March 21 is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Recent acts of anti-Asian violence in the United States underscore — once again — just how far we have to go to realize the vision of our country’s founding.
March 21,1960 was supposed to be a day of peaceful protest against apartheid in Sharpeville, South Africa. Thousands of unarmed protesters had gathered to help end the wholly discriminatory “pass laws” that severely restricted the movement of black South Africans. But, more than sixty years later we remember the day because of how it ended: police opened fire, killing 69 people and wounding 180 others, including 29 children. Many were shot in the back as they fled.
In 1979, the UN General Assembly memorialized March 21 by calling for a program to end racial discrimination and creating what has become the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In 1994 with South Africa’s first post-apartheid election, Nelson Mandela was elected president, more than three decades after the massacre at Sharpeville. As Martin Luther King Jr. once declared, “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”
Here in the U.S., we continue to confront our own history of racism and racial discrimination. Our very founding was based on an extraordinary vision to create a society, governed not by kings, but by the citizens themselves. Those citizens even today have one thing in common: we are all descendants of immigrants longing for freedom. Our motto, dating to the Revolutionary War, and even printed on our money, e pluribus unum — from many we are one, summarizes that audacious goal. No other major country in the world today faces the same challenge of trying to unify people descended from races and cultures from all corners of the world.
We are told that the U.S. is a ‘melting pot.’ Personally, I’m not a big fan of that metaphor. I’d prefer mosaic. Mosaics are beautiful, and that beauty is derived from the contribution each unique piece makes to the whole. The same, I would say, is true of the United States. Our diversity is the source of our greatest strength.
But that diversity is also the source of our greatest weakness: racism, the toxic idea that one person’s country of origin or race somehow outranks another’s. As a country we have a long way to go, to live in true harmony as one. Last summer via the magic of a cell phone, the world witnessed the heinous killing of George Floyd. In recent months, violent and senseless attacks on Asian Americans have shocked and sickened us, reminding us that racism is not limited to discrimination against Black Americans. Pictures of elderly Asians being shoved and beaten are more heart-breaking reminders of just how far we are from the notion of that perfect union.
Two members of my team at Fistula Foundation, Mirabel Miscala and Sajira The, offered their experiences and their voices in this difficult time:
“As Asian Americans, we are grateful for this space to share our grief and our pain. Days into drafting this post, the horrific murders in Atlanta occurred. We woke up to the news with heavy and grieving hearts, at a loss for words. What we hope you understand is that when we look in the mirror, we know it could’ve been us. It could be us still. It could be our grandmothers, our mothers, and our friends. And this truth is a reality we have faced not only now, but our entire lives. As first-generation Asian Americans, we continue to see echoes of the trauma and violence that our immigrant parents and grandparents endured. But even then, we’ve seen glimmers of hope. Hope in the loving people that we have surrounded ourselves with, and the people that choose to carry our pain with us — even if our experiences are vastly different.”
At Fistula Foundation we work with hospitals in more than twenty countries in Africa and Asia. We have raised more than $100 million to support fistula surgeries for poor women injured in childbirth, and that money can give us power. We try to use that power to enable our partners, largely people of color. We try to not let money make us arrogant, foolishly thinking it alone buys us knowledge. We try to listen first, and respect those we support. We know that these partners will always know more about what they need than we will.
Fistula Foundation is headquartered in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Here, there is no majority race. Our community has significant numbers of White, Latino and Asian residents, living largely in harmony. I don’t think that it is an accident that our area is also known globally for its dynamism and creativity. Our diversity is a core strength, not something to be melted away.
CEO, Fistula Foundation