Jeannie Mai Jenkins on speaking out about her Asian identity: 'I've broken those chains'

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Jeannie Mai Jenkins is celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month for the first time this year, and the co-host of "The Real" is "not proud" she hasn't recognized it before.

"I could do better, if I'm really honest," says Jenkins, who's of Vietnamese and Chinese descent. As the only Asian American alongside three other women of color, Jenkins feels the urgency to shed light on the racism facing Asians and wants to use her platform to celebrate elements of her heritage.

"This May, we had a three-part series talking about three important subjects that people need to understand that does a lot of damage to Asians that the model minority myth fetishizing of Asian women, and also the long history of racism towards Asians," Jenkins told Yahoo Finance's "A Time for Change" this week.

Jenkins, 42, has been vocal recently about her cultural background amid surging violence facing the Asian community, but she first publicly showcased her heritage during a segment on her show six years ago. Spotlighting classic foods of Lunar New Year, Jenkins and her mom, Mama Mai, now a social media star in her own right, wore traditional dresses called áo dài while making thịt kho, a braised pork and egg dish.

"We did the whole thing. And it was really cool. And then the first thing I heard was that the episode didn't rate well, because people don't care about Asian topics. So, of course, I think, as a co-producer and host, 'Oh, God, I did an episode that didn't do well.' So I felt responsible. I felt embarrassed that I even tried, and just gets me to go hide in my shell. And I didn't try to bring up another Asian topic," Jenkins says.

'I've broken those chains'

Now, in 2021, Jenkins says she no longer has the privilege of staying silent or retreating.

"The thing about being an Asian representative on the show is everything that comes out of my mouth is going to come from my culture, my lifestyle, my upbringing, so I am in a sense representing that," says Jenkins, an Emmy Award winner with 2.4 million Instagram followers and 655,000 YouTube subscribers.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Jenkins lamented the fact that she let the poorly rated show with her mother stop her from educating others about Asian culture.

"And so now I've broken those chains," she said. "Now, I don't care where I'm speaking about it. If you want me, if you want Jeannie Mai Jenkins, that is coming with me. And you are going to learn about my culture and my people."

Jeannie Mai Jenkins joins Yahoo Finance's
Jeannie Mai Jenkins joins Yahoo Finance's "A Time for Change" to discuss how she is working through her trauma through the years.

Solidarity among people of color

Jenkins, who married Grammy-nominated singer Jay Wayne Jenkins (Jeezy) last month, says she and her Black husband have discussed the importance of solidarity among underrepresented groups — specifically, with the Black Lives Matter movement that gained steam last summer after the murder of George Floyd.

"I think the first thing that all minority groups should acknowledge is that until Black Lives Matter, none of us will. Until Black Lives Matter, none of us will receive the respect that we deserve," she said. "That is first and foremost, because there’s no other race out there that is being killed, that is dealing with police and justice on the daily that have been oppressed or hundreds of years, and are still operating in a governmental system that serves them policed. That is the absolute bare bone fact."

The myth that Asians are a "model minority" — that they've overcome discrimination through quiet hard work — has created a decades-long wedge between Asian and Black communities. Jenkins points out it will take a lot of proactive unlearning to lift the plight of all communities of color.

"It’s important for us to show face, it’s important for us to be actively anti-racist...It's so important for Asians if we’re already known as the quiet group, if we’re already known and stuck under this minority myth," Jenkins said. "These are more opportunities for us more than ever to speak out and to speak up proudly for ourselves. If you can't speak up for yourself, how am I going to believe that you speak up for other people?"

Melody Hahm
is Yahoo Finance’s West Coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm and on LinkedIn.

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