By Eddie Wong.
As we enter the summer of 2020, nearly all of the 50 states in the U.S. have relaxed restrictions on non-essential travel and many businesses have reopened. As people emerge from shelter-in-place, social distancing will still be recommended for confined spaces such as classrooms, restaurants, buses, trains, restaurants, gyms and other venues but we’re still talking about a lot of people in public spaces. What does this mean for anyone who looks Asian? The pandemic has not gone away, nor has the virus of racism and xenophobia that continues to rage as people unfairly blame Asians, Jewish people, and immigrants for COVID-19 and other illnesses. As of May 13, 2020, there were 1,710 incidents reported from 45 states and Washington, D.C. at #StopAAPI Hate. The New York Commission for Human Rights has received 300 harassment complaints in the past months and the NY Police Department has arrested 11 people for hate crimes. These statistics are sobering reminders of the scope of the problem, but one doesn’t feel the impact until you see and hear Asian Americans talk about the fearful situations we face.
The following news report by ABC-6 News reporter Nydia Han in Philadelphia shows the brutality of one incident that left Kylam Nguyen with a fractured jaw and broken left collarbone. The report also tells the now all-too-familiar story of verbal harassment and bullying of Asian people and vandalism at Asian businesses. In the face of this abuse, Asian Americans have redoubled their efforts as good community members and contributed medical supplies to local hospitals. These efforts are laudable, and yet tinged with concern because we are once more placed in the position of “proving our worth” when our humanity needs no validation.
Asian Americans are understandably worried about what life will be like as we emerge from shelter-in-place. Will we face a when-the-shit-hits-the-fan moment as crazed, scared, and rabid racists and xenophobes feel emboldened to attack Asian Americans? And there’s been no let up on targeting Jewish businesses and synagogues by anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists either. We can’t sit back and wait for things to get better. The socio/economic inequalities that pre-existed COVID-19 for many African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and poor whites have certainly been exacerbated in the pandemic. We can’t ignore those inequalities any more than we can dismiss the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
When armed white militia paraded at state capitols, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, save your 2nd amendment.” His public endorsement of the armed militia could encourage the more deranged among them to commit violent acts on people they blame for COVID-19. History is replete with horrendous acts of racist retaliation. Let’s stop for a moment as remember these martyrs:
Vincent Chin – Detroit, MI – a draftsman who was bludgeoned to death on June 23, 1982 by white auto workers who blamed Chin for the loss of jobs in the economic downturn.
Balbir Singh Sodhi – Mesa, AZ – a Sikh gas station owner killed after five shots ripped into his body on Sept. 15, 2001 by a white racist who wanted to “shoot some towel heads.”
Paramjit Kaur, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh and Suveg Singh – Oak Creek, WS – Worshippers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shot to death by white supremacist on August 5, 2012. Three other worshippers and a policeman were wounded in the attack.
Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson – Charleston, SC – Worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shot to death by white supremacist Dylann Roof on June 17, 2015.
Sriniwas Kuchibhotla – Olathe, KS – shot to death in a restaurant by a white supremacist on February 22, 2017. Mr. Kuchibhotla’s friend, Alok Madasani, and Ian Grillot, who rushed the gunman, were wounded.
Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil & David Rosenthal, Bernice & Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger – Pittsburgh, PA – October 27, 2018 – Worshippers at the Tree of Life – L’Simha Congregation shot to death by a white supremacist.
Jordan Anchondo, Andre Anchondo, Arturo Benavides, Mario De Alba, Guillermo Garcia, Jessica Coca Garcia and Memo Garcia, Angie Englisbee, Leo Campos and Maribel Hernandez, Javier Amir Rodriguez, Ivan Manzano, David Johnson, Maria Flores, Raul Flores, Jorge Calvillo Garcia, Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, Luis Alfonzo Juarez, Maria Eugenia Legarreta Rothe, Elsa Libera Marquez, Maribel Loya, Gloria Irma Marquez, Margie Reckard, Sarah Esther Regaldo Moriel and Adolfo Cerros Hernandez, Teresa Sanchez, Angelina Sliva-Elisbee, and Juan Velazquez – El Paso, TX Walmart – August 3, 2019 – Mexican and Mexican American shoppers were shot to death by a white nationalist who had posted anti-immigration views and hatred of Latinos on 8chan. 23 other people were wounded.
These men and women – African Americans, Chinese American, Latinos, South Asian Americans, and Jewish Americans – all killed by white supremacists as waves of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric infected our national politics. This historical pattern compels us to be vigilant against the possible murder of Asian Americans and Jewish Americans in the days ahead. We must do all we can as a united community to deter these attacks. It’s time to fight back by demanding that our lives are valued and that a safe atmosphere is promoted for everyone who has been discriminated against as “the other.”
Enacting Stronger Hate Crime Legislation
Federal statutes on hate crimes were strengthened on October 28, 2009 when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which applied to crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The act authorized funding to state and local agencies to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. This provided a good starting point to combat hate crimes since victims are less willing to report hate crimes when there is no follow up by law enforcement. A big problem, however, was that some hate crimes like the Oak Creek Sikh Temple murders were never reported in federal records. Unreported hate crimes diminish the scope of the problem.
Thus, Lakshmi Sridaran, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), advocates for The Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act which has been included in the HEROS Act Covid-19 relief legislation introduced in the House of Representatives on May 15, 2020. Sridaran pointed out that state and local law enforcement agencies which do not comply with hate crime reporting would lose funding and face penalties. “There has never been a way to enforce hate crimes reporting, so this would be a huge step forward,” wrote Sridaran to me via e-mail. She added that the restorative justice component of the Act includes “alternative sentencing provisions that would allow supervised release for some defendants to undertake educational classes or community service directly related to the harmed community.” The proposed legislation commemorates Khalid Jabara who was shot to death on his porch in Tulsa, OK by a racist neighbor on Aug. 12, 2016 and Heather Heyer, a human rights advocate, who was run over by a white supremacist at the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA.
Sending Out a No Hate Message from City Government
Many of the attacks on Asian Americans in the form of verbal abuse, spitting, or beatings have taken place in large cities with substantial Asian populations. New York, Seattle, and San Francisco are among the cities which are taking proactive steps to send out a clear, two-part message, i.e. report hate crimes because they will be prosecuted and support each other to overcome fear and uncertainty as our communities recover.
On May 26, 2020, the New York Commission on Human Rights announced the launch of a $100,000 media campaign to combat COVID-19- related discrimination and harassment. Carmelyn P. Malalis, Chair and Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, who is a Filipina, addressed the harassment faced by Asian American medical workers and other essential workers: “In addition to the disparities laid bare by this crisis, it is a bitter injustice that many of the workers deemed essential to the core functions of our City are themselves or their loved ones facing disparate health outcomes ,or are victims of discrimination or harassment because they must work throughout this crisis.”
Posters and short videos have been created in 12 languages in a campaign that involves ethnic media such as El Dario, Korea Central News, Amsterdam News and social media platforms such as WeChat, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The Commission hopes this campaign will encourage people to report hate incidents and more importantly sends out a message that the City rejects racial harassment. Additionally, the Commission is partnering with Bystander Intervention Training and has held sessions in Mandarin and English.
Seattle is also taking steps to deal with the rise in hate crime. A City Auditor’s report on hate crimes released in November 2019 noted 521 hate crimes were committed in 2018, a 400% increase from 2012. The report showed that 35% of the cases involved “noncriminal bias,” i.e. verbal harassment while 41% of the cases were crimes with bias such as assault and, vandalism. Hate crime perpetrators were overwhelmingly male (85% of all cases). Over 25% of the crimes were committed on buses and at bus stops – a phenomenon that has been verified by numerous videos on social media.
Recent hate crimes committed in reaction to COVID-19 panic include vandalism of Asian businesses, posting of hate flyers in Seattle’s International District, and numerous cases of Asian Americans being yelled at and spit on at parks and in stores. Thus, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold lobbied for the inclusion of $50,000 in the 2020 budget for the Office of Civil Rights “for grants to community-based organizations responding to hate violence and creating a mechanism for sharing hate crime data reported to these organizations.” These funds will be released later this fall.
Like New York, the City of Seattle is distributing posters and a video statement by Mayor Jenny Durkan via mass media and social media. Here’s the tone and substance of the message:
We also know that one of our best tools to combat bias is solidarity and strength. Today and every day, the City of Seattle condemns asks of hate and violence, and we refuse to let it take hold. As part of our #SeattleTogether campaign, we’re launching a new effort that denounces anti-Asian hate and bias, shows strong support for immigrants, refugees, and people of color, and directs people to the City’s bias reporting hotline.
We invite you to join the City in sharing and participating in this campaign. Share your solidarity and reject bias on social media with #SeattleTogether. Alone we can reach a small audience. Together, we can reach all of Seattle.
The City and County of San Francisco will also be launching a media campaign called “Communities As One.” According to Mullane Ahern of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the campaign’s goal is “to increase awareness of bullying, hate, discrimination and harassment that people may experience due to the pandemic.” This effort builds upon the existing campaign “Help Against Hate,” initiated by the San Francisco Coalition Against Hate Violence which is comprised of over 20 city agencies and community-based organizations to address attacks on immigrant, LGBTQ+, and racial and ethnic communities.
One exciting aspect of the new “Communities As One” campaign will be a series of murals that address the need to support each other as we face the enormous aftershocks from COVID-19. Local artists who are part of Paint the Void, which has painted murals over boarded up businesses in San Francisco, will be involved in the new project. A start date for the mural project is pending.
If your city or county has not planned proactive efforts to deter anti-Asian hate and anti-Semitism due to COVID-19 hysteria, you might want to contact a local council member or representative of a local human rights commission. You can cite the effective province-wide campaign in Ontario, Canada organized in 2016 after the arrival of Muslim refugees from Syria by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). This campaign against Islamophobia consisted of posters and two 30 second videos created on the theme of #BreaktheBehaviour. The poster tackles perhaps the most common form of harassment, i.e. “you don’t belong here, go back to wherever you came from.”
When I asked Debbie Douglas, Executive Director of OCASI, about the effectiveness of the campaign, she replied: “Did it stop anti-Muslim sentiments in the individual, probably not… One of the most positive comments came the first morning of the poster campaign. I received an email from a young Muslim woman who wrote: ‘I stepped into the bus shelter on my way to school. I saw the poster and braced for a racist/Islamophobic message. My heart sang when I realized it was an anti-Islamophobic message. I felt seen.’… “The posters and videos were widely used and still are nationally,” added Douglas. “They raised awareness about issues of Islamophobia and more broadly sparked conversations about inclusion, diversity, racism, equity and systemic change.”
A local ad agency donated their services to develop the concept of the videos and the local government spent $200,000 to produce the videos and posters and distribute them.
Community-Led Efforts to Fight Hate Crime
Making everyone feel seen and safe requires a community-wide response. This is where bystander training is a powerful tool against haters. You may be scared or deluded into thinking Asians are the cause of the pandemic, but if you try harassing and demeaning us, we will stop you. Asian Americans have to be prepared to defend ourselves and anyone else who is being harassed.
Hollaback! has partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice to offer a new, free one-hour online workshop entitled “Bystander Intervention to stop anti-Asian/American and xenophobic harassment.” This workshop gives Asian Americans and other allies some tools to employ when someone is being harassed.
Jorge Arteaga, Director of Operations for Hollaback!, and Bessie Chan-Smitham, Director of Community Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, co-led the workshop I took on May 13, 2020. Bessie led the workshop participants through a short history of anti-Asian discrimination touching upon exclusionary laws, Japanese American imprisonment during WWII, and racial violence. She also highlighted racist epithets, mocking of Asian languages, bullying, online harassment, staring/glaring, shunning, spitting and physical assault being perpetrated on Asian Americans today. She pointed out that this “spectrum of disrespect” has a harmful impact, e.g. trauma, anxiety, loss of business and income as well as bodily harm. Jorge then spelled out the use of the 5 D’s: distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct. Roll over the hotlinked text Hollaback! for a full explanation of each step and how and when to employ one or several of these strategies :Hollaback! Anti-Asian American Harassment training
Both Jorge and Bessie answered questions submitted via the chat box and by the end of the session the majority of participants felt confident about either being direct, e.g. “that’s racist, leave him/her/they alone” or using delay, e.g. what do you mean, do you need some help? Each situation is different, and the key thing is to show solidarity even if you do nothing but stand by the person who is being harassed. Tell your friends and family about this valuable training. Sign up for free sessions in June, see Hollaback! training sign up form
Another organization that has been a national leader in the field of hate prevention is Not In Our Town (NIOT) founded after The Working Group, a non-profit media production company, completed a PBS documentary on how Billings, Montana stood up against white supremacists who tried to intimidate members of an African American church, painted racist graffiti at a Native American family’s home, and threw a brick through a window at a Jewish home which displayed a menorah for Hanukkah. The model of forging a community-wide coalition among law enforcement, civic leaders, the local media outlets, churches and community groups has been emulated in cities and towns throughout the U.S. “There is so much to learn from concerted efforts at the local level, not just to prevent hate and violence, but to build relationships, trust and the cross-sector understanding that can lead to an inclusive atmosphere for everyone,” said Patrice O’Neill, Executive Producer of NIOT.
One of the most successful NIOT projects is United Against Hate Week (Nov. 17 to 23, 2019) in which 34 cities and towns in the San Francisco Bay Area and 15 colleges and universities participated in community forums, rallies, film screening, marches and vigils to stand against efforts by hate groups to divide our communities. Patrice O’Neill explained why this simple concept is so powerful: “A week of action provides a straightforward entry point for city leaders, elected officials, schools and campus groups, faith leaders, arts organizations and activists to convene an event, start the conversation, surface the problem of hate and build connections between people who may not have been in touch to go deeper and start to find ways to tackle the long term challenge of racism, bias and hate… A resolution won’t stop hate, but it can send a signal that the city cares about safety and inclusion for everyone. That signal can turn into actions that go deeper and reach more people. We have to find a way to begin.”
People embraced the campaign and I saw Stand Against Hate posters everywhere – in the window of my favorite Italian restaurant, at the public library, at the local bookstore and market. One of the most powerful videos that came out of the campaign was this presentation at a rally in Berkeley, CA with Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a relative of a slain Sikh temple worshipper at the Oak Creek, WS massacre, and Arno Michaels, a former white supremacist. Condemning hate is not hard but finding ways to overcome hate is difficult.
NIOT also utilizes documentary films as a vehicle to begin community discussion. “Light into the Darkness” explores the impact of the 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero, a Ecuadorean immigrant who lived in Patchogue, NY, by seven white teenagers. The filmmakers show how anti-immigrant agitation led to a wave of beatings of Mexican immigrants prior to this murder and how the community learned to take preventative steps against racial violence. This film has been used in numerous cities and in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools to sensitize people to hate violence.
Learn more about Not In Our Town and United Against Hate and check out the numerous resource guides and tool kits that they have created.
Ensuring a Safe Place at Schools and Colleges
One of the hot spots for bullying and shunning of Asian Americans in this COVID-19 induced age of anxiety are K-12 schools and colleges. Millions of young people are expected to resume a hybrid of in-person and online education in the coming months and the incidents of racial harassment that Asian American students encountered in February and March are likely to recur. Students along with adults receive a flow of misinformation and racial invective coming from Fox News and social media. As tensions heat up with China over trade and other issues, many people will be swayed by false accusations by US officials that the coronavirus originated in Chinese labs. What can we do to stem the tide of fear and false information that will result to harm to Asian American students? If you are a parent or student, how can you lobby for a safe and inclusive environment?
School psychologists, anti-racism and anti-bullying counselors, school administrators and teachers advocate for a comprehensive approach followed by specific action steps. Before teachers gather this summer to prepare for the late summer/fall reopening, it is vital to acknowledge the crisis of anti-Asian hate. Coshandra Dillard, a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance magazine, points out, “It’s important to get ahead of harmful discourse because we know students are watching and listening to this rhetoric online and on social media…So we can assume our students are seeing posts like this one from a college student who considered dropping a class because “only Asians” were in the classroom, stating ‘I hope I don’t catch coronavirus’.”
Knowing about the toxic environment students are entering should put teachers on high alert to incidents of bullying and shunning. Dillard emphasizes the need for vigilance and action. “Educators have a responsibility to interrupt any anti-AAPI and xenophobic narratives…Respond immediately to any news of a student repeating racist or xenophobic language,” said Dillard. “It’s also vital to attend to any student or colleagues who have been harmed by anti-AAPI speech or rhetoric…The truth is all students are affected by hate and bias. It’s up to educators to protect those who are targeted by it and give students and other adults the tools to stop perpetrating harm in the future.”
Teaching Tolerance has a manual entitled “Responding to Hate and Bias at School” that school administrators can utilize to implement a comprehensive plan that has the following sections: 1. Before a Crisis Occurs, which addresses how to set a school climate that defuses tensions and prevents escalation of conflicts; 2. When There’s a Crisis, which outlines the nine steps needed to involve all the stakeholders to resolve the hate incident; and 3. After the Worst is Over, which describes the long-term planning and capacity building needed.
There are many things that parents can encourage teachers to do to provide a healthy classroom environment for students of color. In the Hechinger Report, a journal devoted to inequality and innovation in education, Tony DelaRosa, a Filipinx American teacher coach, encourages the use of “teachable moments” to address bias and misinformation among students. He was observing a classroom as a mentor to a first-year teacher and noted that one student coughed several times as he walked by and said “Coronavirus.” DelaRosa did not want to disrupt the teacher’s presentation, but he asked the teacher to discuss this microaggression with the class. “One tool that I often use with my own students and teachers that is well-suited to coronavirus and teaching about discrimination is the Asian American Racial Justice toolkit, which helps educators unpack and dismantle structural racism toward the Asian American community,” added DelaRosa.
DelaRosa also recommends that teachers normalize positive Asian narratives in the curriculum. “…we are more than just a summation of negative stories. There’s power in teaching about our solidarity across racial coalitions to help build bridges and close empathy gaps across lines of difference. Women’s History Month in March is a great opportunity to normalize the positive narratives and contributions of Asian American women,” said DelaRosa.
Thu Anh Nguyen teaches sixth grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. wrote in a blog post for the International Literacy Association on April 4, 2020 about the power of literature to create empathy in the current atmosphere of fear and suspicion. “I have spent much of my time as an educator concentrating on providing mirrors to my students so that they can see their identities reflected in the works that they read,” wrote Ms. Nguyen. “Right now, I am also very consciously making sure I include Asian voices and perspectives to provide windows to non-Asian readers so that they develop the empathy necessary to recognize and combat xenophobia and racism.”
Thu Anh Nguyen provided this wonderful vignette to illustrate her point: As I was writing this piece, I was working from home while trying to keep my own young children occupied. My 7-year-old son was reading Bao Phi’s A Different Pond (Capstone Young Readers). It’s the subtle and beautiful story of a father and son who go fishing together. As they sit quietly and wait for fish, the father talks about growing up in Vietnam, a different pond from where they are now in the United States. We so often live in our own worlds, unable to envision what it is like in others’ landscapes. It is as if we are fishing from different ponds.
This is a time for more understanding. Cultural literacy is about fluency in another culture, its customs and beliefs; it is understanding gained through literacy. In A Different Pond, the father tells his son stories so that at the end of the book, when he’s drifting off to sleep, the boy “will dream of fish in faraway ponds.” The boy is now able to do what he had not been able to before, which is to imagine his father’s world.
Literacy in Asian culture, when so many people are misunderstanding and harming each other, is vital. We must continue to read stories that reveal to us the truths of others so that we can know where we are all from, and care for each other with more kindness and grace.
She also recommended that teachers use Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang, Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong in their classrooms. A full list of her recommended books listed in order of reading level from youngest to adult can be found at the end of her article Using Literature to Eradicate Xenophobia: One Educator’s Response to COVID-19.
Both DelaRosa and Nguyen’s points about getting students to understand the nuanced Asian American experience as a bridge to sharing the pain we encounter during this crisis is critical to the larger mission of creating belonging and inclusion. Not in Our Town developed the Not in Our Schools campaign “to empower students to create safe and inclusive environments that are free of bullying, harassment and all forms of intolerance,” according to Patrice O’Neill. “School needs to be a place where students discover themselves as individuals, and where each student feels that a unique identity is an asset to him or her—and to the world,” added O’Neill. “Young people need to feel emotionally comfortable in an accepting and “identity safe” environment where stereotypes and stereotype threat (the fear of being judged by a negative stereotype) are addressed by educators and adults. Efforts to build empathy and involve students in the process of change can shift the school culture to become a warm, caring environment where bullying is much less likely to occur.”
Not in Our Town has developed many short videos that teachers can use in their classrooms to address bullying, shunning and harassment. Here are two videos that give an overview to how peer-led efforts among students can often have the most lasting impact. The first video centers on high school students in Lancaster, CA and the second video focuses on Grimmer Elementary School in Fremont, CA.
The rich body of work developed by Not In Our Town and the racial equity practices instituted at school districts give me hope that resources are readily available and can be deployed as schools resume in the fall. In California, 118 school districts including ones in the major cities, are sanctuary schools where immigrant students are embraced and where racism, stereotyping and discrimination are discouraged. On May 19, Oakland School Board passed a resolution to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and stipulated the following: The Board of Education denounces xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment of all forms and condemns acts of violence or hate of any kind in response to COVID-19; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that as a “Sanctuary District” the Board of Education is committed to protecting the mental health and wellbeing of our students and ensuring that Asian American and Pacific Islander students feel safe and welcome in our district and at our schools; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Oakland Unified School District remains committed to our goals for Ethnic Studies and furthering the education of Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Arab American Studies in our curricula so that all students can celebrate and learn about diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage, contributions, and community issues.
Lailan Huen, Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement staff for the OUSD’s Office of Equity, told me about teacher resource guides which have been the main way teachers have become sensitized to anti-Asian harassment. These guides were inspired by parents at Cleveland Elementary School who asked for resources so that issues such as discrimination and anti-Asian violence could be discussed in the classroom. Asian American curriculum resource guides have lesson plans for elementary grades and middle and high schools. Several videos on history and xenophobia are included in the lesson plans.
In April 2020, the OUSD offered a two-part Intercultural Panel Series – “Solidarity in a Time of Crisis: Standing with Asian Americans” led by the Islamic Networks Group, which is based in San Jose, CA. Upcoming new teacher orientation programs can also serve as vehicles to prepare teachers to address racism and xenophobia. Most of the secondary schools in the district have restorative justice facilitators. The district also convenes a Racial Justice Summit bi-annually and 300 teachers attended the session held in January 2020. Lastly, October is Bullying Prevention Month, which takes on added meaning at this time of increased racial animosity towards Asian Americans due to COVID-19 fears.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders students who comprise 16% of the OUSD’s 50,000 students, also serve on the All City Council and school site councils giving them a voice in school climate issues.
Since schools do not exist in isolation from communities, a big factor in developing a safe environment for students is to communicate the district’s bans on racial harassment and bullying to parents and caregivers. “Children look to adults for guidance on how to respond to stressful events. Adults can help children understand the importance of treating all people with dignity, “ according to The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). “Accurate information is essential to minimize anxiety about COVID-19 and ensuring that Asian communities are not unfairly targeted or stigmatized. To help in this effort, adults must model acceptance and compassion in their words and behavior.”
The NASP also encouraged parents to recognize signs of stress and trauma that their children may be experiencing. Internal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, grief, fear and anger may be accompanied by external behaviors, e.g. aggression and behavior problems. Parents are encouraged to provide a safe place for their children to talk through their fears and to reassure them that many adults and peers care deeply about them and will do all they can to protect them. The NASP’s document contains much valuable advice for adults and children on how to cope with the multiple stressors brought on by COVID-19. Read the full document Countering COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Stigma and Racism: Tips for Parents and Caregivers.
Practicing Self-Care in the Face of Racism and Xenophobia
As much as we would like our cities, our schools and our neighborhoods to be safe and nurturing environments that practice inclusion and promote diversity, Asian Americans must ultimately rely upon ourselves for personal safety and wellbeing. This may be a new and unsettling experience for many Asian Americans, but many African Americans and Latinos have had to live girded up to battle a range of micro and macro aggressions everyday. Most Asian Americans have encountered some form of racism at some point in their lives, but now, it’s an entirely different situation when every public encounter potentially poses some danger.
Re-entering the workplace also means stepping into an arena that could produce anxiety and stress for Asian Americans. Microaggressions are likely to take the form of shunning, i.e. people moving away from you, or staring/glaring. Some other people may make racially insensitive comments. You are not being “overly sensitive” if you perceive that you are being targeted. The best recourse is to talk with a fellow worker to document the incident and to approach the Human Resource personnel at your workplace. These microaggressions violate company practices against discrimination and violate your legal protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Brittaney Wong writes about this topic in “Self-care Tips for Asian Americans Dealing with Racism Amid Coronavirus” (Huffington Post, April 1, 2020). She described what happened to journalist Jeff Yang who had “fuck you” hurled at him by a white lady at a Trader Joe’s store in Culver City, CA. She then pulled off her mask and coughed directly at him and walked away. This could happen to any of us and you have to make a split-second decision about whether to deescalate the situation by turning away to make a report or scream at the perpetrator. In my fantasy comeback I yell, “If you don’t stop your racist shit, I’m going to come over there and kiss you.” This would at once mystify the a-hole and horrify him/her/they as my kiss is presumably coronariffic.
In the article, Gabrielle Zhuang-Estrin, a clinical social worker who works with Asian Americans in Los Angeles, recommends that one breathe in and out and to feel your feet. “Connecting and expanding into our bodies helps us remain as calm as we can and as open as we can so we can access different action options,” she added. No matter what you do, Zhuang-Estrin advises, “Don’t judge yourself for it later… because you don’t want to deal with that pang of guilt or concern that you haven’t handled the situation ‘right’ on top of everything else.”
It’s only natural that these racist encounters replay in our minds and exact some residual damage. Brittaney Wong recommends reaching out to friends who can validate your experience and provide emotional support. She also reminds us to place these racist incidents in a larger perspective of historical scapegoating of Asians as well as other people. This doesn’t diminish the hurt but evokes the complexity of this virulent hatred. Our ancestors have dealt with this shit for decades and we have survived. Don’t let the bastards get you down!
Further research led me to “Radical Self-Care in the Face of Mounting Racial Stress” by Grace A. Chen, Helen A. Neville, Jioni A. Lewis, Hector Y. Adames, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Della V. Mosley, and Bryana H. French aka The Psychology of Radical Healing Collective published in Psychology Today, Nov. 15, 2019. Being radical means getting to the root of things, and this collective nails it: you must fight the power and be the power, i.e. resist oppression and be the owner of your wellbeing. “People of Color and Indigenous People (POCI) can engage in radical healing through self-knowledge, critical consciousness, collectivism, strength, resistance and hope,” said the collective. “In order to envision racial justice, we must cultivate hope alongside fighting against oppression.”
Since COVID-19 is not going away for months if not years, Asian Americans and anyone else who becomes targeted must be prepared to fight racism and xenophobia by building alliances and practicing solidarity. At the same time, we must take care of ourselves through these five steps recommended by the Psychology of Radical Healing Collective:
Make space for your own healing by sharing your story with loved ones or professional healers.
Cultivate joy. Schedule time to celebrate your culture and community and enjoy life.
Find a place where you feel a sense of belonging. The social and emotional connection that comes with having a circle of friends will sustain you.
Engage in small acts of empowerment. The collective recommends supporting local businesses that reflect your values and volunteering at community-based organizations that serve POCI.
Get involved in local community-based activism and advocacy.
We live in a sick society, one both wracked by this deadly coronavirus and longstanding health care disparities as well as virulent racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and ableism. The liberating message of the Psychology of Radical Healing Collective is this: “Through these acts of affirmation or any others you may practice, you are engaging in radical self-care such that you can continue to cultivate hope and envision wellness and freedom from systematic oppression…The intention and awareness of taking care of yourself can be empowering in and of itself.”
I’ll end this article with one more useful tip that is universally acknowledged by therapists and healers of all persuasion: breathing. We breathe to live. Oxygen fills our lungs and courses through our veins to nurture our vital organs. Mindful breathing has been practiced since time immemorial to alleviate stress and focus our thinking. So, I offer you these two videos from the American Lung Association as an introduction to the art of breathing and muscle relaxation. There are numerous other martial arts such as qigong and tai chi and mind/body regimens such as yoga that can be useful in self-care. Try any number of disciplines to see what works best for you.