“Healing the colonized and the colonizer in me”: Maria Corpuz speaks out on AAPI violence


Hannah Michelle Bussa

Maria Corpuz with her family. Photo courtesy of Scott Fields.

On the evening of March 16, a series of shootings in Atlanta left six Asian American women dead – and following an increase of violence against Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) during the pandemic, the shooting was the last straw that began sparking calls to end the hate.

Maria Corpuz, an Omaha activist and the host of live interview-talk show Nite Caps, says that the violence in Atlanta is just one example of racist violence that wasn’t labeled a hate crime.

“The Omaha Police are still hesitant to call the bomb that was found in the parking lot of the Nebraska Chinese Association a racist attack [for example],” she said.

Corpuz said that the Nebraska Chinese Association told her that the police aren’t deciding on taking any action until they have investigated and proven that it’s a hate crime.

“Look at all the violence that’s happening around, and it’s targeted,” Corpuz said.

Corpuz said she feels the same way about the violence in Atlanta.

“It was premeditated,” she said. “He had even said, ‘I have a sexual addiction’ – which for the record isn’t a real addiction and has been disproven in different health communities. Even if it was a real addiction, then you have to talk about fetishizing. That’s a whole other thing in the Asian community, is women being fetishized.”

Corpuz said that Asian women are supposed to be submissive, petite and fit into a box, which is part of the fetishization of women in the Asian community.

“So, if he’s going to say that he was having a sex addiction and he was having bad day and he felt like he needed to take it out on people – it wasn’t a random shooting,” Corpuz said. “These haven’t been random attacks.”

Corpuz said sayings like the “Chinese virus” and other racist Asian portrayals in the media impact the AAPI community. The “one historical portrayal” of Asian women in cinema is a particular problem, because real representation matters.

“When you see a representation of yourself, no matter if it’s as a Disney princess or a woman being shot, you clearly identify because of race,” Corpuz said.

Corpuz said that those who don’t see this violence as racist need to consider how they can decide that, when BIPOC have been living and experiencing racism.

“Can you identify racism, if you’ve never experienced it?” she said.

Corpuz says the fetishization of Asian women that played a role in the violence in Atlanta has been present in her own life. She described a conversation she had at one of her weekly family dinners recently.

“My dad cried at the dinner table, because he was like, ‘I feel guilty, giving you guys your brown skin, specifically you and Katie [Maria’s sister],” Corpuz said. “He added that, ‘when I think about your future partners, you know, men aren’t generally attracted to Asian women, and if they are it’s because it’s this idea of Asian women in their head.’ So, my dad was crying because he worries about that.”

Maria Corpuz and her sister, Katie. Photo courtesy of Scott Fields.

Corpuz said her dad also worries about whether their future partners will respect them for who they are as funny, confident, intelligent and outspoken women, or if they’ll be seen in a submissive role since that is what Asian women are often represented as.

“There’s a lack of representation, and the representation of us is really only one,” she said. “And that’s not true. There are so many complexities of us. Race is just one part of you, but it’s in the media and in society and in the news, we’re seen as one thing. I really don’t fit into that thing at all.”

As an empath, Corpuz struggled to deal with the violence. When she found out about the deaths in Atlanta, she said she was at a loss as to how to grieve.

Since her partner is white, she said as much as she loves him, she questioned how to have that conversation.

“I questioned, ‘Do I need to be with somebody who’s a person of color right now?” she said. “But also, maybe that makes it too real, to have somebody who witnesses it and understands and feels it.”

Through Instagram, Corpuz got connected to a group of about 25 AAPI women who met virtually to share space.

“All of us seemed to have the same sentiments,” she said. “A lot of the themes were – we feel guilty for feeling sad and feeling angry and frustrated.”

Corpuz said her personal conflict is questioning whether or not she is “Asian enough to feel sad” because she is white-passing. However, other women in the group were struggling with that as well.

Eventually, Corpuz said the group discussed how different generations have reacted to racism.

“I think for first generation Asian immigrants, it’s really hard to admit that there’s racism, because then that means that you didn’t do a good job at becoming an American,” Corpuz said. “Like you didn’t get rid of your accent fast enough, you didn’t assimilate fast enough. Because that’s their goal, they just want to be accepted.  I don’t want to speak for every AAPI elder. But I will say that that, that seemed to be the common thread.”

Corpuz said she sees this in her own grandmother, Lola, who came to the United States from the Philippines. She sees that Lola worked hard to migrate to the U.S., to learn the language, to learn the culture, and to assimilate.

“And now, to be killed because of that, in this country that they’ve worked so hard for, is like a big wake up call for them,” Corpuz said. “They are at the acceptance stage of grief. I can hold space for that.”

She said that the women in the group were mostly between 20- and 35-years old, and in a different place with their grief, asking what to do next and how to talk about it. They also discussed unlearning internal hatred toward themselves and the interracial relationships between different AAPI groups.

Corpuz said talking about her emotions has been important. She likes to do something about her emotions.

“As much as it’s been painful, I’m equally as grateful for it, because I don’t think that I would have had these conversations with my family if racism wouldn’t have been so much in the headlines this past year,” she said.

She said her family used to not talk much about racism beyond mentioning microaggressions, but recently, they have talked about it more. They talked about the Atlanta shooting at their weekly family dinner.

“I think since this anti-Asian rhetoric started, I mean, with Trump for over a year, but more recently with the uprise in violence, my family has started talking about it openly,” Corpuz said.

Maria Corpuz and her family. Photo courtesy of Scott Fields.

Corpuz’s family is Filipino. Her grandmother, Lola, came to the United States in 1968.

“Before that, she had to wait two years, while my grandfather was here,” Corpuz said. “He got a visa early because he was a psychologist. They moved around and then they settled in Galesburg, Illinois. But she did not speak Tagalog, or Ilocano, which are her two dialects, to my dad and his brother because of survival, and because of assimilation – and I see that. But she will say it in a nicer way.”

Aside from survival, Corpuz said her grandmother also simply didn’t speak her two dialects as a way to avoid being made fun of.

“I think now, in today’s state, it’s also a way to not get killed, which is really unfortunate to say,” she said. “I kind of had that realization – like she meant for them to like not get bullied, but in the space that we’re at now, our ancestors were looking out for us, in that sense, to like not get killed, in this moment.”

Corpuz reflected on the cyclical idea that her ancestors had to tell her grandmother to assimilate and not speak with an accent, but now Corpuz wants to get more aligned with her ancestral culture.

She has learned about her grandmother’s past country’s relationship of being conquered by Americans and how Filipino workers were historically able to come to the U.S. to work low wage jobs or be nurses. That history ties into today.

“There are so many Filipino nurses who are now some of the highest rates of COVID deaths amongst nurses,” she said.

Corpuz said her grandmother and her don’t always see eye to eye, but she has to respect her due to all that she went through. She also said her grandmother likes her writing and is proud of the work she is doing.

“Lola will still tell us, ‘don’t waste your potential,’” Corpuz said. “I believe she believes I’m not wasting my potential, even though I’m not a doctor.”

Maria Corpuz with her grandmother, Lola. Photo courtesy of Scott Fields.

One phrase that is common in Corpuz’s work is that she is “healing the colonized and the colonizer in me.” Corpuz is half Filipino and half white. She was also raised Catholic and described not feeling safe in the Catholic church as a queer individual.

“I have colonized blood in me, and I have colonizer blood,” she said. “So, I’m trying to heal the learned parts of both of that at the same time.”

Corpuz described teaching her Filipino dad and grandmother how to show emotion, while having difficult conversations with her white mom. She said her mom’s parents had been worried about the grandkids being brown and being made fun of, so that is something she is healing as well.

“I’m trying to heal both parts,” Corpuz said. “And it’s a conflict and a struggle and it goes against each other. I’m still unlearning, all of it.”

While she is unlearning both the colonized and colonizer in her, Corpuz wants to see changes moving forward from the latest violence. As a nation, she said she wants to address the imperialism and the colonialism the United States has been a part of, like in the Philippines.

On a smaller scale, she wants to see connection.

“The first people to reach out to me were Black and brown women,” she said. “I was so grateful for that, because I wasn’t really trying to talk to white men or white people [in general] about it. But at the same time, I was mad at all of my white friends who hadn’t reached out, because the brown and Black women in my communities are the ones who have been fighting and organizing and activating themselves.”

Corpuz said Black and brown women doing the work and having to be the caretakers and healers is a lot of work.

“I see my community healing by white people specifically stepping up into roles, not necessarily taking the space and the microphone, but working behind the scenes,” Corpuz said.

She said she’d like to see white people have conversations within their own families about racism, donate money and volunteer time to work for change.

After the violence, she had posted on social media: “This will be my response to any check-ins. ‘How are you?’ Angry. ‘What can I do for you?’ Volunteer for @jasmineformayor.”

Corpuz said she supports Jasmine Harris for Mayor of Omaha for countless reasons.

“When I look at her commitment to the folks in our community who are least represented, she’s above and beyond,” Corpuz said. “She’s done the work, she’s done the research and developed policy already at a state level that will help the folks who most need it.”

Corpuz said she was angry at Mayor Stothert for her racist rhetoric online toward a Korean woman, calling her a “troll who hides behind symbols.”

“I don’t want my mayor to say that,” Corpuz said. “I want my mayor to be able to recognize those people.”

Corpuz also said she wants a mayor that is accessible. She is also impressed with Jasmine Harris’ campaign team. Corpuz is the field director for the campaign.

“We’re over half queer and over 75% are people of color,” she said. “When you want to look at all the different candidates who are running, look at their campaign teams, because that’s intentional and that’s going to show you how they’re going to lead.”

Corpuz is staying in Omaha to help do the work to make the changes she wants to see.

“I had the realization that I can make bigger waves here, and that I have the connections already here to make progress,” she said.