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For Kansas City's Asian And Pacific Islander Communities, Heritage Month Marks An 'Awakening'

Bety Le Shackelford, community outreach director for Cafe Cà Phê, speaks at a Stop Asian Hate vigil in Kansas City March 28, 2021.
Travis Young
Courtesy of Cafe Cà Phê
Bety Le Shackelford, community outreach director for Cafe Cà Phê, speaks at a Stop Asian Hate vigil in Kansas City March 28, 2021.

Mayor Quinton Lucas and community leaders are joining Asian and Pacific Islander advocates to recognize AAPI Heritage Month this Saturday, May 8 at 5 p.m. in downtown Kansas City.

Growing up, Bety Le Shackelford felt embarrassed about knowing how to speak Vietnamese. She didn’t want to seem different from the other kids, and begged her mom to only speak English with her in public.

“I just wanted to be seen as an American girl, versus an Asian quote-unquote ‘FOB,’ which means 'fresh off the boat,'” Shackelford says. “I felt like if I only spoke English, that would be a deterrent to being looked at as different.”

As an adult, Shackelford says her feelings changed. When she began seeing stories of violent attacks against Asian people during the COVID pandemic, she felt like she needed to do something.

Shackelford and fellow staff members at Vietnamese coffee shop Cafe Cà Phȇ helped organize a vigil for victims of anti-Asian violence in March. At the event, she spoke Vietnamese in public for the first time, saying a prayer for the victims.

On Saturday, she’ll do it again. Shackelford will be one of the speakers at Kansas City’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, at Ilus W. Davis Park downtown.

“In a way, it’s like a full circle, because now I’m so proud and so excited to share my language with Kansas City,” she said. “I think it’s important for me to share a bit of myself.”

She’ll be joined by Mayor Quinton Lucas, Missouri state Rep. Emily Weber and Cafe Cà Phȇ owner Jackie Nguyen, among others. Taiko drummers and Haka dancers will also perform.

AAPI vigil 1.jpeg
Travis Young
Courtesy of Café Ca Phe
Local officials and organizers at a March 28, 2021, rally in Kansas City following the Atlanta massage shootings. From left: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Chi Nguyen, Missouri state Rep. Emily Weber, Jackie Nguyen, Haddie Watson, Bety Le Shackelford, Cecilia Evelyn Belser-Patton, Kansas state Rep. Rui Xu.

Congress established Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, sometimes called APA or AAPI Heritage Month, in 1990. In 1992, the celebration was officially assigned to May, the month when Japanese people first arrived in the United States, and when Chinese laborers helped finish the Transcontinental Railroad.

This month, however, will be the first time Kansas City will officially recognize the holiday, according to City Council legislative aide Crissy Dastrup, who helped organize Saturday's event.

Americans who trace their roots to Asia and islands in the Pacific have often been grouped together politically and on the U.S. Census. “Asian American and Pacific Islander” covers origins ranging from India to Hawaii to Indonesia.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they share the same cultures and political interests, Shackelford says.

“The Pacific Islander experience isn’t really necessarily reflected in this, because they have a unique set of struggles relating to sovereignty and decolonization,” she says. “Whereas for Asian Americans, there’s a lot more in terms of immigration and refugees coming to America.”

PaKou Her, an activist who will also speak at Saturday’s event, sees Kansas City’s declaration as just one part of celebrating and acknowledging Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the area.

Her says that members of those communities have been looking to be more politically involved for a while, but haven't seen many opportunities in Kansas City. So she helped found a group called API Underground, for Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans who want to organize against racism, seek friends and educate the community about social justice issues.

She said that conversations about police brutality against Black people, plus the surge of high-profile violent crimes against Asian people, have caused more Asian Americans to examine their racial identities in the past year.

“I think there’s an awakening among Asian Americans,” Her said. “We both participate in anti-Blackness as part of our role in the big structure, and we experience our own type of white supremacy and racism.”

And she added that many people can feel isolated in the Midwest, which doesn’t have as many large Asian or Pacific Islander communities as states on the East and West Coasts.

“You just don’t see people who look like you very often,” she said. “There’s just the sense of being the only one.”

While racist violence gets a lot of media attention, Her said, it can be hard to talk about less extreme, more everyday forms of racism, like facing discrimination at a church, school or grocery store.

“If you’re not getting physically assaulted and it’s not that egregious, what is the story to tell?” Her said. “Everyone wants a culture of niceness, when really the culture of niceness just makes you even more invisible.”

Kansas City’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration will begin at 5 p.m. on May 8 at Ilus W. Davis Park.

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