By Mai Hoang, MD, FACOG
I came to America when I was ten years old and started in fifth grade. I learned English through an English as second language program at school and struggled to understand my assignments while my parents worked below-minimum-wage jobs to support my grandparents and my four other siblings. As I advanced in school and applied for college, my personal experience showed me that I was a minority: a first-generation immigrant, the first in my family to take the SAT for university college application, and a member of a family earning below the federal poverty level.
Despite these facts and my seeing very few other Vietnamese people in higher education as I advanced, under the Asian racial umbrella, I was not classified as being underrepresented but rather as a model minority—a myth that disqualified me and many like me from scholarships and opportunities. I wanted to tell those in power that a first-generation Vietnamese American is very different from a fourth-generation Chinese American and that Asia is a very diverse continent. With our Pacific Islanders neighbors, we each are very different in our cultures and needs and can't be lumped together to be labeled as successful, well-assimilated people who don't experience any discrimination. I wanted to tell people in power that there are many of us who are underrepresented in higher education and in medicine. But because of my lack of knowledge, lack of empowerment, and need to tend to day-to-day obligations, I pushed aside and stifled this personal truth.
As I learn more and my awareness increases, I am ecstatic to know that there are people shedding light on this issue. For example, at a recent Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Birth Equity Conference (a joint effort by Stanford University, University of California San Francisco, and the California Perinatal Quality Care Collaborative) I discovered that Filipinx people had a preterm birth rate as high as Black birthing people at 10.3 compared to 6.1 for white birthing people from 2019 to 2020. At the University of California San Francisco, Vietnamese people, along with Filipinx and Hmong people, are now considered an underrepresented minority.
Despite recent progress, we still have a long and difficult road ahead toward health equity and justice for all. But in this moment of so much suffering and anxiety, I celebrate the fact that Asian and Pacific Islander heritage and discrimination are getting recognized and that there are individuals and institutions working to expose and eliminate the blatant and unconscious racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. For example, at the University of California San Diego, in my obstetrics gynecology and reproductive sciences department, we began tackling racism and inequities by forming a Culture and Justice Quorum. In the quorum's infancy, we created a scorecard to assess our diversity at the trainee, faculty, institutional policy, and environmental levels. Seeing efforts like this and hearing the evidence, I feel validated that I didn't imagine those barriers growing up. I feel energized and can confidently lift my voice to speak against racial injustices and health inequities.
I am excited for the grassroots changes that start at an individual or institutional level because together we can move the needle and improve access to quality, safe, comprehensive health care for all regardless of one's skin color and zip code.