How Asian Americans are fighting against coronavirus racism
Young people are speaking out about how hate is impacting their communities and overall well-being in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
June Kitahara and Sarah Dinh.
“After watching videos of random, innocent Asian Americans being attacked due to the rise of the coronavirus and the rise of xenophobia, I’ve learned to be scared of who I am,” William Diep says straight-to-camera in a video testimonial he posted to Instagram in March. The 16-year-old recorded the short clip in hopes it would bring attention to the racism harming Asian Americans around the country. He is inviting young people to join him as part of the Virus: Racism campaign, a student-led initiative he started to unite his peers in the fight against bigotry.
Like Diep, many young Asian Americans around the country are struggling with the growing harassment and violence that has followed the spread of COVID-19. After the outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China in mid-December, Asians quickly became the target of misplaced anger and blame, which has resulted in harassment and violent physical attacks from New York City to Los Angeles -- adding another layer of fear to the already disrupted lives of young people.
“I have to constantly be aware of my surroundings and understand that I am vulnerable to the stigma against my community,” Diep, who is Vietnamese American, told i-D. “I don't know if I will be the next person to be punched on my way to the supermarket to pick up a package of eggs.”
Since mid-March, 1,400 Asian Americans have reported instances of hate crimes to the online reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate developed by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action. “The discrimination ranges from verbal harassment to workplace discrimination and physical assault,” Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, and the lead researcher on Stop AAPI Hate explained over email. “In a large percent of the cases, people spit and cough at Asian Americans, which can constitute a hate crime and public health threat.”
After Sarah Dinh, a 27-year-old medical student from Portland, shared the story of how two teenage girls covered their nose and mouth with their sweatshirts specifically when they walked by her at the grocery store on Instagram, a number of her followers responded with similar experiences.
“I was angry and heartbroken when so many of my Asian friends also shared their experiences with me,” said Dinh, who is Vietnamese. “Some were far worse... some individuals got told to ‘go die’ or ‘go back to where you came from and keep your coronavirus to yourself.’”
Anti-Asian racism has also resulted in extreme violence around the US. Earlier this month a woman in Brooklyn was attacked with acid outside her home, in what is believed to be a hate crime. And last month, a Burmese-American family of three was stabbed because the perpetrator thought they looked Chinese. And the FBI predicts these hate crimes will continue to increase.
“It is absurd how we became more divided during an unprecedented time where we were supposed to come together,” said Rachel Huang, a 17-year-old student and Chinese-American from Flushing, New York, who added that she feels like she has a target on her back. “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. Why should we?”
Just a few weeks after the first confirmed case of coronavirus hit the US, 19-year-old Barnard student June Kitahara got an email from her university about a racist message targeting Asian students that had been scrawled across a blackboard in the school’s library on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “Wuhan virus isolation area, keep out,” it read in white chalk, according to a photo of the incident shared on Instagram.
“At the same time that I saw a video of a group of men in New York City attacking an Asian woman and calling her a ‘diseased bitch,’ I received that email from my college,” Kitahara, a New York native and Japanese American, told i-D. “The rapid speed at which these attacks and incidents kept occurring was psychologically jarring… there was a surge of racists attacks surfacing both on the internet and around me.”
With hate crimes making headlines and viral videos of attacks against Asian Americans being shared across social media, it’s been hard to escape the looming threat of violence and harassment, even in quarantine. It also didn’t help that President Donald Trump and his senior officials, until recently, referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” despite the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that the phrase could fuel xenophobia and discrimimation against Asians. The non-stop threat of harassment has created fear around essential tasks like going to the grocery store.
“I am usually not a paranoid person. However, I have never been so terrified of wearing a mask in my life,” explained Kitahara, who lives in Brooklyn. “A mask feels like an object that justifies the harassment that I am about to experience. If I wear a mask to go outside for groceries, I pair it with sunglasses and a hoodie to erase any markers of my East Asian identity.”
While Asian Americans around the country are dealing with a harsh new reality, those like 31-year-old Pintrill co-founder Andrew Yung, are disappointed that some in the Asian community haven’t been willing to speak out about racial injustice until it happened to them.
“I think this is a wake up call to many Asian people who are only now realizing that we are targets of racism in this country,” explained 31-year-old Andrew Yung, a Chinese Canadian living in New York. “It took unfettered and indiscriminate violence against Asian-looking people for this to happen, not just violence that happens regularly to more vulnerable Asian communities.”
The Asian American community in the US spans more than dozens of diverse ethnic groups, and Chinese Americans aren’t the only people who have been victims of coronavirus-inspired hate crimes. According to a report published by Stop AAPI Hate in March, 61 percent of victims of anti-Asian hate crimes weren’t even from China. But as we move forward, it's imperative that the fight against racism advocates for all communities of color and continues after the COVID-19 crisis.
“We need to recognize that this issue isn't an Asian-American one, but an American one,” Professor Jeung said. “Asian Americans are rallying with other communities of color who are similarly racially profiled as threats and outsiders.”
Young Asians around the country hope that despite the hardships they are facing, this is an opportunity for their community to unite and to build stronger bonds with fellow communities of color. During quarantine, civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Unidos US and the National Congress of American Indians have denounced racism against Asians, while young people of all races have expressed solidarity with hashtags like #RacismIsaVirus on social media.
“When we unite people of color together, then we get to recognize that all of our issues stem from the same root,” said Diep. “When we look at the struggles individuals from different races go through, we get to understand that we all have faced the same issues of racism and prejudice, just in different forms.”