Raquel Openiano, a Asian-American activist, discusses the effect racism had on her mental health growing up and how she has turned to activism to ensure her experiences are never lived through by anyone else. Openiano recently recently partnered with SacAAPI Coalition to organize a Stop Asian Hate Rally where money was raised to help Asian and Pacific Islander and other underserved women affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking.
As a child in a predominately white school, Openiano was exposed to racism at an early age. Racial slurs were thrown her way before she could understand what they meant.
“I remember in PE in middle school, we would have to run around the field and people would specifically target me to make sure I would fall. They would shove me against something to make sure I got hurt.”
The constant harassment led to Openiano frequently missing school days to escape the torment. Although she had to enduring numerous instances of racial discrimination on countless days, one in particular has stuck with her years.
“I remember it very vividly. I came to school one time and it was just another day, but it happened. I walked into the cafeteria and one person started it and then everybody followed. Basically everybody in the cafeteria threw food at me.”
“Even the adults — the cafeteria ladies were there. Nobody stopped it. Nobody stopped it. I remember getting food thrown at, not being aware of what to do. I remember it still happening as I was trying to walk out of the cafeteria and people were blocking me in to not leave.”
“It was horrible. I went to the nurse’s office. I was covered in food and she was like ‘what happened?’ I was crying. And I told her I want to call my mom.”
After that, Openiano’s family moved to an area with a more diverse school where she was able to make life-long friends. Although the harassment ceased, its effect on her was far from disappearing.
“I was traumatized and worried that people [at my new school] would see me and just hate me automatically. So it was another emotional roller coaster to see how open people were. I felt normal for once.”
Unfortunately even after she grew up, Openiano still was meeting racial prejudices in her regular life. The taunts and harassment did not disappear but rather matured with her. Shoving and food throwing turned into hypersexualization and fetishization.
“My friend said something that resonated with me. She said Asian women are viewed as an exotic vacation. Once [a man] meets a woman that’s more like home, that’s where the commitment happens. It’s like they see us as these things for their own good, their own benefit, their own interests, but they don’t see us as human beings”
Somehow in the American psyche, Asian women have taken on the role of hyper-sexualized and exoticized beings not suitable partners for committed, healthy relationships. All these experiences that Asian-American women go through where that stereotype is forcibly cast onto them can take a heavy toll on their mental health, especially their self-esteem.
“As I was growing up, a lot of my insecurities and self-confidence issues started to develop. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I actually started going to therapy. I had a couple of mental breakdowns that I wasn’t really sure how to deal with.”
She later found out that she had Bipolar II disorder near the time when hate crimes on Asian-Americans began emerging all across the nation.
“The tipping point for me was the Atlanta shooting. I was hearing about a lot of elder people getting attacked in San Francisco which started the emotions of fear in me for my family, because that could have been my cousin or that could have been my grandpa. But the shooting at Atlanta — I took that very hard.”
Openiano goes on to describe how she was disgusted by the type of media coverage and general reactions surrounding the shooting. Although there is no evidence the victims were sex workers, the rhetoric surrounding the event heavily implied some connection to sex work.
“It was as if the media was using [the sex work] as an excuse to put some fault on the women when in my perspective, that might have just been their jobs. You know, we have no idea why they were doing that if they were forced to do it, we don’t know what the story is. I think of all the things that they were trying to put towards that incident, the bottom line should have been that a man came into that shop and thought that he had the right to kill people,” she says.
America has had a history of connecting Asian women with sex work and condeming both. The first federal restriction on immigration, that Page Act of 1875, which supposedly banned women coming from “China, Japan or any Oriental country” for the purposes of prostitution but instead was used to ban Chinese women from immigrating.
The Atlanta shooting was one more horrific crime in centuries of dehumanization of Asian women in this nation. Its effect did not end with the family and friends of the victims but resonated with Openiano and the entire community of Asain-American women.
“I was so depressed and angry for about two weeks. I thought it was another bipolar episode, normally for Bipolar II, if you have a manic episode it lasts maybe a couple of days, but this went on for a long time and I was really worried that it might lead to another mental breakdown,” Openiano reflects.
“But because I made the decision to not use medication, [my therapist] suggested that I find a way to really channel how I feel in a positive way and to me that was activism.”
Because of her connection to skateboarding and the community surrounding it, Openiano wanted to organize a Stop Asian Hate skating event similar to one that happened in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She set out contacting other activists, taking notes on how to make it happen.
The month-long process began. She reached out to local businesses, skate brands, and Playboy to get the message out. She found motorcyclists who could escort the skaters through traffic. She chose My Sister’s House as the charity the proceeds would go to because of their work supporting Asian women. Planning the event was a long and tedious journey but Openiano was determined.
When asked about her motivation, Openiano explains “it’s because I faced so much suffering growing up. It scared me in a way to know that there are other people that look like me, have struggles like me and are gonna feel the same things. That was scary to me because anything that I’ve experienced, I don’t ever wish upon anybody.”
The skate event was a huge success. Over 200 people showed up to listen to Sacramento’s AAPI community. It surpassed SacAAPI’s first rally in size and scale.
Openiano’s story is a testament to her strength and willpower. She turned her pain into action to help end the cycle of hatred she was a victim of. Her mental health and her activism are tied together.