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How to fight anti-Asian hate during the era of COVID-19

Thomas Kim  Chief Legal Officer & Company Secretary / Thomson Reuters

· 7 minute read

Thomas Kim  Chief Legal Officer & Company Secretary / Thomson Reuters

· 7 minute read

This past May, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.” Human Rights Watch reports that a coalition of Asian Pacific American (APA) groups has created a helpline called STOP AAPI HATE that has received almost 1,500 reports of incidents of racism, hate speech, discrimination, and physical attacks against Asian Pacific Americans.

Some have referred to this unbridled bias as the shadow pandemic — the racism that has raised its ugly head and spread across the country as fear and blame become the false cure for the ignorant.

Pollster Angus Reid showed that half (50%) of respondents to a recent survey report being called names or insulted as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak, and a plurality (43%) further say they’ve been threatened or intimidated.

“Racism and physical attacks on Asians and people of Asian descent have spread with the COVID-19 pandemic, and government leaders need to act decisively to address the trend,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

Chris Kwok, a mediator in Business/Commercial and Employment matters at JAMS, agreed, saying on a recent panel that “Asian Americans personally have experienced something new… for this generation at least, which is the fear or the second thoughts of walking outside.” Indeed, hesitation and fear of doing a simple task, such as walking the dog or going to the grocery store, is a new reality for many APAs because of the spike in hate incidents and anti-Asian sentiment in the US during the current pandemic.

I had the honor of moderating this panel event, Solidarity During COVID: Confronting Anti-Asian Racism, as panelists offered key insights into the current situation as well as a way forward to combat racism in the US.

Outlining the need for partnership

All panelists advocated for minority communities to come together to collaborate in the battle against racism, agreeing that the first step is to examine how each community views one another. “I feel like this is a pivotal moment for us to really have honest conversations about how communities see each other in this country,” said panelist Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director of the Asian American Federation, adding that it’s vital for these communities to come in the context of unresolved issues, including racism, social inequality, and access to justice, that are plaguing our society as a country.

Panelists further elaborated on the need for collaboration to act against all forms of racism , citing the death of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who died at the hand of four Minneapolis police officers. “Racism is racism,” said panelist Lily Tung Crystal, Artistic Director at Theatre Mu. Black and indigenous people of color can fight racism together, she added, and that includes being better allies to the Black community, at all levels.

Another panelist, Justin Chan, Writer and Journalist at In the Know, explained that when racism is seen only as a Black-White construct in the US, it greatly limits partnership in the fight. Chan also warned that the fallacy of the either/or thinking can easily be drawn into the dialogue around oppression and increase the perception that one minority group is against another. “We live in this black or white space… . The conversation either leans towards one or the other,” Chan stated. Indeed, his point underscores the need for both/and mindsets in intersectional fight against racism among the Black/African American, Latinx, indigenous and APA communities and within the diverse groups (Korean American, Filipino American, South Asian, Chinese American, etc.) that make up the APA community.

Some have referred to this unbridled bias as the shadow pandemic — the racism that has raised its ugly head and spread across the country as fear and blame become the false cure for the ignorant.

Insights from the panel discussion also illuminated nuanced factors that perpetuate anti-Asian American racism:

  • Impact of the model minority myth — The APA model minority myth, as well as expectations around activism and the how incidents are reported to law enforcement are a challenge in reducing anti-Asian sentiment and collectively fighting racism as one minority community, the panel agreed. “People don’t expect us to come out and say to [law] enforcement exactly what we feel,” explained Yoo. “Yet, it’s an opportunity to really discuss and act… with these two sides of this is argument in terms of anti-Asian racism and anti-Black racism and how we can both defend our own communities and be an ally for other communities.”
  • Dealing with the foreigner myth — The Black/White dynamic that dominates discussion around race in the US leaves out whole communities of color — those of the APA, Latinx, and indigenous backgrounds, for example. This leads to the prevalent assumption by others that if individuals are Asian American, they were not born in the US. “We are always the perpetual foreigner,” Yoo stated.
  • Lack of mainstream knowledge of APA contributions and history — Another unfortunate fact that perpetuates anti-APA hate is the lack of recognition of the contributions that many Asian Americans have made to this country and the lack of historical awareness of the Asian American community experience. “Can you name at least 20 Asian Americans who have been a major part of American history?” Chan rhetorically asked the audience, noting that, for example, the plight of Japanese Americans being forcibly relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II is an often-unrecognized sin of American history.

At the same time, there are ways of mainstreaming the unique experiences and needs of each group making up the APA community thereby helping to destroy anti-Asian American sentiment, the panel noted. These include:

  • Acknowledging individuality across the APA community — All the speakers agreed that acknowledging the unique backgrounds of each national origin group within the APA community is a way to also honor the community as a whole. “How do we acknowledge or celebrate our Asian American Pacific Islander-ness? And still respect the individual?” asked Tung Crystal. “My answer to that is always that we can only arrive at universality through specificity.”
  • Changing perceptions through art — One of the most notable signs of progress pointed out by all the panelists was the increase in representation of APA individuals and the storytelling of APA experiences in Hollywood and the arts. In fact, Kwok noted how art accelerates societal change by increasing society’s collective recognition of APA contributions. “It is art that changes narratives,” he said, adding that art “blows up frameworks about how we see things, about how we perceive things. And when that art reaches the mainstream… it can be extremely powerful.”

In closing, all the panelists said they remain optimistic about the future of APA representation, despite the setback in progress because of APA racism during the pandemic. Indeed, panelists pointed to a hopeful future in which the US lives up to its justice-oriented values. “We are in a historic time, and out of history we have the opportunity to reshape society in a way that is consistent with our values,” Kwok said.

“With that opportunity we need to feel the fear, feel a collegiality with everyone that cares about justice, and then we need to press forward with the principles that we think we need to fight for.”