In this comprehensive perspective piece, Eddie Wong, former executive director of NAATA/Center for Asian American Media and current editor of Eastwind Zine, provides reporting and analysis of the upsurge in hate during the Covid crisis, reflects on the experience of racism by the Asian American community, and then provides a guide for both response and prevention, from bystander intervention training and a quick guide on self defense, to resources for community-based action. This post first appeared at the EastWind Zine and is reprinted here with permission.
By Eddie Wong
By now, most of you reading this article have either been confronted with anti-Asian hate, know of someone who has been racially taunted, or read about it and seen it via social media. To date, #StopAAPIHate has reported 1,400 incidents with 68% of the incidents directed against Asian American women. Verbal harassment was involved in over 70% of the incidents with the 10% in the physical assault category with the remainder being online hate, vandalism, coughed and spat upon, and shunning.
These in-person attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. Al Jazeera news reported that 72,000 posts were tagged “Wuhan Virus” on Instagram and 10,000 posts on Twitter featured tags such as “Kung Flu.” (More on anti-Asian and anti-Semitic hate on social media can be found here Pushing Back Against Anti-Asian Hate and Anti-Semitism.)
The majority of attacks on Asian Pacific Americans (APA) has occurred in cities which are racially diverse and where sizeable APA populations have resided for a long time. I have not come across a statistical breakdown of the perpetrators, but the incidents posted on Facebook and in the news involve people of diverse nationalities and ages.
Many scholars and writers have addressed the historical roots of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian campaigns, e.g. Helen Zia (Fighting the Pandemic of Bigotry and Racism); William Wong (Anti-Chinese, Anti-Asian Racism: Unsurprising, Shocking, infuriating) and Li Zhou (Anti-Asian Racism and Coronavirus). These articles set the context for the deep-rooted prejudice against Chinese Americans and Asian Americans that emerges now as fearful people vent their anger by scapegoating anyone who looks Chinese. The historical precedents for the escalation of racial or ethnic invective to violence are numerous. In 1858, a mob burned down a quarantine hospital on Staten Island because they blamed Irish immigrants for causing a yellow fever outbreak. Jewish villages were burned in Europe during the 14th century as the Bubonic Plague ravaged the continent. Barbed wire barriers were erected around San Francisco Chinatown for nearly four months in 1900 as Chinese were blamed for an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.
Chinese and Asians are being singled out despite the fact that the majority of Covid-19 cases in New York, the hardest hit area, came from Europe with Italy being the nation with the highest rate of fatality outside of China. Yet as historian Erika Lee pointed out on the NPR show Code Switch: "I doubt that we’re going to see the same types of exclusions or informal acts of discrimination targeting Italians or Italian restaurants or Italian communities in the same way that we’re seeing this with China."
This is Asian Pacific America’s “What The F--k” moment when the “model minority” returned to being the “yellow peril.” Both labels, of course, are racist distortions – the former used to uphold APAs as the “good, obedient” minority vs other people of color and the latter a throwback to the sinister, diseased pariah. The onslaught of racial hostility and violence in the form of vandalism and intimidation has caught some APAs by surprise.
"I grew up in another era, in the 1950s and 1960s, when being taunted and bullied were just part of living in racially segregated Los Angeles."
— Eddie Wong
I learned quickly that I could not fight all the bullies, so I made as many friends as possible including Eddie Malin, the best brawler in the school. I still got called names but I knew friends would back me up. Now a whole new generation of APAs, who grew up in a “Boba bubble,” have come to realize that education or economic achievement does not matter – your Asian appearance is all it takes to trigger racist wrath.
There are two reasons why the hate and fear of Asians will persist and possibly grow in severity: First, the fear and anxiety spawned by the Covid-19 pandemic will not go away quickly. Scientists caution that it may take 18 months to find and test a vaccine, so APAs as well as people of Asian descent in many parts of the world can expect be scapegoated. As anti-Asian hate incidents and assaults continue around the world, the news both amplifies concern but also emboldens the haters and mentally deranged to act.
Second, the Trump re-election campaign rests upon rallying fearful people around a “strong leader” who will fight against “enemies,” which in this case refers to China as the cause of the virus and by extension Chinese Americans and everyone who looks like us. China and the Covid-19 are the new “invaders” just as Latino migrants whom Trump characterized as “rapists, murderers, the worst people” were in the 2016 election.
Joe Biden’s recent campaign ad, which attempts to beat back Trump’s claim that Biden is “soft on China,” unintentionally fosters anti-China and anti-Chinese bias with the line that Trump “let in 40,000 travelers from China.” The implication can be drawn that these visitors carried the coronavirus. By playing into the sinister image of Chinese, the Biden ad is only going to endanger Asian Pacific Americans. I hope Biden modulates his message and listens to the many APA community advocates who have criticized his approach.
Placing blame on China is a full-time obsession with Trump and the right and includes bogus claims that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese lab. Republican Attorney Generals in Missouri and Mississippi have announced plans for lawsuit against China to sue for damages caused in the wake of the pandemic. The "blame China" message only reinforces people’s prejudices and emboldens some of them to express their anger through violence. The drumbeat will grow louder as the approach the Nov. election and we need to resist their distorted, hateful message with an alternative narrative that shows that the only path forward is to find a vaccine through international cooperation. I have more to say about this narrative, but first we need to address some immediate strategies to survive widespread racial attacks on APAs.
Protecting Ourselves Against Racist and Xenophobic Attacks
Reading some of the stories found at Stand Against Hatred invokes a visceral reaction: muscles tense up, one’s heart rate accelerates, and a mixture of sadness and anger seeps into your core. The verbal abuse is vile and disgusting, but the physical attacks are just bone chilling like something out of a horror film, i.e. acid being thrown in the face of an Asian women while she was taking out the garbage in Brooklyn, NY, and a Burmese man and two children slashed by a knife-wielding attacker in Midland, TX.
This posting from the Asian Americans Advancing Justice website reveals the toll taken when a hater launches an attack.
"I am sharing my story hoping you could help Asians stay alert. I never imagined it actually happens to me. I was wrong. I was about to go outside of the building where I reside (and) there were three men passing by. One of the men…yelled “Corona” at me. They walked on. Then after two seconds, the same men came back and yelled louder at me again, 'Coronavirus! Coronavirus everywhere!'
I was so frightened that I felt frozen. I could not even think of running back inside the gate, just stood there…It happened right in front of my condominium building in a quiet residential area. I am now scared of going anywhere."
Florida high-school student Katherine Oung produced this short video that warns of the bullying and racial animus that will likely occur when schools open up perhaps in the fall. She points out how important it is for teachers and fellow students to speak up and reject this hateful behavior.
It’s unfortunately clear that this is the new norm for Asian Pacific Americans. We have to gird ourselves to face racial harassment without any guarantees that bystanders will support us. We have to prepare for any number of scenarios that range from being spat upon, cursed out, possibly beaten, and god forbid, murdered. There’s no question about what we have to do. We will not be intimidated. We must protect ourselves.
Although any APA may face harassment, it’s no accident that APA females are singled out. There’s a longstanding stereotype of Asian women as docile, weak and subservient. Asian women are also denigrated as “prostitutes” and “geisha” through decades of racist portrayals in plays, movies, and television shows. Racists, angry people, and the mentally unstable think it’s easy pickings to go after APA females which places a huge burden on APA women to prepare themselves psychologically and physically to repel these attacks. But before we go into the need for self-defense for all APAs, let’s look at how to tackle name calling, the most common form of aggression from haters.
Psychologist Kevin L. Nadal noted a three-step process when reacting to situations where people make racist, sexist, or homophobic comments his CUNY Forum 2014 talk “Responding to Microaggressions.” The hate that APAs currently experience go far beyond comments, but his points still provide a framework to formulate a response. Nadal, a gay Filipino American who grew up in Fremont, CA, has written extensively about LGBTQ discrimination and racial discrimination – see his writing at KevinNadal.com.
He noted that people often ask first: “Did this microaggression really occur? Even in the case of blatant racist taunts as have been reported to #StopAAPIHate, people often are stunned and second guess themselves, i.e. “Did I really hear what I just heard?” It’s a moment of shock. But i it’s usually followed up with aggressive shouts, finger pointing and obscenities. It’s clear – this is a racial hate incident, which is reportable, but not a crime until they actually assault you.
Nadal poses the second question, “Should I respond?” Nadal then walks us through a set of further questions:
If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?
If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?
If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., coworker, family member, etc.)
If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?
If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?
Question #3 really doesn’t apply in this scenario because these encounters are usually with strangers. But all the other questions require some quick thinking based on the circumstances you face. Each encounter is different, and one cannot predict what will happen. First and foremost, try to stay calm, take a deep breath, and think of ways to be safe. If the aggressor is larger than you and acting belligerently, perhaps the best strategy is to avoid any confrontation and get away from the situation so that you can report it later.
Nadal noted other reactions:
Second, victims can react in a proactive way…. Sometimes individuals who experience microaggressions regularly may feel so agitated that they just want to yell back. For some individuals, an active response may be a therapeutic way of releasing years of accumulated anger and frustration.
Finally, an individual may act in an assertive way. This may include calmly addressing the perpetrator about how it made him or her feel. This may consist of educating the perpetrators, describing what was offensive about the microaggression. Oftentimes the perpetrator will become defensive, which may lead to further microaggressions (particularly microinvalidations). It may be important to use “I” statements (e.g., “I felt hurt when you said that.”), instead of attacking statements (e.g., “You’re a racist!”).
It also may be important to address the behavior and not the perpetrator. What this means is that instead of calling the perpetrator “a racist,” it might be best to say that the behavior he or she engaged in was racially charged and offensive. People don’t like being called a racist, sexist or homophobe, so if you want to have an effective dialogue with a person without being defensive, it may be best to avoid using such language.
Each of us is going to have to play out some scenarios in our heads. There is no right answer. Expressing disapproval by saying “Stop, you’re making me uncomfortable and I want you to leave me alone,” and moving quickly away might be a good default position. And there will be situations like being on a bus or train and not being able to leave. If other people are on the bus or train, say “This man/woman is harassing me. Please tell them to stop.”
Hollaback!, a non-profit started by a seven-member support group (four women and three men) around issues of women, LGBTQ, and individual harassment in 2005, holds bystander training workshops, sexual harassment training, de-escalation training, resilience training, and digital safety training. I’ll summarize key points in their bystander training but you can also view the entire presentation: Hollaback – Bystander Resources.
The 5 Ds of Bystander Intervention
Distract – Take an indirect approach to de-escalate the situation.
Delegate – Get help from someone else.
Delay – After the incident is over, check in with the person who was harassed.
Direct – Assess your safety first. Speak up about the harassment. Be firm and clear. Say: “That’s inappropriate. Leave them alone.” You can also talk with the person being harassed about what’s going on. Ask: “Are you okay? Should I get help? Should we get out of here?”
Document — Keep a safe distance, but document the date, time, place, and nature of the incident.
Standing by silently next to the person who is being harassed is another way to show support. Just the show of solidarity can make the person being harassed feel less afraid and lets the attacker know that someone is witnessing this hate incident.
There is no doubt that the near future will be difficult on many levels for Asian Pacific Americans, along with everyone else. There are universal concerns about restarting the economy, recovering lost jobs and businesses, and rebuilding our health care system plus resuming the education of our youth. In addition, APAs will undergo what African American families have had to do for decades – prepare ourselves for blatant racial hostility and discrimination. Just as African American parents have “the talk” about how to safely negotiate encounters with the police, APA families will need to talk with family members about watching out for one another in public, dealing with the trauma of being racially harassed, and learning self-defense techniques to ward off physical attacks. We will need to train ourselves on how to be resilient and ward off the toxicity of ever-present racial hostility.
A few months ago, most APAs never worried about being out in public.
Now, we have to learn some basic self-defense as a matter of survival. In the 1980s and 1990s, the women’s movement advocated training women to protect themselves against sexual assault by learning to block, grab, punch, jab, if one is not able to run away from the attacker. Today, empowerment self-defense classes emphasize situational awareness, verbal assertiveness and physical boundary setting, de-escalation training, and personal safety techniques. This video from ImpactBayArea demonstrates the range of techniques that can be used against an attacker.
My friend, Alex Hing, a Tai Chi instructor in New York City, offers these additional insights:
"One of the most important things in the martial arts, and in yoga, is our root, our stance, our pose. We train ourselves to hold a still posture by not moving for several minutes, not just to strengthen our bodies, but mainly to train our minds that our physical space is controlled only by us and this includes the space at our back. If our physical space is invaded, our defenses are down for we should have been aware of a threat long before it entered our reach. This is not the same thing as fear. If we are aware of a threat before it is upon us, we can divert it before it becomes a problem. The thing is to radiate calm coming from the self-assuredness based on stance training. The fight has actually already begun and you have already died, which means you have no ego.
I recommend training by choosing a neutral looking standing posture and holding it for at least three minutes with most of your weight on one leg. You will be surprised how a direct calm looking gaze into the eyes of an oncoming threat can diffuse an attack. Your gaze should reach inside and seize his heart.
The next thing is to not listen to anything that is being said to you; the conflict is not on a verbal level, there is no reasoning. A fight is conflict resolution, not listening means not getting involved emotionally but rather looking for a path out of the situation. If a solution appears, you should speak without emotion, but each word should be the equivalent of a punch: “I am not your enemy. You don’t want to make me one.” At this time, if you can retreat, do so.
If you are attacked violently, you should train in no more than three techniques that you can use reliably. Most women are strangled from behind. The thing is to always be aware of covering your back. If a strangle happens, immediately turn your chin into the crook of his elbow and drop it down, so you can breathe using your hands on his arms to maneuver. Only one problem at a time. When you can breathe, use the technique that suits you.
You can deliberately put ten of your fingers to peel back one of his so that you can escape, yell and run. If you are in a tight space and the attack is frontal, use our stereotype to good effect. You can lengthen your space by spitting into his eyes and then follow up immediately stepping in with a crippling foot stomp to the bony arch at the top of his foot, or with the outside edge of your shoe to sever the tendons of his foot in front of the ankle (or both at once). Yell and run.
If there is more than one attacker, quickly gain your composure and look directly into the eyes of the closest one being ready to use whatever technique you trained for, usually a punch to his eye."
At the root of Alex’s suggestions is preparing yourself mentally and physically to handle the challenge of being attacked. We’ve become used to getting personal trainers for all types of skills acquisition. Now, we need to add self-defense trainer to the list. Find a reputable instructor and learn and practice the three techniques best suited to you.
We also need to prepare for worst case scenarios. Community organizations, civic groups, and churches will need to be vigilant about public gatherings in case deranged, violent white supremacists and other sick people decide to commit mass murder. Sadly, recent history provides ample proof of white supremacists like Dylann Roof, who went from posting about inciting a race war to murdering nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on July 15, 2015. Robert Bowers, an anti-Semite, went from ranting against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on Gab (a far right, neo-Nazi website) for supporting the caravan of Central American migrants to killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA on October 27, 2018. Many churches and synagogues have posted armed security guards to deter potential attackers.
Why Fear Leads to Hate
We know that racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and many other forms of hatred for “the other” has existed for a long time.
Indeed, humans are hard-wired to react to the unfamiliar with a “fear reflex” located in the brain’s amygdala region. Tribalism or in-group identity provided safety for the first humans. Journalist Tom Oliver in his article “Why overcoming racism is essential for humanity’s survival” (BBC Future, April 15, 2020) said “Tribalism feels visceral and natural.” Oliver also referenced the work of cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand who pointed out that “environmental shocks or crises cause societies to become ‘tighter’ where in-group identity becomes stronger.”
Although fear is triggered by visual cues to what is unknown or known to be dangerous, e.g. snakes, our brain also use the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to modulate the fear reflex with information that we have learned from others to shape our attitudes and behaviors. The mPFC is also where the brain processes empathy, but this doesn’t always happen. A person’s prejudices minimalizes the mPFC and this leads to dehumanization and objectification.
Nurturing can have an impact over nature. A scientific study reported in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Dec. 12, 2012) addressed how the mPFC is shaped by social context. Children who were exposed to African Americans in early childhood or adolescence had low amygdala responses (lower fear reflex) when pictures of African Americans were shown to them.
What happens when there isn’t any training to respect people who are different from you? The fallback is raw emotion and emotions are patterns of neural firings called semantic pointers according to Paul Thagard in the article “How Fear Leads to Anger,” Psychology Today, Nov. 9, 2019. One “feels anger at people you are fearful of and words like 'illegal' make people feel disgust and anger at immigrants.” This is why anti-bias training and teaching respect for all people is so crucial.
Racist intolerance also came into play in China as Africans in Guangdong province were evicted from their homes and hotels on the false accusation of harboring the virus and subjected to mandatory testing despite not having any signs of illness. The official Chinese line is that there is no discrimination in China which is farcical in light of images of Africans being denied access to restaurants and living under bridges in Guangzhou because they were locked out of their homes. Tribalism and nationalism can lead to racial discrimination and must be condemned wherever it arises. The messages promoted by governmental and civic leaders will make a huge difference on how we process our ongoing fears and anxieties.
Hard at work in shaping our future are white supremacists and white Christian nationalists. Sustained by powerful, wealthy individuals and promoted by right wing media and religious institutions, they are able to grow in times of crisis. The Patriotic Front, a racist and anti-Semitic group founded in Texas after the 2016 Charlottesville alt-right rally, plastered stickers reading “America First” and “Better Dead than Red” outside Asian American and Chinese American businesses in Seattle’s International District on April 12. The group also left hateful messages against immigrants and people of color western Washington and Boston in 2019.
These blocs of hard-core haters are in an entirely different league than the average individual hater. They are an armed, para-military force with ties in law enforcement and local government. Their goal is to foment civil unrest as a precursor to attaining political power. They are domestic terrorists who should be closely monitored and suppressed. Some of these groups are active participants in the recent protests against stay-at-home orders with neo-Nazi banners disgustingly on display.
Much of what we see in cases of anti-Asian hate are bigots and racially prejudiced folks hyped up by right wing media and Trump. Much of what they say, “Go back to where you belong, go back to China,” convey their belief that the US should be a white country. Thus, they also harbor anti-immigrant views that direct hate towards Latinos, Africans, Arab people, Asians and other non-white migrants. In April, Trump retweeted Turning Point USA leader Charlie Kirk’s message: “Now more than ever, we need the wall. With China Virus spreading across the globe, the US stands a chance if we can control our borders.” Trump’s new executive order places a hold on permanent residency applicants for 60 days with an option to extend the ban. The long-sought goal of limiting legal immigration appears to be underway under the pretext of the Covid-19 crisis.
Armed protesters of Michigan Gov. Witmer’s stay-at-home orders. Photo from Washington Times.
Another contributor to hate is rising negativity towards China and by extension to Chinese Americans. A March 2020 Pew Research Center poll of 1,000 people showed that 66% of those polled had a negative view of China compared to just 47% of those polled in 2017. When broken out by political party affiliation, 62% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans rated China negatively. Many of these people probably don’t consider themselves racists or xenophobes, but they see China as a “major threat” to the US, a sentiment that is directly related to the pandemic. The fact that Chinese scientists are working with scientists from around the world to develop a vaccine against Covid-19 doesn’t seem to enter into their assessment. Such is the power of labelling the pandemic a “China Virus.”
The racists and xenophobes fix the blame on “bat eating Chinese infecting the world with their filthy practices.” Yes, the coronavirus outbreak began in China, probably due to traffickers who handled bats and pangolins which carried the virus. Inspections of the Wuhan market did not reveal any evidence of Covid-19. China was the location of the virus but it is certainly not a “China virus” any more than swine flu in 2009 that affected up to 1.4 billion people was a “Mexican virus” even though a center of infection was Veracruz, Mexico, along with pig farms in Texas and California. Virus get transmitted from animals to humans all over the world. The World Health Organization specifically named this new virus Covid-19 (Coronavirus, 2019) to avoid stigmatization of people or regions. In 2017, 40 people were sickened with H3N2V, a flu strain from pigs, at an agricultural show at the Charles, Frederick and Anne Arundel Fairs in Maryland. No one called this flu the “Maryland Flu.” It is quite likely that other animal to human transactions occur as humans intrude in areas once inhabited exclusively by wildlife.
Granted that there may be other factors in people’s mistrust of China and its handling of the coronavirus, e.g. silencing its whistleblowers and critics, but the nature of the pandemic goes far beyond China. There’s very little outrage over Italy’s initial lackadaisical approach to the spread of Covid-19. All the criticism is laid at China’s feet which conveniently pushes long-instilled prejudices against Chinese people.
Trying to set the record straight or educating someone about the inappropriateness of using the term “China Virus” is just not going work when someone is hurling racial slurs at you. So, if you choose to counter this misinformation, you do so for the benefit of others who are nearby. Just be safe and use your judgement about when and where to argue your case.
Promoting A Counter-Narrative of Cooperation vs Division
We urgently need to develop and promote a counter narrative to the nationalist/close the borders/blame China madness. Trump’s inept handling of the crisis is well-documented, and it is clear that his fear mongering intends to create enemies that he (the strong leader) alone can vanquish. While Trump seeks to divert attention away with the nutso, homicidal recommendation to ingest disinfectant, we must provide sober analysis based on science and facts. We need to promote an honest assessment of how we can emerge from this pandemic. Only by addressing people’s fears and anxieties with the truth can we win their trust.
Writers, scientists, doctors, artists and progressive leaders are all focusing on the need for mutual support at home and international cooperation to develop treatment plans and a vaccine. By telling people the truth that it will take up to 18 months or longer to find a way to dampen the spread of Covid-19, we avoid raising false hope for an early reopening of society that will endanger all of us. By focusing on the need for massive public investment to sustain people economically and spiritually during these difficult times, we give people concrete solutions and realistic expectations.
Let’s take our lead from the hard-working doctors, nurses, and support staff struggling to save lives despite inadequate protection and equipment. Let’s promote the doctors and scientists who are cooperating internationally to find ways to stop the pandemic. Here are a few developments that need to be publicized more:
Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequencing code of Covid-19 to the world scientific community on January 10, 2020. This has enabled the design of diagnostic kits all over the world and provided the basic research scientists need to develop a vaccine.
Harvard University doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital are working in conjunction with peers at Xijing Hospital and two other hospitals in northern Italy on the use of nitricoxide to treat coronavirus patients.
The World Health Organization is organizing weekly conference calls among Covid-19 researchers and scientists all over the world are sharing new findings via MedRxiv and bioRxiv.
BioNTech, a German company, is working with Pfizer, an American-owned multi-national corporation, and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical on developing four vaccines that will be undergo human trials with 200 subjects in May.
Vaccine development is also underway in the US via Moderna and in China at the Academy of Military Medical Science and via the biotech firm CanSinoBio.
Vaccine testing will be underway in June in the United Kingdom at the University of Oxford and at London’s Imperial University.
Even the materials used to conduct the testing needed before we can be safely released from shelter-in-place comes from different countries. Copan, the supplier of swabs used in nasopharyngeal samples, is based in northern Italy and reagents used to extract virus RNA from collected cells are produced by Qiagen, a German company. The world’s largest manufacturers of ventilators are in the US and Holland. The scale of production needed will require international financing and coordinated distribution if we are ever to beat back this pandemic.
Asian Pacific American Communities Rising to the Challenge
Perhaps the best rebuke to the haters who want APAs to “go back to where you belong,” is to do exactly that – work in our cities and towns to provide frontline medical workers with the equipment they need to be safe while trying to save lives. To the haters, we say, “Shut the f--k up” and “Quit wasting my time” because there are people who need help in our communities. Many individuals and groups among APA communities are countering fear and division by sharing resources built through personal and business ties in China to bring much needed medical supplies to under-resourced US hospitals. Chinese Americans Responding to Epidemics (CARE) has raised funds to secure 20,000 face masks, 10,000 gloves, and other pieces of protective gear and donated them to the Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara, CA. Ten Chinese university alumni associations participated in this effort. In New York, the Coalition of Asian Americans in Private Practice, which has over 1,000 members, raised $250,000 to provide area hospitals with personal protective equipment. The Detroit Free Press reported on April 18, 2020 that the Michigan Chinese American Coalition to Fight Covid-19 raised $240,000 and bought 200,000 masks to donate to 55 hospitals. “We are just a group of ordinary Chinese Americans,” said Linda Shieh of Troy, Michigan. “When we saw the shortage of masks putting our doctors and nurses in danger, we stepped in to help bridge the gap. We felt it was our duty to help our community by donating masks to help protect people and save lives. We did it because we are part of the community; we have spent more than half of our lives here, and the US is our country.” Right on, Linda. I just hope the haters pause for a moment and thank the APA nurses, doctors, and support staff who will save their lives.
CARE stands in front of Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara, CA with donations of personal protective equipment. Photo from CARE Facebook page.
People are also stepping up in APA communities to provide for the most vulnerable, e.g. the elderly and laid-off workers. This short video focuses on the Los Angeles Little Tokyo Service Center, the Little Tokyo Community Council, and Keiro’s food program designed for shut-in elders and hospitality workers who have lost their jobs as area hotels and restaurants have shut down.
In San Francisco, the Chinese Progressive Association posted the following on Facebook:
#MutualAid is rooted in solidarity and liberation for our people! Yesterday, we packed 400 care bags for our SRO families in Chinatown. Each care bag holds a resources/know your rights info, masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and alcohol wipes. Big shout out to our Mutual Aid Prep Team Max, Alonzo, San, Anna and Tiffany!
Thank you AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund for the #census2020 hand sanitizers and canvas bags! And YES, we are still doing our best to ensure a complete count. Fill out your census surveys! #OCEIA
In Los Angeles, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) reported on their work via Facebook:
For the past few weeks, CCED volunteers have teamed up with the youth organization Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) to deliver over 530 care packages full of essential supplies to our community of deeply low-income residents, elders, and families in Chinatown and Lincoln Heights.
This is not charity, but mutual aid.
When our neighbors are in need, we must take care of each other. When the government neglects or fails to address the disproportionate housing and health concerns of working class immigrant communities, we fight for our demands to be heard.
COVID-19 affects everyone, but the impact on Chinatown started early and has been particularly severe on our immigrant tenants, low-wage workers, and small businesses. Gentrification, xenophobia, and quarantine measures have led to disastrous consequences for our community.
CCED is here for the long run — to build tenant power and fight for economic justice. Will you join us?
Big thanks to SEACA, API Forward Movement for their fresh produce bags, and our volunteers and donors
Follow the Chinatown Mutual Aid Fund page for updates: Chinatown L A Mutual Aid Fund
Read our Chinatown Call to Action: tinyurl.com/CalltoActionChinatownLA
Chinese Progressive Association volunteer assembles care packages for residents in the Single Resident Occupancy hotels in SF Chinatown. Photo from CPA-SF website.
These examples of community building during a time of crisis are replicated in many other APA communities including Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Houston and Atlanta. This is another way to build resilience through providing material aid.
Scaling Up Anti-Bias Campaigns to Create Institutional Change
The onslaught of anti-Asian hate will surely continue even after we emerge from stay-at-home orders and as the number of Covid-19 cases falls. Once the demons of racism and xenophobia are unleashed and encouraged by right wing leaders and media, there must be comprehensive countermeasures taken in the form of public campaigns against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. We will need to pressure for the implementation and expansion of anti-bias education among government, law enforcement, workplaces, and educational systems.
Let’s start with a look at a comprehensive framework for tackling the issue of hate. Not In Our Town (NIOT) is a movement to stop hate, racism and bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities for all. This community engagement project was founded by The Working Group in 1988 after they produced a documentary about hate crimes in Billings, MT that involved attacks on Native Americans, an African American church and a Jewish family. Filmmaker and NOIT Executive Producer Patrice O’Neill described the origins of project:
“The Billings story opened up a conversation about how we deal with hate crimes. Few states had hate crime laws back then; it was an issue that often surfaced but was not dealt with. The Billings story demonstrated that the responsibility for dealing with intolerance lies with all of us.
We first screened the film in a small California town, curious to see what happened when a community unlike Billings watched the film. There were teachers, students, rabbis, priests, and city councilmembers. When the film ended, they didn’t want to talk about Billings, they wanted to talk about their town. They wanted to talk about how people were treated in their community.”
NIOT engages as many stakeholders as possible beginning with community members and concerned residents who are asked to identify community allies, host a screening of a NIOT film, and create an action plan to address hate and intolerance in their community. Elected officials and civic leaders from all sectors including business and local media are asked to hold town hall meetings and amplify the community’s concerns. Students also play a vital role as witnesses to bias, hate and bullying and as allies to those who are targeted. Educators can create a forum for dialogue about differences and diversity. Law enforcement are charged with investigating hate incidents and providing transparency and accountability about the perpetrators. Faith leaders create opportunities for interfaith gatherings and collaborations. Using this collaborative model, NIOT has held engaged with communities in every part of the US and internationally as well.
Many cities theoretically have these networks in place ready to respond in the wake of a major hate crime, and it would be wise to activate them in anticipation of heightened levels of hostility.
NIOT workshops give communities the opportunity to plan ahead. Those workshops include the following: Safe, Inclusive Community Workshop, which develops action plans for cities and towns; Responding to Bullying, Hate and Intolerance Workshop, which is focused on amplifying student voices on campus to prevent bullying; Inclusive and Identity Safe School Workshop, which enables educators to develop a two-year plan for changing the campus culture towards diversity appreciation; and Building Empathy at Home and School, which is designed for parents and caregivers. There is currently limited online availability to the workshops during the pandemic.
Perhaps the most intense locus of possible bullying, hate, and shunning will be elementary and secondary schools. Granted coming back to the classroom will be very different most likely with students spaced apart and no assemblies, but the school yard will always be the school yard, a free fire zone for insults, taunts, and shunning. It’s going to be a very ugly time for APA youth.
There are, however, comprehensive anti-bias programs available such as Critical Practices on Anti-Bias Education created by Teaching Tolerance, which was founded in 1991 as a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Perspectives for a Diverse America is literacy-based curriculum that marries anti-bias social justice content with the rigor of the Common Core State Standards. Aimed at K-12 grades, the anti-bias framework emphasizes student-led explorations along four key concepts:
Students will develop positive social identities based on their membership in multiple groups in society.
Students will develop language and historical and cultural knowledge that arms and accurately describes their membership in multiple identity groups.
Students will recognize that peoples’ multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.
Students will express pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.
Students will recognize traits of the dominant culture, their home culture and other cultures and understand how they negotiate their own identity in multiple spaces.
Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different than them and engage respectfully with all people.
Students will develop language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including themselves) are both similar to and different than each other and others in their identity groups.
Students will respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and will exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.
Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.
Students will examine diversity in social, cultural, political and historical contexts rather than in ways that are superficial or oversimplified.
Students will recognize stereotypes and relate to people as individuals rather than representatives of groups.
Students will recognize unfairness on the individual level (e.g., biased speech) and injustice at the institutional or systemic level (e.g., discrimination).
Students will analyze the harmful impact of bias and injustice on the world, historically and today.
Students will recognize that power and privilege influence relationships on interpersonal, intergroup and institutional levels and consider how they have been affected by those dynamics.
Students will identify key figures and groups, seminal events and a variety of strategies and philosophies relevant to the history of social justice action and history around the world.
Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.
Students will recognize their own responsibility to stand up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice.
Students will speak up with courage and respect when they or someone else has been hurt or wronged by bias.
Students will make principled decisions about when and how to take a stand against bias and injustice in their everyday lives and will do so despite negative peer or group pressure.
Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.
These four key concepts work in tandem to take students from awareness to action and it will take concerted, proactive steps to ensure a safe environment for APA students and for others who are subjected to bullying and marginalization.
Over 450,000 teachers and supporters subscribe to the Teaching Tolerance magazine which comes out three times a year. It is a program that is a widely embraced across the country. Please contact your local school district to see if they are using any of the Teaching Tolerance materials, which are made available free of charge.
A similar approach is utilized by Narrative4, which uses the story exchange method where personal narratives are shared among small groups and in one-on-one discussions to develop deep listening skills, improve self-reflection and self-awareness, and encourage mutual respect. I want to thank Justine Lee, one of the founders of Make America Dinner Again for sharing how they have implemented this approach with conversations across the political divide in New York, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Houston, Arlington and other communities.
Will We Ever Overcome Racism, Xenophobia, Homophobia, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism?
Even in pre-Covid-19 times, the need to combat the various forms of discrimination and hatred was pressing especially given the level of hostility coming from the white nationalist White House towards immigrants, Latinos, LGBTQ, Muslims and South Asians and others. I won’t belabor the point about how Trump and other right-wing leaders have given permission for racists and xenophobes to vent their vile views. But now, with Covid-19, the stakes in the fight against discrimination are much higher because African Americans and Latinos are dying at a disproportionate rate. Fabiola Cineas reported in Vox:
On Wednesday (April 8, 2020), New York, deemed the country’s epicenter of coronavirus cases, finally released preliminary data of Covid-19 deaths broken down by race. With 90 percent reporting in the state, 18 percent of deaths have been black people, despite being only 9 percent of the population; in New York City, with 65 percent reporting, 28 percent of deaths have been black people, while the city’s population is 22 percent black. Hispanics have made up the highest death rates in both the state and the city, 14 percent and 34 percent respectively, despite being 11 percent of the state population and 29 percent of the city’s.
According to an NBC News report on April 7, 2020, Africans Americans in Chicago account for 70% of all fatalities while they make up 30% of the city’s population.
APM Research Lab released a report on April 24, 2020 that revealed disproportionate fatality rates for Asian Americans in several states: CA – 17.6% of deaths vs. 14.5% of the population; New Jersey – 9.7% of deaths vs 5.4% of the population; Washington – 10.3% of deaths vs 8,7% of the population; New York – 8.5% of deaths vs 6.6% of the population; GA – 4.1% of deaths vs. 1.3% of the population; TX – 4.9% of deaths vs 1.3% of the population; OH – 2.3% of deaths vs 0.3% of the population; and AL – 22.2% of deaths vs. 6.3% of the population.
Many experts have cited factors such as the following for the higher death rates:
Many low-income people of color are more exposed to Covid-19 because they have jobs that cannot be done remotely from home.
Many people of color suffer from conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Some of these illnesses are related to living with the stresses exacted by racial discrimination and living in areas affected by environmental pollution.
There has been historic inequality in the access and delivery of health care services to low-income communities of color.
We know from past experience that the New Deal economic revival programs in response to the Great Depression left out African Americans and Latinos. Similarly, African Americans could not use the GI Bill’s low-interest mortgage since it did not challenge the racially discriminatory practices of the banking industry. Today, the $2 trillion CARES economic stimulus package does not included people who are here without documents even though they pay taxes and are performing essential work such as harvesting crops and working in hospitals, grocery stores and delivery services. These forms of discrimination and exclusion are every bit as pernicious as hate incidents.
Still, the task of dismantling discriminatory practices rooted in “othering” and replacing those systems of oppression with a concept of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community” must go forward. Perhaps it is overly optimistic to believe that the key lesson from the pandemic that no one is safe until all of us are safe will extend to acceptance of equality and the common good. All of us or none of us is literally the only way forward because the epidemic will not end until all who are sick are treated and can no longer infect others. We haven’t even begun to realize monumental implications of this task given the possible rapid spread of Covid-19 in impoverished nations across the world.
One hopes that these lessons of international cooperation among the scientific community and the compassion neighbors show to neighbors down the block set us on a new path. But for that to happen, we need to unpack the baggage that we carry in terms of exclusion vs inclusion. Rachel Godsil, co-founder of the Perception Project and law professor at Rutgers University, tackles the issues that must be addressed prior to any meaningful dismantling of racism. I’ve hotlinked her masterful paper "Breaking The Cycle: Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety and Stereotype Threat" which was published in the January/February issue of Poverty and Race. One section of her paper targets implicit basis as a roadblock to progress:
…as john powell and I argued in these pages in 2011 (“Implicit Bias Insights as Preconditions to Structural Change,” Poverty & Race, Sept./Oct. 2011), there are two key reasons why structural racism cannot be successfully challenged without an understanding of how race operates psychologically. First, public policy choices are often affected by implicit bias or other racialized phenomena that operate implicitly. As a result, the changes in policy necessary to address institutional structures are dependent upon successfully addressing implicit biases that can affect political choices. Second, institutional operations invariably involve human behavior and interaction: Any policies to address racial inequities in schools, workplaces, police departments, courthouses, government offices and the like will only be successful if the people implementing the policy changes comply with them (Crosby & Monin, 2007).
Since institutional change is a long-term proposition, what can we do now? Godsil’s paper prescribes the following steps to “break the prejudice habit” – Stereotype replacement, i.e. identifying a biased response and replacing it with an unbiased response; Counter-stereotypic imaging, i.e. recognizing individuation; Perspective-taking, i.e. placing oneself in the shoes of a member of a stereotyped group to ameliorate group based bias; Increasing opportunities for contact, i.e. get outside of your own circle and experience life as lived by other groups. This type of retraining enables people to make better decisions and defuse racially charged situations. Thus, the City and County of San Francisco’s Human Resources department implemented “unconscious bias” training sessions for all city employees starting with the police department.
Behavioral modification, which is part of dismantling racism and xenophobia, also draws upon neuroscience for tips. Tom Oliver in the BBC Future post, “Why overcoming racism is essential for humanity’s survival,” points out the need to rewire the brain to reinforce neural networks that reinforce compassion. He observed that people who enjoy being in nature are more open to issues of sustainability and transformation. We’ve all experienced the peace and calm that being in nature can bring and it subconsciously puts us in a better place. Similarly, Oliver advocates meditation which reduces the mind’s default mode of “mind wandering” which correlates to unhappiness and self-referential processing. Meditation, Oliver argues, deactivates this mode and leads the mind to focus on the immediate experience and acceptance rather than dwelling upon the past which sets off stressful stimuli of anxiety and depression.
Being in lockdown mode certainly gives us time to meditate, practice yoga, tai chi, qi gong and other forms of reflection and exercise that will help us not only ameliorate the ever-present anxiety and dread but place us in a stronger position to open our minds all the hurtful “isms” that afflict our society.
Our hopes for a better future lies in believing that even the worst bigot can change through their interaction and reflection of past and present realities. Here’s a CBS News video that recounts the story of how one man overcame his racist views of African Americans.
I’ll end this long piece (thanks for being patient and hopefully reading all of it) with the words of john a. powell, a legal scholar and director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC-Berkeley. In his keynote address at 2017’s Othering and Belonging conference, powell finds the unity in the contradiction between oppression and liberation:
As the Right has long hijacked racial anxieties to define a widespread yet exclusionary notion of “we the people”—a deeply ontological analysis of who actually belongs, and one that has both economic and political repercussions—the Left must also respond with its own version of “we” and of “people.” The Circle of Human Concern must be expansive enough for all of us, even those who hold deeply opposing viewpoints and life experiences.
The Circle of Human Concern should include everyone, including those with whom we disagree. We are all a part of each other. We don’t like it, but we’re connected.
When we connect with someone, we complete a narrative. We tell a story and we suffer together.
The entire 25-minute presentation is extremely thought provoking and timely. It’s well worth your time to reflect on john a. powell’s analysis of othering and belonging.
If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, here’s john a. powell keynote address ppt at Othering and Belonging Conference 2017.
If you would like to fully explore the concept of “othering and belonging,” please read the essay The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging.
john a. powell’s point resonates deeply with me. Although the racist and bigot hates me, I have no need to hate them. I would prefer that he/she/they/them not racially harass me, but I have no control over them. I wasn’t around them when their parents or friends instilled the hateful ideas that led them to dehumanize me. I do, however, have the power to decide how to deal with the situation. I can certainly yell, “shut up, you f--king racist,” but that won’t change them and since I don’t intend to kill them, I can only choose to move forward and find ways we can live together and hopefully resolve these fundamental differences. In end, we have no other choice but to co-exist and in light of the pandemic we are bound together now more than ever.
Author’s bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind Ezine.
Cover Photo: Seattle’s International District defaced with white supremacist stickers on April 12.