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Watcher's Steven Lim: 'Fighting racism is about tackling problems at its root instead of bandaging when things go wrong'

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Watcher Entertainment's Steven Lim discusses the rise in anti-Asian sentiment across the U.S. with Tammy Cho, his wife and CEO of the non-profit Hate Is A Virus.

Hi, my name is Steven Lim and I’m the co-founder of Watcher Entertainment and the creator / host of the show "Worth It” on BuzzFeed. Today, I wanted to share a glimpse into the ongoing conversation that I have with Tammy Cho, the CEO of Hate Is A Virus, a non-profit aiming to dismantle hate and racism. (Tammy also happens to be my wife!)

Steven: Before we get into it, I wanted to explain why this blog post is written as a conversation between us. I chose this for two main reasons: one, this felt like the most natural way to invite people into our ongoing dialogue, and two, with topics that can feel heavy sometimes, I’ve always found it super helpful to process them out loud with you. So I appreciate you jumping in and helping me with this despite how busy May has been.

Tammy: I always appreciate our conversations about these issues and am excited to share this with our broader community. Thanks for sharing this space with me!

Steven: So the first thing I want us to both talk about is...

Watcher Entertainment

Steven Lim, Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara of Watcher Entertainment

What are our personal experiences in dealing with racism and hate? And how has it affected you?

Tammy: I wrestled with racism throughout all stages of my life. When I was younger, I got teased in school for the way that I looked. When I got older, I experienced racism whether it took shape as micro-aggressions in the corporate world or blatant racist comments on the street. One of my most memorable incidents involved my parents, pre-pandemic. My parents ran a small dry-cleaning business in Southern California and an upset customer began yelling at my parents for running a “Chinese sweatshop” and condemned them for speaking their native tongue. I was livid. First off, my parents are Korean American and they speak Korean and English. Second, my dad is a U.S. Army veteran. Third, I knew how hard my parents worked at this business to be able to provide for the rest of our family.

It pained me to see how, regardless of how they worked in the U.S. for a better life, that people would judge and belittle them for who they were and the color of their skin – a reminder of how our country has a rich history of enabling hate. Those kinds of experiences really drove me to get involved at the start of the pandemic.

It doesn’t matter where you are — racism exists everywhere in America”

Steven Lim

Steven: What’s interesting is that I grew up in a pretty different environment than you. I always assumed that since I grew up in Ohio, hate and racism was more prevalent in places where there were fewer minorities. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter where you are — racism exists everywhere in America. But the thing that sticks to me to this day is that I never knew how to respond to it. It’s actually why when I started my career on YouTube, it was important for me to actively represent my people because even if I’m not making content geared specifically towards Asian Americans, I still want to be the best role model for people who look or grew up like me and may not have had anyone to turn to.

Still, it feels like we’ve experienced just as much racism and hate as adults than when we were kids. You remember when the pandemic first started, people would be harassing us when we would take walks around K-Town?

Tammy: Yeah, of course.

Steven: The one experience that really sticks out to me was when we were getting in an elevator, and this was pre-vaccine, so social distancing was super important. There were a few people waiting so we kindly asked the gentleman behind us to take the next lift down. And I remember him saying something to the effect of “f— you, you guys are dirty Asians anyway, so yeah I better wait so I don’t get COVID” – basically associating our Asian-ness with COVID. That’s something we’ve seen has been really harmful to our community over the past few years.

And as time has gone on in this pandemic, I also wanted to touch on what it’s like to scroll through Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube in 2022. It’s become so commonplace that more often than not I’ll stumble across a video of something traumatic happening to our community. It’s truly heartbreaking. It’s such a pattern that it can leave me feeling hopeless, feeling like “When will this ever stop?”

Tammy, I’ve noticed you, however, are good at removing yourself from your phone and distancing yourself. What is your experience like and how do you handle coming across those videos?

Tammy: My heart feels like it’s in a constant state of grief these days. Taking breaks from doomscrolling gives me space to grieve and recenter myself because I know that racism is not going to go away overnight. We need to pace ourselves during the course of this movement. It’s hard though, because even when I do take breaks, it feels like in just a matter of days or hours, I learn about yet another tragic incident in our community. Atlanta, Dallas, Buffalo, Laguna, Uvalde… we just can’t catch a breath.

Broken systems and power structures enable these behaviors – and until we address these root issues, we’ll keep seeing more of these gut wrenching tragedies”

Tammy Cho

The heartbreaking reality is that these tragedies are symptomatic of a much larger issue too – broken systems and power structures that enable these behaviors – and until we address these root issues, we’ll keep seeing more and more of these gut wrenching tragedies come to light.

Something I’ve also been grappling with is how while social media has been an incredibly powerful tool for raising awareness and activating people, it can also be really harmful if we’re not thoughtful and intentional about it. When we constantly circulate graphic videos and details of violence that affect our communities, it can be incredibly re-traumatizing to those who are already familiar with the reality of hate and violence that plagues those closest to us. We also find that the media often disproportionately highlights and amplifies stories that drive deeper wedges between our marginalized communities, distracting us from the real root cause of our tensions – white supremacy. Selected stories would often feature perpetrators who are Black or people of color, while the National Institute of Health published a report in 2021 showing that 74.5% of perpetrators of anti-Asian hate crimes are actually white.

Steven: Wow. I think you hit the nail on the head, because it’s really about solving the problems at its root instead of only bandaging when things go wrong.

Which brings me to Hate Is A Virus and the work that your organization is doing. Could you talk about the work you and your team are focused on right now?

Tammy: There’s a lot of exciting projects in the works, but I’ll just name a few — we’re starting a new podcast in the coming weeks called Real Talk: Unfiltered, where we’ll be spotlighting community leaders and activists across different generations and backgrounds. We’re also planning our annual Changemakers Summit for AAPI youth to gather and learn more about the breadth of the Asian American experience. Lastly, we have our CommUNITY Action Fund, which is our effort to raise $1 million for grassroots organizations across the nation.

Hate is a Virus

Steven: I’m really excited about the podcast because it highlights how this movement has not just been going for the last few years but for many generations. There have been organizations, people, activists who have been working hard on this cause for a long time.

Tammy: I’m so glad that you mentioned that! When we see these events happen, it can feel like no progress is being made and no one is doing this work, but the reality is that there have been generations of activists chipping away at this for decades. Just to name a few: Yuri Kochiyama was a Japanese American civil rights activist who was influenced by her family’s experience in Japanese internment camps. She was a close colleague of Malcolm X and spent her lifetime advocating for our community, advocating for solidarity, and building toward this movement.

We also have Kathy Masaoka who’s another activist local to L.A. who has been doing incredible work in the community for generations. She’s been a key inspiration for the work that we do at Hate Is A Virus as well. All of this work builds upon each other and it’s so important for us to look into history at these incredible leaders who have been building this movement.

Steven: I also want to shout out YouTube creators like Wong Fu Productions and Jubilee Media who have been fighting for representation since the early days of YouTube and served as inspiration for my work. I don’t know if I’d be here today if it wasn’t for them paving the way. So as we close our time here, what is one takeaway we want people to have from this conversation?

I hope people recognize that they have so much power as individuals to be a part of this larger movement”

Tammy Cho

Tammy: Movements are created by the people. I hope people recognize that they have so much power as individuals to be a part of this larger movement. Whether it’s diving into a book to learn more about the Asian American experience or even just acknowledging a friend’s experience navigating racism – these are all so important in propelling the movement forward. I’d love to encourage everyone to think about how they might bring their unique skills and perspectives into the movement — because we need everyone to be involved.

Steven: One last thing I wanted to share is that for me personally, there are two main places where I find my strength in the face of hate and racism: one, my faith in God, and two, my community. And in terms of our community, I want us to keep reminding each other to have hope. Solving racism can oftentimes feel big and lofty but it’s always helpful to break things down and take them one step at a time. Start with a conversation or a meal. As someone who makes food content on YouTube, I believe the best way you can share your story with someone is through food.

For more information on our ongoing work against racism, we hope you’ll donate to organizations like Hate Is A Virus, spread the word, share a post or volunteer. And when you’re ready, get involved! Tammy and I send all our love and prayers to the Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander Community.

To follow or donate to Hate Is A Virus, visit their social media @hateisavirus.