Let’s take a second from curating tomorrow’s fire fit or worrying about next week’s sneaker drop to address the recent hate crimes that have come crashing down upon the Asian American community. After a year that amplified racism and xenophobia, acts of violence have seemingly increased in frequency and severity, each incident more heartbreaking than the next. As a leader at sneaker store Extra Butter, what I find equally concerning is feeling a lack of urgency and reaction from the sneaker and streetwear communities to speak up.
Those that read the byline and see the name Bernie Gross usually don’t expect to find out that I am a first generation Guatemalan, Filipino, Chinese American...Jew. You read that right. I’m the definition of a New York melting pot. And that’s how I simply see myself: a New Yorker.
Because of the family dynamic and the people I was raised around (or lack thereof), I grew up without much influence or understanding of my Asian heritage. Living impressionable years on Long Island surrounded by a predominantly white demographic pressured me to disconnect from that side of me as well. I’m ashamed to admit I often over-projected everything else about me to mask the very obvious physical Asian traits that set me apart from my white friends. DJ’ing, breakdancing, art, photography, and being the funny guy of the group. Anything to avoid being recognized for just being “the Asian one.” Later in college, I did try to reconnect with my roots by joining school groups that focused on the AAPI community, only to be alienated for not being Asian enough. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
It was the times when I was involved in the b-boy and streetwear scene when I felt socially welcomed by fellow Asians. In fact, it’s subcultures like these where your race, ethnicity, and social class seem not to matter. A common passion for everything skate, hip-hop, sneakers, art, and fashion are the bond for the culture. Not to discredit the strides all people of color have made in this industry, but a personal journey for me has been crossing paths with immensely creative and entrepreneurial Asians who have created impact and success for themselves within sneakers and fashion.
The power of social media grants immeasurable access to what’s going on in this world in real time. If you’re an enthusiast of sneakers or fashion, all that is creative and great is at your fingertips. Conversely, the other side to the social media sword is coming across the very real, very somber events that arise from prejudice, hate, and ignorance. One can not simply live in a bubble. Being a user behind a screen makes it easy to feel you’re but a spectator, on the sideline without skin in the game. The indifference, the compliance to casually sit back and shrug it off can be just as damaging to those suffering from this hate.
“But how can we address Asian hate from the perspective of the culture?” I was asked by someone at Complex when discussing writing this article, and I was quite frustrated because I felt the answer was obvious.
Bape, Atmos, Fragment Design, Ambush, Sacai, Comme des Garçons. Even Extra Butter. All of these are authorities in sneakers and fashion, led by Asians, that shape the culture. Want to get granular and talk specific individuals? My mentor, Yu-Ming Wu, has been in the shadows setting the bar for streetwear entrepreneurship behind several businesses you already patronize: Freshness Mag, Sneaker News, KicksFinder, Sneaker Con, Stadium Goods. Carol Lim redefined elevated shopping in NYC with Opening Ceremony. Bryce Wong made every astronomically hyped Dunk SB in recent years. The list goes on. Dao-Yi Chow, Sky Gellatly, Kevin Ma, Christian Hosoi, Tony Liu, Dave Ting, Matt Ting, Christine Su, John Kim, Mark Marquez, Phil Chang, Philllllthy, Victoria Chiang, Mark La Shark. They do it for the love. They do it for you. Look to them as beacons of inspiration; as both incredible creatives and proud Asian Americans.
If you’re just here to resell and could care less about community, I ask that you consider this: that Clot Air Max 1, that was celebrated during last month’s Air Max Day, was created by an Asian brand that created enough hype to drive the market value of a product for you to resell, create a profit margin, and put money in your pocket. You benefitted from an Asian who dug into their culture to create a concept for a hype shoe.
Let me make one thing clear. I’m not trying to make them cool enough for you to suddenly support. As crazy as it is that people blindly attack others for “just being Asian,” that shouldn’t be the reason to blindly support them now. But hopefully this provides a perspective of how the racism and hate toward Asians could possibly affect you closer than you think.
So where do we go from here?
First and foremost, is to become mobile, congregate, and amplify each other’s voices. Now is not the time to listen to our parents and grandparents after all these years about the “don’t complain, keep your head down, and just work hard” spiel. That timid “model minority” behavior is what might have made our elders easy targets. Fellow Asian creators, continue to use your platform to represent the communities that may not have as powerful of a voice. Give them the confidence to speak up alongside you. I encourage you to provide small windows every now and then into your personal life in an effort to humanize the Asian American experience to your followers. Maybe it will show that the fundamentals of your upbringing are no different than others. If anything, it will bring someone one step closer to not fearing what they don’t know or understand.
Initiate dialogue among non-AAPI friends and colleagues. Address stereotypes. If someone asks you for the most authentic, in-the-cut Pho restaurant or where to get the best boba tea, yet you haven’t seen them sharing posts against Asian hate, call them out on their bullshit. And as a part of this community, acknowledge that these hate crimes affect the creative fabric of sneakers and fashion. Silence is complicity. If you won’t be a part of the solution, you are the problem.
I’ve struggled with my identity as being part-Asian almost my whole life. Mustering the thoughts for this piece had me feeling imposter syndrome; that I’m the absolute worst person to speak upon this matter. But I’ve learned how valuable it is for Asian American customers to see someone that looks like them, leading a brand like Extra Butter. I have to keep repping for them. I have a responsibility to continue inspiring them to follow their passions, regardless of the negativity that comes their way. I’ve never been more proud to be Asian American. I want to be a better Asian, one that moves our cultures and communities forward in this country.
Uplift one another. Stay safe out there. And most importantly, stand up for those who can’t.