Jeannie Mai never thought the Bay Area in California, where she grew up, was racist. "The Real" host just thought it was a case of a few bad apples.
She remembers when her aunts and uncles left Vietnam and came to stay with her family, racist words were spray-painted on their car and on the side of her family's home. But overall, the neighborhood was peaceful.
"It felt like we all coexisted," Mai, 42, says of her predominantly Hispanic and Black neighborhood. "There just might have been a few individuals that didn't understand our culture and why we were there."
Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chairperson Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. and other lawmakers at a virtual press conference last week said the attacks are part of a rise in anti-Asian American bias and xenophobia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"What started as dirty looks and verbal assaults" at the beginning of the pandemic "escalated to physical attacks and violence against innocent Asian Americans," Chu said. "Just as many Asian Americans were preparing for the Lunar New Year over the past few weeks, we saw a surge in anti-Asian violence."
Chu cited several attacks against Asian Americans, including the killing of 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee, and a recent increase in violence against senior citizens in Oakland, California's, Chinatown.
"I'm sickened to my stomach and filled with so much anger and pain, just when we're already aware of racist attacks and our systemic racism that spawns across the world and especially in our country for our Black brothers and sisters," Mai says. "What have we not learned from 2020? And now why are we attacking our most vulnerable that are already trying every day just to survive COVID?"
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Mai is using her platform – via her talk show, social media presence and media interviews – to speak out against these attacks. The TV personality has 2.4 million followers on Instagram, 632,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel "Hello Hunnay with Jeannie Mai" and nearly 260,000 followers on Twitter.
People may be following her for her outfits or YouTube content, but they'll also be getting a dose of hard news.
"This is something that should be everybody's business," Mai says.
Other celebrities are raising awareness, too.
Earlier this month, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for information that ultimately led to an arrest in the case of an Oakland assault.
Mai is proud of her "Asian brothers and sisters" for making their voices heard.
She emphasizes that racism doesn't just impact the Asian community, but Asians should be included in conversations about curbing racist behaviors.
"For everybody, not just the Asian community, racism and hate are pandemics that we have to fight to eradicate," she says. "But it starts with listening to our communities of color, planning and organizing to support, speaking out about the problems and being active about the solution. You can't stand for (Black Lives Matter), and then sit there sedentary about Asian attacks."
She doesn't think white Americans are educated enough about Asian history or culture – but she doesn't think she's educated enough about Black history or culture either
"I don't think our school system is catered around educating us what we really need to know," she says.
She does, however, believe that racism can be unlearned. "I believe racism is taught," she says. "And it may not be your parents sitting you down telling you specifically like, 'Don't trust those Asians. Don't be friends with Black people.' No, I think it's in every grain of your upbringing."
Mai's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam and escaped communism to come to a safer place.
"I've always been taught to just stay quiet, don't be the one to cause issues," she says.
She wants her community to know that they have a voice and need to protect one another, even if they don't speak each other's languages. Beyond that, they should stand up for all their neighbors, too.
Mai is pleased that more Asian Americans have been appearing on television in series like "Bling Empire" on Netflix and "House of Ho" on HBO Max. But she also wants to see programming that breaks away from the plot points that fueled the mega hit movie "Crazy Rich Asians."
"Hollywood has this way of taking a stereotype and then marketing it down to the ground," she says. "I would just hope to see also a diverse depiction of what Asian Americans can look like, because not all of them are crazy or rich."
Contributing: Nicholas Wu and N'dea Yancey-Bragg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Real' host Jeannie Mai on Asian American attacks, ending racism