Guest Commentary: Rise and Rise Again…

Amrita Krishnan, MD
Director of the Judy and Bernard Briskin Center for Multiple Myeloma Research at City of Hope
Nina Shah, MD
Associate Professor, UCSF Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center
Saad Z. Usmani, MD
Director of Plasma Cell Disorders Program, Director of Clinical Research in Hematologic Malignancies, Levine Cancer Institute

Here, Amrita Krishnan, MD, Nina Shah, MD, and Saad Usmani, MD, reflect on the significance of the swearing in of Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants, as Vice President of the United States.

As we all witnessed the inauguration of the first South Asian, African American vice president, the daughter of a cancer researcher, we were struck by the similarity of our origin stories. It reminded us of an American Society of Hematology annual meeting a few years ago.

Nikhil C. Munshi, MD, a leader in our field, accepted a prestigious award. In his acceptance speech he spoke not of his research, but of his journey from India to the United States. His story of being one of the few Indians in town was familiar to all of us – our parents had experienced that same isolation. As a result, we were taught that the road to success was through assimilation. We were told to keep our heads down, avoid conflict, endure ridicule if necessary, and focus on academics, awards, and excellence. We grew up in different houses, but we could all tell the same story: Assimilation was the only road to acceptance.

In truth, we did succeed in becoming physicians, but we worked within a delicate shell of humble gratitude, rather than an armor of victory. We spent many hours listening to lectures in auditoriums lined with portraits of patrician white men, feeling lucky to be there. We never questioned why we had to work harder than our white colleagues to achieve comparable visibility. It never crossed our minds to wonder, Were there really no people of color equally qualified to be on those walls?

We had learned the lessons of our parents too well. We never spoke up when patients asked, “Where are you from?” followed by, “I mean, where are you really from?” We kept quiet when colleagues mispronounced our names despite being corrected many times. Even though we thought we were American, white America still saw us as “other.” Ever the good students, we strove harder to fit in. We gave our children easily pronounceable, Americanized names. Didn’t you wonder about the preponderance of Asian-American kids named Maya or Kevin? We lived in white neighborhoods and followed their cultural norms. We taught our children the same mantra we learned early on: Work hard and don’t make waves.

We look back on this reliable playbook of assimilation and realize that perhaps we contributed to racism while simultaneously being victims of it. For many of us Asian Americans, it paid to be silent. Others were not so lucky. Our suburban success granted us a more comfortable life for our immediate loved ones. We previously took this to mean that America actually did see us as Americans; we were right to just play along with our cultural dilution.

We cannot allow our kids to look down or look away. They are American, and the future of our country rests not on assimilation, but on education, action, and justice for all.

Unfortunately, the past four years delivered a harsh reality check. In 2017, a man in a Kansas bar opened fire on two Indian patrons and allegedly shouted, “Get out of my country.” When an Asian-American woman confronted former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in an Apple store he told her, “It’s such a great country that allows you to be here.” Even the Harvard University admissions committee was accused of scoring Asian-American applicants lower on traits like “positive personality.” These past months, we witnessed attacks on Kamala Harris, questioning her right to hold the office of vice president because her parents were immigrants.

These episodes of microaggressions and outward violence indicate that our nation is not ready to view us as equals. Although more than half of medical researchers are not white, a significant percentage of citizens still think this is the only race that matters in America. But this time, we cannot go back to our original coping strategy. Assimilation and silence are not congruent with equality. For all the uncomfortable and unfair moments we have experienced as immigrants or their children, this is nothing in comparison to what Black America has experienced for centuries.

So, when our children tell us that the teacher mixed up the Indian kids at school, we should not laugh it off with, “They think all brown people look alike.” Likewise, when we witness unspeakable injustices against Black lives, we should channel that childhood discomfort and our anger today to fight this bully of racism.

We cannot allow our kids to look down or look away. They are American, and the future of our country rests not on assimilation, but on education, action, and justice for all. We can now look to Vice President Harris as a leader who will help us deliver this promise.

Disclaimer: The content of the Guest Commentary is the opinion of the author and does not represent the official position of the American Society of Hematology unless so stated.