Justine Fonte Kicks off AAPI Heritage Month

Justine Fonte spoke to students on April 22.

Yale Education Leadership Conference

Justine Fonte spoke to students on April 22.

In the wake of recent attacks against members of the Pan-Asian community in the U.S., Phillipinx health educator Ms. Justine Fonte kicked off a series of events highlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage at the school.

In the U.S., May is designated as AAPI Heritage Month. Clubs and affinity groups such as the Asian and Asian American Advocacy club (Triple A) have organized events celebrating the AAPI members of the community – highlighting their cultures, traditions, and unique histories. On April 22, Ms. Fonte spoke about Eurocentric beauty standards rooted in colonialism and how they relate to the racism experienced by members of the Pan-Asian community. Ms. Nora Yasumura, director of student clubs and affinity groups, said, “Given the recent Atlanta killings, we decided it was important to also talk about not only the history of the Asian American community in the United States, but also the fetishization of Asian American women historically. We thought Ms. Fonte was very well fit to do so.” 

Ms. Fonte’s parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. She grew up in California and studied at the University of California San Diego. She went on to receive masters degrees in education from the University of Hawaii and in public health from Columbia University. She is currently the director of health and wellness at the Dalton School in New York City. 

Ms. Fonte spoke about her experiences growing up as Asian American, including the harmful effects a lack of Asian American representation had on her as a young woman. She also discussed the internalized self-hatred that dominant beauty standards can create, and the importance of maintaining cultural integrity by working against the appropriation of Asian American culture.

Ms. Fonte argued that the hyper-sexualization of Asian women in movies has led to the dehumanization of members of the Pan-Asian community, which has not only promoted harmful rhetoric, but, as in the case of the Atlanta killings and other past incidents, cost innocent lives. She noted that the model minority myth, which categorizes all Pan-Asians as successful, intelligent, and submissive, has also warped people’s views of Pan-Asians. 

Ms. Fonte encouraged audience members not to associate Pan-Asian experiences only with tragedy and struggle, which is often the aspect of Pan-Asian life highlighted in the media. Amelia Wang ’21, co-head of Triple A, said, “[Ms. Fonte] really helped us understand the reasons behind the hypervisibility of Asians and Asian Americans right now – that it’s not because we’re being celebrated or recognized more, but that it’s [only attention to the] vulnerable aspects of Asian identities.” 

 Wang also identified ways in which the school could better support its Pan-Asian community members, saying, “There’s a tendency for the school community to lump all of the ethnicities, cultures, and countries within the Pan-Asian diaspora together. I hope that we continue to support and celebrate Asian students at Hotchkiss without having to group them together and instead recognize them as individuals.”

Lydia Bullock ’22, who is not a member of the Pan-Asian community, was shocked when Ms. Fonte described some of her experiences growing up. She said, “I think the fact that these things surprised me so much indicates that I need to educate myself more. I don’t want to be oblivious when it comes to these problems.”

Victoria Chen ’21, a co-head of Triple A, hopes that after Ms. Fonte’s presentation, the community will be more open to constructive criticism and conversations about supporting members of the Pan-Asian community. She said, “Everyone makes mistakes. You are going to be wrong about some things, especially if you are not part of the AAPI community. There are going to be things that you just don’t understand, but being open to listening and trying your best to understand and learn is really important.”

Ms. Fonte’s speech is the beginning of a series of events, including a panel with the Asian American Bar Association of New York and joint meetings with Hillel, BaHSA, and GSA, Triple A is organizing to celebrate AAPI heritage month. A schedule of events can be found on Triple A’s website.