Every week during May’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, HuffPost’s #UpNext Series will highlight Asian Americans who are on the rise in public service. This is Part 3. Previously: Part 1 and Part 2.
“I talk a lot about being invisible, and we’re invisible in so many different ways. We’re invisible in the traditional discussion about race in this country,” Tong said in an interview. “But we’re also invisible to ourselves. One of the biggest hurdles I’ve found is that Asian Americans just don’t buy it. I think Asian Americans are very skeptical — by and large, and maybe that’s a stereotype, but that’s my experience — they’re very skeptical that we have a role to play.”
Several times, he pauses to explain his candor.
“I could say something much more guarded, but I think people need to hear it. They need to reckon with it themselves,” he said. “People need to see the possibilities, and see themselves in those roles.”
As only the second Asian American ever elected as a state attorney general, after now-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Tong, 46, speaks directly from personal experience and “a recognition of how things work,” he says.
He recalls constantly being dismissed, even as he worked his way up the political ranks: as an Ivy League-educated lawyer, a member of a city commission in Stamford, 12 years as a representative in the Connecticut General Assembly, and his election as attorney general in 2018.
“One of the persistent and most insidious challenges that Asian American candidates face is that people don’t see us in these roles,” Tong said. “I was a 12-year legislator, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and I had very strong political, academic, and legal credentials. But I was told repeatedly by people that I just didn’t look like what they thought an attorney general looks like — and I was the front-runner!”
“They still don’t,” he added later. “And there are a lot of people won’t. That’s not bitterness talking. That’s just acknowledging where you are on the field, all the challenges in front of you. And if you don’t acknowledge them, if you don’t see them, then you will lose, because you’re at a disadvantage. If you acknowledge them, then you can confront them.”
As the child of immigrants, you’re keenly aware that you’re ‘the other,’ always. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong.
Tong, the oldest child of Chinese immigrants who ran a Chinese restaurant outside of Hartford, recognizes the dramatic arc of the story of his upbringing. And, with a bit of cynicism, he notes that sometimes, it is “those sorts of almost stereotypical fables about Asian Americans” that make people in power take notice.
“I tell it a lot because it’s who I am, and people, they are surprised by the story, or they react with a ‘wow,’ and they’re sort of impressed by my parents and what they were able to achieve,” he says, before stressing that “it’s unremarkable in that so many people live that story every day, and so many people like us have lived that story. I just get a chance to articulate it, and it’s always very real to me because I’ve never forgotten where I came from.”
Tong became interested in public service as a teenager. He credits his school’s strong civics and student government programs, and a formative experience as a volunteer for the successful 1988 Senate campaign of Joe Lieberman, a former state attorney general who served in the Senate until 2013.
Recalling why he was drawn to the political process, Tong cites a central part of the Asian American experience: being seen as a perpetual foreigner ― always having “a keen sense of separation from the process, not [being] invited to the process — you know, the proverbial seat at the table.”
For Tong, that feeling manifested itself in his parents’ restaurant.
“I spent a lot of time in our family’s kitchen, and there was a door, and I remember the door had a window, like a diamond-shaped window, out from the kitchen, into the dining room. I remember looking out from the kitchen into the dining room through that window, and seeing all of the people that we served, eating their dinner, and that was a real and physical reminder that I wasn’t part of that,” he recalls.
“That was like, that was America, and we weren’t a part of that. I wasn’t a part of that, and there was a real barrier, and I was looking in. That feeling manifests itself in so many different ways: at school, socially, in sports. As the child of immigrants, you’re keenly aware that you’re ‘the other,’ always.”
People just have in their minds the gender, racial, physical stereotype of what they see as an elected official, and you have to break through that." Attorney General William Tong
Breaking through those stereotypes continues to be an uphill battle for people of all marginalized groups, particularly when they attempt to enter positions of power.
Look no further than the 2020 Democratic presidential field, where the notion of “electability” is often a code word for white male candidates among the highly qualified women and people of color in contention.
“There’s a reason why Joe Biden has such strength in this field, because he looks and sounds like an American president, and that includes being a relatively tall white male with gray hair, right?” Tong says.
For Asian Americans, the barriers to entry might be even higher, Tong argues, noting how Asians are routinely seen through racist stereotypes of being submissive and lacking strength and power.
“People just have in their minds the gender, racial, physical stereotype of what they see as an elected official, and you have to break through that, and Asian Americans suffer through that, I think, more than your average community,” he says.
Among Asian Americans themselves, Tong is critical of what he sees as “lip service” and not enough action in becoming politically active.
“We have to focus on the basic blocking and tackling of political mobilization and self-advocacy,” he says, including recruiting candidates, holding meetings, fundraising and “learning to articulate a message around civil rights, for example, around immigration, around small business issues that resonate with our community.”
Beyond that ground-level work, Tong continually returns to the need for Asian Americans to be honest and pragmatic about the challenges they face. Ultimately, he thinks it will take more people becoming trailblazers, doing the often unvarnished and unheralded work, that eventually will lead to breaking down barriers.
“There’s nothing glamorous about it. It’s just us banging our heads against the wall, until somebody pays attention,” Tong says. “People like us who do things for the first time — or you know, the first five of us, or the first 10 of us — those are the challenges that we have to bear.”