this comes from the fact that, in most Asian cultures, we have been taught to not be too noticeable, not to cause any trouble, make sure we work hard, keep to ourselves, and try to be polite at all times. That has been problematic for me for years.

As an adult, when I have felt that something was unfair, that my voice was not being heard, that I was invisible, or that somehow things were my fault but I didn't do anything wrong, I was taught to be okay with it, to just be zen and be calm. That was tough because I wasn't like that before. Growing up, my parents have always let me be the wild child. I was always the loud one, the "different" one amongst my friends.

But after joining the fashion industry, somehow I slowly became another "model Asian." I didn't notice until the past two years why that was. Then I realized that it was the fact that this was the result of what others projected onto me, trying to put me inside a box and I jumped right into it. This "Asian Designer" box, always smiling, bowing, okay with ridiculous requests and not making a fuss at all. I was "just being Asian"; people always thought, "Oh, it's fine, she won't fight back."

I became apologetic for how I feel, questioning whether or not it was okay to say how I really felt. I'd read back my interviews and my first reaction would be, "I shouldn't have said that!" but then later on, I always asked myself, "Why not? It was how I felt." Just because it doesn't seem like something that a "nice Asian designer" would say, and doesn't fit into their box of what Asian designers should say, I need to shut up? No. Not anymore.

We need to speak out, be unafraid. We need to help those who are too quiet to speak out and encourage them. We need to let them know that it is more than okay to be loud, to make their voices heard. Many of us won't ask for help because we're taught not to bother or burden other people, but it's important that we teach them that they can ask for help and that they are not a burden.

I really don't want to see dragon and phoenix embroideries going down the runway to "raise awareness." Honestly it's very annoying and it's putting all types of Asians into one tiny box with a giant bow on top. We're not a monolith and people need to realize that. I think Asians in fashion should talk to each other, not just amongst the usual groups. Reach out to those you don't know, those you're not familiar with, and talk about how we can support each other. We need to create a community that makes us stronger, that makes our voices heard.

CeCe Vu — Lead, Fashion & Beauty Partnerships at TikTok

Around this time last year at the onset of COVID-19, we witnessed a number of unspeakable hate crimes against the most vulnerable AAPI groups: elders, children, and women. This is an especially personal issue to me: I come from a very traditional Vietnamese family, and always felt caught between being Vietnamese and Vietnamese American, despite having spent 17 years in the US. I was taught to keep my head down, work hard, and not get myself into any trouble. The increasing number of anti-Asian hate crimes has broken me, but also lit a fire within me to speak up more and raise awareness around a topic that has been largely disregarded by mainstream media up until very recently.

I've chosen to leverage my platform and my work within the fashion and beauty industries to raise awareness and become more solution-oriented in collectively addressing social injustices, racism and violence. I'm proud to work at a company that has amplified the #StopAsianHate message and stood with our community of AAPI employees and allies. TikTok has partnered with Act to Change, Stop AAPI Hate and #HateIsAVirus to provide resources and up-to-date information to TikTok users in-app, and recently rolled out a company donation matching program to support these organizations. All of these are small steps in a long journey ahead in combating injustice against the AAPI community, but I sincerely hope more individuals and organizations can adopt a more inclusive and empathetic mindset moving forward.

Candice Kumai — Writer, Journalist, Director, & Best-Selling Author

In light of recent events, it is more important than ever to understand the challenges the AAPI community is facing and support their efforts through education, awareness, facts and empathy. What is happening now is a result of a broken system, acceptance of racism and this cold, lonely form of silence. As Asian Americans, we are taught to not speak out, to keep to ourselves, to stay quiet, and not be seen or heard. In this time of violence, fear, and social unrest, we cannot stay silent any longer.

I have been working with my diverse and AAPI-supportive girlfriends in the media industry — all talented, smart and pioneering. Please give them each a follow: support their work, highlight their careers, buy AAPI books, ask to see more AAPI documentaries on history and culture, and ask the media to cover diversity, inclusion, and culture in the news.

Appreciate Asian Culture, and learn where people come from: Tibet, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar — 48 countries total according to the UN. Learn about their history with the US: the 442nd Infantry Regiment, Japanese Internment camps, and even the heartbreaking story of the murder of Vincent Chin.

As Connie Chung stated to CNN recently, "Media has done a miserably late job on covering AAPI hate, and this is because we are seen as 'insignificant' or 'invisible.'" We can do better.

We must stand together to amplify AAPI, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, Native American and all marginalized voices. Let them be seen and heard. Volunteer for social advocacy groups. Learn how to be an active bystander; if you see something, say something. Donate directly via the Stop AAPI Hate GoFundMe to the AAPI families and those who need our help during this time. Be someone who makes real systemic change and be active.

David Yi — Co-founder & CEO of Good Light, Founder & Editor of Very Good Light

It's been the most difficult week for me as an Asian American person. But I am among millions across the country who are feeling pain, and allowing it to linger in our bodies. The trauma is real and it feels as if the world is finally recognizing that this trauma exists.

The thing about being Asian in America is that you have to ask yourself if you've always been invisible or if you've been erased. Or both. It's an actualization many are now coming to realize isn't normal, and the collective rage we feel is now bursting. As Asian Americans are having this reckoning, the world is watching as well, and for the first time I feel less alone. I'm witnessing my AAPI family speaking out en masse and allies coming to stand with us.

But this is only the beginning. I think it is important that we not allow this time to subside — rather, take it as an opportunity to listen to AAPI stories, our experiences, as well as ask for support. I love the organizations Hate is a Virus and Stop AAPI Hate, and encourage people to support local Asian American businesses. They are the ones who are suffering the most. Often marginalized, silenced, these immigrant-owned businesses are not only afraid for their livelihoods but their lives. Let's center them, let's see them, and let's show them that they aren't alone.

We have the opportunity to show up and change this narrative that yes, Asian Americans exist, and yes, we belong, and yes, we are worthy.

Bibhu Mohapatra — Founder & Creative Director of Bibhu Mohapatra

Courtesy of Bibhu Mohapatra

It is all in the numbers. In the beginning I read about a few incidents of attacks, then it became more frequent and the circle started to close in. Last week a friend’s uncle was brutally attacked and killed in Oakland, CA. It was ruled a racially motivated hate crime.

In the past year alone there have been over 3700 attacks on people of Asian descent, and the majority of them are women. This has been extremely disturbing and heartbreaking for me, to see my community live in such fear of lives that they have to think twice before leaving their home or work place. It is further disturbing to see that even with the dramatic increase in hate crime numbers, the rate of hate crime charges are very few.

I pledge my support and lend my voice to fight hate crimes against the AAPI community, especially in the fashion community where a majority of us make a large part of the design and manufacturing circles. I encourage my supporters, customers and fans to get informed about this crisis and give us support to fight this calamity of race bias and hate crimes.

As an immigrant, I believe that my AAPI community is an integral part of the fabric of America. Just like the immigrant generations before us, we too are responsible for further building the great nation of ours, and for that we need to be treated with love, respect and dignity by our fellow citizens.