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Transcript: Race in America: Giving Voice with Juju Chang

MS. LEE: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Michelle Ye Hee Lee, the Washington Post Tokyo/Seoul bureau chief covering Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

Today we continue our Race in America series with veteran journalist and a journalist I admire so much, Juju Chang of ABC News. Thank you for joining us.

MS. CHANG: Well, you're so welcome, Michelle, and you know that the feelings are mutual.

MS. LEE: Well, a reminder to our audience, we want you to join in on our conversation. So please tweet your questions and comments to the handle @PostLive.

And welcome, Juju. It's great to see you again. I just saw you at the Asian American Journalists Association convention last week. Good to see you.

MS. CHANG: And now that you're president emeritus, we can have more time to chat.

MS. LEE: Yes. I'm going into retirement.

MS. CHANG: Exactly.

MS. LEE: So I want to start from the beginning of your personal story. Your family emigrated from South Korea to the United States when you were just four years old. So tell us what brought them here, and what was it like growing up as an Asian American in Northern California coping with the challenges of feeling different?

MS. CHANG: I think, you know, my parents were drawn here for the same reason this country is made up of immigrants, for the promise of hope and prosperity and equality and liberty.

I also think that I didn't realize it at the time, but we were part of the first wave of immigration under the 1965 Immigration Act. So we came in 1969. I was not, you know, in a plurality of Asian American faces. Obviously, I was a definite minority, and I felt very different and othered.

You know, I grew up in Silicon Valley, which ironically is now 25 percent Asian American, lots of engineers in the workforce, et cetera, but back then, I was the only Asian kid in many of my classrooms. And I always felt that, like, my family's food smelled funny and that my parents talked funny, and that I was reminded on the playground often that I looked funny. You know, I remember going to bed with Scotch tape on my nose, wanting to grow a bigger nose so I could look more Western. I wanted to grow up with blond hair and blue eyes. I didn't want to be different, and only later in life did I realize, you know, so much of what I experienced was the othering that happens.

You know, I watched my dad being treated poorly, and I didn't have words to sort of describe what I was witnessing. But what it was was the stuff that we're talking about now, the microaggressions, the out‑and‑out racism that is felt by immigrants. So that has very much informed, you know, my journalism throughout my career.

MS. LEE: Yeah. I think a lot of people can resonate with that, that othering, which is very much an undercurrent of the Asian American experience from the very beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I mean, when you talk about Scotch tape on your nose, I wore tape on my eyes to make my eyes bigger when I was in middle school, but, you know, that theme of othering definitely is an undercurrent.

I want to fast‑forward to your career now as a journalist. You know, you went from taking engineering courses in college with that expectation of being, you know, a lucrative engineer to now pursuing your passion, your career in journalism. What attracted you to journalism and specifically the medium of TV news?

MS. CHANG: Well, basically, you know, in the historical context, Apple was just taking off when I was a freshman at Stanford. I went from typing my papers on a typewriter to an Apple PC.

But the bottom line to me was that I did not do well in my engineering classes, and I aced a political science class literally, an A+, and thus, you know, breaking the stereotype that Asians are good at math. And I decided that I wanted to, for the first time in my life, do what I wanted to do, because my well‑meaning parents wanted me to be an engineer, and‑‑but my mom was the one who said, "You know, that Connie Chung, she basically gets paid to talk for a living. You could do that. You talk a lot, basically." And that was really the North Star for me because there weren't a lot of Asians in broadcasting and arguably still aren't enough.

And so, over the years, I've become friends with Connie, and, you know, I tell her the story, and she's like, "Oh, Juju, if I had a nickel for every young woman like you who said that to me." She's just a real role model, truly.

MS. LEE: So what's it like for you to see the increase of Asian Americans? In newsrooms, in general, I mean, there are a lot of us now, still not enough, I think, but certainly in broadcast news, a lot of people coming up through the local ranks. What do you make of that progress and also room for greater opportunities in the future to increase representation?

MS. CHANG: Sure. I graduated from college in '87, right? And so I have seen a lot of progress made. We've been talking about the pipeline for 30 years.

But what I see is an absolute example of transparency because what you see on air is very transparent, and so you have a diverse and inclusive and reflective set of reporters, right? You often see Hispanic reporters, Black reporters, Asian American reporters, but behind the scenes in management, I think so many news organizations are being forthcoming with the fact that they have fallen short in those diversity and inclusion goals. And so what we're pushing for in many ways is full inclusion, even behind the scenes, in upper ranks of management.

And, also, I think there is a dearth of Asian American men in broadcasting, especially, and that speaks to a lot of the sort of social, societal, perhaps even self‑imposed cultural norms, but many of which should be addressed and at least examined.

MS. LEE: Yeah. Can you address that core that has shaped, I guess, our‑‑the mainstream public's sort of view of Asian American men? What has been the perception, and how should we be changing that?

MS. CHANG: Well, I think that it speaks to the larger‑‑it's the flip side of the fetishizing of Asian women, right, and Asian American women, because, you know‑‑and don't‑‑let's be clear that this is a very dehumanizing thing. I have had friends say to me, "Oh, you know, that guy just finds you attractive. What's wrong with that?" and I'll say, "Because he's not seeing me. He's seeing a stereotypical view of me." It's dehumanizing in that sense.

And the flip side of the fetishizing and hypersexualization of Asian women is the emasculation of Asian men in many ways. We see it in movies. We see it in stereotypes, and I think that, in many ways, informs sort of the way local news anchor teams have been shaped, right? And AAJA helped look at a story of it, and there is a‑‑this isn't just our opinion, right? This is based on data that was collected on the number of Asian American men in broadcasting.

MS. LEE: Yeah. The issue of emasculation, I think juxtaposing that to the other side of fetishization of women is‑‑that's really fascinating, and it's really this portrayal of Asian American men as like the IT guy or the nerdy guy or the weak guy who's, you know, not really strong or, you know, buff or anything like that. And that's really, I think, over a really long time become ingrained in ways that perhaps we don't articulate enough, that‑‑you know, I see this changing now in the mainstream with new actors and new roles for Asian American men, but I do think there's a long way to go, specifically in broadcast news.

MS. CHANG: I think it's apt title, "Race in America: Giving Voice," because we have to give voice to these kinds of issues so that people become aware and can start doing things to counteract it.

MS. LEE: So we have a Twitter question from John Chen @bigkid: From your seat, Juju, what do you think needs to happen to get more AAPIs into executive positions, both from AAPIs and allies? This, like, really gets to something that I know you feel very passionate about.

MS. CHANG: Very much so. I mean, again, we've been talking, John, about pipeline issues for 30 years, right? And at this point, it's wonderful to seed scholarships and internships and things like that, but those kinds of mentoring activities just don't bear fruit in enough time that, frankly, I think we want to see. And so what I think is incredibly important is to work to enhance midcareer journalists and to work to enhance the networking and the career talent development that is happening in nonprofit organizations like Pointer or in nonprofit groups like the Asian American Journalists Association and the programs that Michelle has overseen like the Executive Leadership program or even just, you know, mentoring programs that will allow people to be sponsors to people who don't necessarily look like them.

MS. LEE: Right. I think the pathway up, once you hit a certain point in your midcareer, becomes a little less clear. You know, early career, you get the reels and you get the job and you work your way up, but then at a certain point, it becomes soft skills and trying to develop that pathway into the highest levels of leadership. And with not enough diverse talent up there, it's sometimes hard to know what the path is for everyone else. So that's definitely a big issue.

MS. CHANG: Absolutely. And I think breaking down those unconscious biases are so important. So we talk about the bamboo ceiling, right, and I made mention of the fact that 25 percent of Silicon Valley engineers are Asian American. But if you look into the management ranks, the C‑suite, the leadership ranks, it's often low single digits, and the invisibility of Asian Americans is very strong in the upper levels.

And when people say, "Oh, I don't know. These are‑‑these are‑‑I don't know that there's an unconscious bias," all I would do is point to, you know, the studies in Silicon Valley that show when you do a pitch deck and it's the exact same script read by a man versus by a woman, it gets green‑lit far more for the man than for the woman. It's that kind of glass ceiling, unconscious bias, that I think Asian Americans and others are subjected to.

When you say those soft skills, like, oh, on paper, you know, Juju looks great, but maybe she doesn't have the star quality that we're looking for or the leadership skills. And those are all very subjective, right? Those are all, you know, qualities that can be subject to unconscious bias.

MS. LEE: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to pivot into your work and some of your coverage. You know, you're a real leading voice in the AAPI community, and what I have always admired about you is that you take such great care to make sure that stories, even‑‑well, maybe especially the noes that are‑‑can be uncomfortable or that are sensitive are done with empathy and full context, which I can imagine is not always easy when you have limited time to air on television.

But I want to ask you about some of those stories. So I want to start with the shootings last year at the three Atlanta area spas, which killed eight people, including six Asian women. You and I both landed in Atlanta, I think, right around the same time, and you‑‑I remember you had like barely 48 hours to put together your segment, and you were like gunning and, you know, really running for that prime‑time segment you were preparing. Let's watch a clip of you talking to Randall Park who just had lost his mother.

[Video plays]

MS. LEE: So, a year after that, you actually went back for the story, which few correspondents do. Often we just leave these communities and don't check back in. How did you approach this Atlanta story and the news‑gathering process, and what guided you as you reported on what you undoubtedly must have known was a momentous story for the AAPI community?

MS. CHANG: Yeah. It was‑‑there are so many thoughts that go through my mind, Michelle, when I think of those two broadcasts and the reporting that we did leading up to it. This came at the tail end of a summary of anti‑AAPI hate, the spike which was very dramatic and we had been reporting on throughout the summer.

And so, when the shootings happened, I think people in the broader community, it was a wakeup call, and it was absolutely a galvanizing event in the AA and NHPI community. And I think we ended up‑‑this is, you know, another example of why representation in the newsroom matters. It was me and Eva Pilgrim who spoke up on a network‑wide editorial call, and we're‑‑we voiced our very strong feelings around the Atlanta shooting. And within four or five hours, a prime‑time network hour was commissioned.

So I stayed up all night booking, you know, helping book people like Randall Park and others because, in many ways, the victims were invisible, like often happens in the Asian American community for a variety of reasons. Some, there's, you know, the cultural, you know, "We don't want to talk about bad things," you know, aspect of Asian American culture that happens, also the fact that there is a language barrier often. There's a cultural barrier or mistrust of media. So it was very difficult to get these stories out in the mainstream media.

I flew in, and I remember flying in that morning of Friday and the prime‑time, you know, show was airing that night, and I was getting ready to go to Randy's house. And I thought to myself, "I can't believe we have to crash this prime‑time hour in 48 hours." And then I realized, you know, actually, no, this is the culmination of 30 years of reporting that I've done, right? How many mass shootings have I been to and covered and talked to family members who are in severe shock and grief? Right? I've been to Vegas and Newtown and Pulse nightclub in Orlando, right? I had done stories about human trafficking, so I understood the complexities of, you know, sex work and what that means and obviously lived and experienced the immigrant suffering and sacrifices in my own family. And that lived experience and all of that reporting‑‑I helped found an organization for Korean Americans in New York, which helped me understand, you know, how wrong the model minority myth is about Asian Americans when one in four Korean Americans in Northern Jersey are uninsured. So many are undocumented. Many are invisible because they're, you know, delivering Chinese food dinners or painting nails in salons or working six days a week in a liquor store, and they're invisible to the broad stream, because instead what you see are "Crazy Rich Asian," right, or this perception that we're model minority.

All of that went into reporting the Asian American shooting, spa shootings in Atlanta. So, when I sat down with Randy Park, I brought all of that with me, right? And so, you know, we interviewed two victims' children. One was a Chinese American whose mother had emigrated and had, like, a rice cooker in the back and scrimped and saved and went to school at night to become a licensed massage therapist, and she had signs on the wall. I saw them. They said "No sex," you know, and she was absolutely adamant that that was not going to take place in her establishment.

Randy's mom, you know, was a different story. Randy's mom told him that he worked‑‑she worked in a beauty salon, but he said when he became a teenager, he felt that there was something shady going on. And so he confronted her. So we talked about this confrontation on national television where he said, basically‑‑I said, "What did you say to your mother?" and, you know, he looked at me. I mean, you know, you have to understand I have a son about his age, and he looked me in the eye and he said, "Would you tell your son if you worked in a place like this?" And I just sort of sat there for a second. I knew what my answer was, but I'm a journalist. I said, you know, "That's a really good question, Randy," and he said, "I talked to her and I said I don't like that you lied to me about what you were doing." He said, "I also don't like the fact that you might be unsafe. I don't like that." But in the same conversation, this incredibly young, poised man said, "But I won't shame you about your decisions," because of what you saw in that little clip, because of all the sacrifices he knew that his mother made for him.

So, when he put up a little GoFundMe request, by the time I got there, you know, he had‑‑there was this one headline in The Daily Beast that says, you know, "Randall Park calls B.S. on the Sheriff of Cherokee County," who said, you know, the shooter‑‑you know, in his initial interview said, you know, he was addicted to sex. He was trying to get rid of his addiction, and therefore, this was not about race. This was about sex.

And so Randy says, you know, B.S., and by the time‑‑you know, you could look at it now, but by the time the end of the week happened, he had raised $1.7 million on GoFundMe. If you google it now, Randy Park and GoFundMe, it's over $3 million.

And I was like, what is going on? And so I'm like scrolling through all of the donations, $50, $75. These are all small‑dollar donations. There was no big like let me give you a million‑dollar check, right? And they were all written by either immigrants or people who had compassion for immigrants, and they said things like, "I see you, Randy. I see your mother's sacrifice. I'm so sorry for your loss. My mother worked in a, you know, nail salon. My mother worked in a"‑‑you know, fill in the blank‑‑"and I understand the sacrifice that your mother made, and I'm so sorry."

And so, you know, three‑plus million dollars later, I think it's a stunning example of why that event was a wakeup call for Asian Americans and a unifying event because, as you well know, Michelle, in the Asian American community, we come from a very diverse diaspora with dozens of countries, even more cultures and dialects, faith traditions, linguistic, you know, dialects. And so, when we come to the United States, we are then separated geographically. We're separated linguistically. We're separated politically on different parts of the spectrum, but this mass shooting was a moment where Asian Americans stood up and said, "Wait. We know what this feeling is like. We know what it feels like to be othered," and so, in that way, it was, I think, a watershed moment.

MS. LEE: Yeah. I think you were really able to pull that out of Randall and also the other families even under that tight deadline because you had that perspective and the historical context, and it's really‑‑I mean, it's hard for me to overstate how big of a feat that was for you, for journalism, journalistically, to be able to draw that out, given all of the complexities that were surfacing right around that time of, you know, the really internalized, you know, perceptions of Asian American women that were surfacing.

But I also want to turn to a different story and then take a Twitter question. I want to ask you about Vilma Kari, the Filipino American woman who was brutally attacked while she was on her way to church in Manhattan, and she was shouted out with racial expletive as well. And this was one of the many stories that you had covered relating to anti‑Asian violence.

And Vilma turned the assault into something that is empowering for the AAPI community, and I know that this interview was not the easiest for you to secure. But it also ended up being very memorable for you. So tell us about that story and then what you took away from that experience about how the AAPI community should be responding to this ongoing anti‑Asian hate and violence.

MS. CHANG: Vilma Kari is such a heroine to me. She's Filipina American, and she‑‑you know, the hallmark of her attack, sadly, was that it was captured on surveillance camera. And there were scenes of lobby personnel closing the doors as the attack was going on and on the sidewalk in front, and, you know, we spoke to the building, and they said, oh, that tape was taken out of context, you know, et cetera, et cetera, there's more to the story. So we left it at that.

But what her attack showed was the intersectionality of so many issues that happen in so many of these attacks, right? She was attacked by a man who had just been released from prison for killing his own mother, who had a long history of mental illness, and was having a psychotic break. He punched her, shoved her, kicked her. She broke a hip. Her pelvis was broken. She had head injuries. And he said something to her at the time, something like, you know, you Asian blank‑blank, you don't belong here.

And her daughter is an accomplished professional, and her daughter decided to‑‑her name is Liz‑‑decided to take that expletive and take some of the GoFundMe money that they received in the wake of the attack and empower what happened and turn victimhood into something powerful. So she collected stories of belonging from the Asian American community, and they had a popup museum in the Museum of China‑‑Chinese in America. And they put up beautiful art and turned it into an organization called AAP(I belong), you know, taking the attacker's words and turning it on its head.

But when I spoke to Vilma finally after, you know, months of rehab and she was walking gingerly and she said down, and I said, you know, "Vilma, you know, I know you were headed to St. Patrick's Cathedral when you were attacked. Did you make it?" and she said, "Yes, I went." And I said, "What did you pray for?" and she said, "I prayed for the‑‑with gratitude. I prayed for so many people who prayed for healing, sent me notes of encouragement and healing and the food and the money and the this and the that. I was so grateful for the outpouring." And then she paused, and she looked at her daughter who was sitting next to me. She looked at me and she goes, "And then I prayed for my attacker," and I was telling you this last night, Michelle. But, I mean, there are multiple cameras on this interview, and I'm sure the camera on me captured this‑‑[indicating jaw dropping]‑‑because I said, "Why did you do that, Vilma?" And she said, "Because whatever was going on in his mind at the moment, I wanted to give him peace," and I thought what an incredible gesture, right, so beautiful in literally fighting hate with love.

But, also, in that moment, you know, talking about what is it in our culture that sends these unconscious messages to disordered minds, when somebody walks into a grocery store in Buffalo and kills a dozen African American people with hate in their disordered mind, what‑‑where are those messages coming from, and what can we do to combat that?

In addition to that, you know, I said to her in real time, in the moment, when I finally was able to close my jaw, I said, you know, "Vilma, I've been doing this for 30 years, and I know enough to know that whether you look at it from a faith perspective or a philosophical perspective or even a psychological perspective, that what you did in that moment was more empowering to you as much as it was for the person who you were giving essentially grace and redemption." And I thought, you know, it was such a powerful example, both with her daughter and her to turning this into something broader.

The second part of that piece was about the NYPD task force, because they sent a Tagalog‑speaking police officer, which is really difficult in so many of these attacks to either prove or even get a hate crimes charge, right, because sometimes either the victims or the witnesses don't speak English enough to be able to file a police report, or they're afraid of authorities based on cultural, you know, norms from the old country, or there's a real sense that like in the Asian community like keep your head down, don't complain, you know, and also this idea that there's no, like, trigger word, right? There's no word that says, "Aha. That's an anti‑Asian hate crime." Is it enough to say go back to your country? Is it enough to say, you know, "kung flu"? Is it enough to say‑‑like what is it? There's no trigger symbol. There's no swastika. There's no, you know, news that immediately turns it into a hate crime.

MS. LEE: Right.

MS. CHANG: And so it's elusive, and there are so many different challenges, you know, beyond a policing issue that needs to go into fighting this kind of hate.

MS. LEE: Yeah. I think the story of the forgiveness and empowerment is really powerful.

We're already nearing the end. It's gone so fast. But I want to end on a personal story for you. So you recently reunited at the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation with Captain Dick Halferty who fought in the Korean War. So tell us why this story is so personal to you.

[Photo displays]

MS. LEE: Well, that's Dick Halferty. He's all of 91 years young, and we met for the first time in Seoul 12 years ago, and he‑‑that's his brother, Van Halferty, who he lost in the Korean War, who fought alongside him. And I have to say the sacrifice of one-and-a-half million Americans who went to Korea to fight in the name of democracy and freedom is just a stirring example to me of the human spirit.

At the time, he met my uncle, my great‑uncle, actually, who was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and they met as old war veterans do and told war stories but also talked about common values. And so he called me recently, you know. Twelve years it's been since we've seen each other, but we've kept in touch over those years, and he said, "Juju, they're rededicating the Korean War Memorial. They're putting up huge marble slabs. You should go see it for sure, 37,000 names of the dead who died in the Korean War," and he said, "And they're putting my brother's name on that wall, and would you come as my guest?" you know. And I was like, "There's only one answer to that question, Captain Halferty, and the answer is yes."

And so I went with my cousin whose uncle was the fighter pilot, were both great‑uncle and uncle, and she went on to become the highest‑ranking Korean American in the Air Force. Her name is Major General Sharon Dunbar, and she's the one who was in that photo earlier. So she got to meet Captain Halferty too, who had met her uncle in Seoul. So it was a very full‑circle, personal moment, and I would encourage everyone to go out and see the beautiful memorial. It's just steps from the Lincoln Memorial. It's fantastic.

MS. LEE: Well, thank you so much. I want to ask one super, final, quick question, which is looking forward for the future generations of journalists who are coming up really owning their identity and hoping to inform their journalism and make the newsroom and coverage more diverse, what's your advice to these upcoming journalists, especially those who want to be working alongside other communities of color, other marginalized communities, since you have been a long‑time advocate of allyship and solidarity?

MS. CHANG: Absolutely. I believe in allyship, you know, in the world, and I certainly believe in allyship in the newsroom. So I would say don't be afraid to speak up. Don't be afraid to be in solidarity with others in the newsroom, but mostly, you know, be unafraid to embrace your identity, because for many years early on, I wanted to fit in and be one of the guys. And now I realize the virtue of my lived experience is actually a super power, you know, whether it's my experience of being a mom or a working mom or my experience of being an immigrant in this country. They all helped inform and give context to the stories that I do.

MS. LEE: Well, Juju, you are truly an inspiration. I call you my "sunbae," which is in Korean the word for a predecessor or the person who comes before you in your industry, and you are truly one of my role models. I mean, you came to this country as a little girl from Korea, and now you are the most recognizable Korean woman on air in this country. So I, you know, really thank you for the example you have set for all of us, and thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate your insight.

MS. CHANG: Oh, thanks for having me, Michelle, and you know, absolutely, this is a mutual admiration society that goes on. I adore you.

MS. LEE: Thank you.

And thank you to all of you who have joined us and also sent in your Twitter questions. Thanks for watching today. To check out what interviews we have coming up, please head to WashingtonPostLive.com.

I'm Michelle Ye Hee Lee. Thank you so much for watching.

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