Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis on the ‘unconscionable’ discrimination facing Asian Americans

Illustration by Rosa S. Lee

By Cristina DC Pastor

Carmelyn P. Malalis remembers witnessing a woman being harassed by two male passengers inside a New York City subway car. Others nearby wanted to help but didn’t know what to do that would be safe. A young lawyer at the time, Malalis did what she thought she ought to “out of sheer instinct.” She broke into song.

“I began singing ‘You are My Sunshine’,” she recalled with a tinge of amusement when interviewed on a recent episode of Makilala TV. “Very loudly.”

The harassment stopped, as did everything else in the train car as attention turned to the woman belting out a song. Malalis thought her act helped “interrupt” the situation. “Interrupting” is a powerful form of intervention in bias incidents as society sees rising incidents of anti-Asian sentiment, where Asians and Asian Americans are being discriminated against, yelled at, and wrongfully blamed for the spread of COVID-19.

Although the incident happened long before she became Chair and Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), the harassment she witnessed on the train that day could be just as frightful as what some Asians and Asian Americans are experiencing right now. Referring to the incident she said. “I  was watching in horror as this was happening.”

Bias crimes

Incidents of anti-Asian discrimination are increasing at alarming rates around the United States, and Malalis is paying close attention to how this is playing out in NYC. Since February of 2020, incidents of bias and harassment toward Asian people have skyrocketed.  The CCHR cited over 475 COVID- related discrimination reports from February to July of 2020. Of that number, 167 are incidents of anti-Asian discrimination in housing, public places, on the street, and on mass transit. For the same period last year, the number was 22.

At her Manhattan office. The FilAm photo;  A relaxing weekend in Brooklyn. Photo by Alicia McCauley

At a time when the entire US population is dealing with a  public health crisis, said Malalis, Asian Americans are “burdened with the additional fears” of  being attacked. “It’s unconscionable.”

She is urging Asians and Asian Americans, including Filipinos, who have been targeted to file a complaint, and gave the number that connects directly to her office: 212-416-0197. She stressed the importance of reporting even if the incident has passed and some details may seem fuzzy. There are people, she said, who still do not believe that anti-Asian American racism exists, and it is important to educate them on the frequency with which it occurs, so documentation becomes “very important.”

What CCHR can do, she said, is to refer incidents for investigation that could lead to charges being filed, recommend monetary damages for victims of certain cases, and engage the local community to educate the public on protections available to them.

Human rights

Fighting for human rights is a fact of life for Malalis. As a woman of color, a child of immigrants, a Catholic, and a queer lawyer, she belongs to multiple communities and has been exposed to varying instances of harassment and discrimination. She has herself experienced some of it.

Malalis was born in Carteret, New Jersey to Filipino parents. She and an older sister grew up in a neighborhood with lots of Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics. Her father, a chemical engineer, and her mother, a doctor, came to the U.S. in the late 1960s, a generation then known as the “Asian Brain Drain.”

“There was some shortage of doctors and engineers at the time, when all these professionals in the sciences, whether they’re from the Philippines or other Asian countries, came to the States. Growing up I remember in college talking to Filipinos and other Asian Americans and how our parents were part of that pathway,” she recalled in an interview with The FilAm.

She went to a Catholic school in Carteret from kindergarten to middle school. For high school, she attended a private school in Edison, a nearby town. In 2001, she earned her law degree from the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, after her undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies from Yale University.

Coming out at 16

Telling her parents she was queer was a moment she remembers very well. “I came out to my parents when I was 16.”

“If you look back to what kind of year that was,” she paused briefly, “it’s a different time now than it was then for a child of 16 coming out.”

With parents Conrado M. Malalis from Manila, and
Dr. Carmelita P. Malalis from Tarlac province. ‘Faith and family are important.’ 
The family marches at the 2019 Gay Pride parade. At the time, her daughters were 6 and 9 years old.

She has always relied on family and her faith to get through how society has stigmatized lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex communities as being “different.”  She remains, she said, steadfast in her devotion to the Virgin Mary, specifically to Our Lady of Fatima. In fact, her family continues to honor the tradition of passing the blue-and-white robed Fatima statue from one Filipino household to another.

“I’ve often talked about the complexities of being Catholic and also being a lesbian, as folks have wondered, how does that work?” She said religion has made her into a well-grounded person and her spirituality led her to embrace human rights. “My parents stressed that helping the most vulnerable people in communities was central to our faith.”

“I often credit my parents’ deep love for me as a reason I can believe in the enduring power of love to change hearts and minds. Something I do associate with being Filipino and being Catholic, though it’s not exclusive to Filipinos or Catholics of course, is their enduring love for me as their child. When I was child, my parents grounded our faith in love and helping other people who are less fortunate. For example, as my life exposed them to a different model of family, I don’t think that they had any experience to base their reactions to it or talk about it. It was really challenging for them, but we’ve worked through it and they let their love for me lead the way,” she said.

She and her spouse, a financial services executive of Ethiopian descent, are raising two biracial daughters ages 10 and 7. Both Malalis and her wife hope to raise their daughters with an “enduring sense of self-esteem and confidence.”  

Malalis was appointed to the Commission on Human Rights by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014.  She brings more than a decade of experience, from her clerkship for Judge Ronald Ellis of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,  as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and as a partner at Outten & Golden LLP, where she represented employees in negotiations and litigations involving claims of sexual harassment, and discrimination based on race, gender identity, age, disability, and religion. She co-founded and co-chaired the firm’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Workplace Rights Practice Group and co-chaired its Disability and Family Responsibilities Discrimination Practice Group. 

She believes her mandate as the Chair and Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights is more important now that it has ever been. She said, “Right now, where there has been an uptick of discrimination and harassment, I’m in a position to address it, to speak about it, to let fellow Asian Americans know we see them and we’re standing with them, and we are working to combat it.”

(C) The FilAm 2020

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