Pandemic of discrimination and hatred threatens the well being of Asian Americans | Column by Christine Heimann (Spring 2020 issue)
Recently, I checked my phone after leaving my part-time job and saw a couple of missed calls and voicemails. One was from a mother, Anne, who, by the time she ended the voicemail, was crying. In her message, she said that she and her daughter, Ava [to provide context: Seven years old and adopted from Korea] had been at the library. Here is a summary of the message:
Another little girl wanted to read the Frozen book Ava had been reading, so when it came time for Anne and Ava to leave, Anne asked Ava to give the other little girl the book. The other little girl was so happy to receive it, but the other little girl’s mom jumped up and told the girl to drop the book and to come over and take some hand sanitizer. As the girl did that, the mom picked up the book with Kleenex and brought it up to the library counter, “So other kids won’t get sick” she said as she gave it to the librarian. Anne said Ava is young enough that the only thing she could comprehend was the other little girl didn’t want the Frozen book…
As Anne finished her message she asked, “Where is our world coming to that two little girls can’t share a Frozen book?” With the increased racism and discrimination emerging from the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wish calls and emails like Anne’s were not common for me these days.
This mom notified me in my capacity as executive director of AdopteeBridge, a non-profit organization which provides post-adoption support services to adoptees and their families. We sponsor mentorship programs and discussion groups for adoptees of all ages, and their loved ones. From not only these programs, but from my past experiences working at culture/adoption camps, and from working at Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service, I often get asked advice about adopted children’s well being.
But over the past few weeks, the quantity of this type of calls and emails have greatly increased and I’m afraid they will continue to be a common occurrence. I am also a Korean American adoptee. So, being a racial minority is something I have become accustomed to, but living in fear of threats and discrimination is a new feeling that I never thought would be my reality.
COVID-19/coronavirus has become the hot topic in our world. It has filled it with fear and panic, ignorance and global hysteria. It has turned neighbor against neighbor as people frantically try to stock up on items such as hand sanitizer, soap, canned goods, face masks, and toilet paper. It seems as if we are in the holiday season all over again with mad buying frenzies going on in the grocery stores and at Costco; even Amazon has been running out of certain items.
These buying frenzies have also led to something you might see on a Jerry Springer Show —- women fighting over… toilet paper? While it is comical to think of this, it shows us how fear, ignorance, falsehoods and mass panic can spread even faster than the virus everyone fears. What is it (besides greedy and unwise purchasing decisions)? Racism. Discrimination. Xenophobia.
When you combine mass panic, fear, and ignorance, along with the day-to-day hype of media reports, it is a dangerous combination. The media is just one way to spread information and fear to create a toxic, lethal mix that seeks someone or some group to blame. We have seen this not only with the latest COVID-19 crisis, but whenever there has been any new virus for which there is no immediate cure. This tendency has accompanied many pandemics in history: In the 1300s, when Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague; in the 1980s, when gay men were blamed for HIV/AIDS; and in 2014, when West Africans were blamed for Ebola.
New diseases have been and will be a part of our lives. We cannot let new diseases (or any new unknown) cause mass hysteria, and most importantly, we cannot permit new and unknown diseases to be an excuse for hate and racism. COVID-19 is a new disease. A new disease creates change. Change creates the unknown. The unknown creates fear. Fear is a part of human nature.
However, the media amplifies fear it observes from society. From mainstream media coverage, the public is constantly reminded where the disease originated, and the most recent mortality rate. This kind of news coverage practically invites us to blame a scapegoat for these new diseases.
It is tempting to use a shortcut for thinking about the complex causes of this dreadful disease. It is human nature to seek a scapegoat to blame for the new fear, anxiety, and anger this disease has caused. The easiest scapegoat is the nation from which the disease was first traced —- China. The constant reminder that the disease emanated from China is reinforced by the president’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”
It is evident that people are using racism and discrimination to handle their new everyday fears. Because of this, every person who looks Chinese has a reason to fear. This is our reality.
Here are some of the realities of Asian Americans I have spoken to:
“Today, I was at Walmart and one of their employees looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘I wish I could just shoot those who have the corona virus.’ I have never been so terrified being Asian.”
“A lady yelled ‘Hey Mulan! What kind of Asian are you?!’ and then did the slanty eyes at me while her friend pointed at the hand sanitizer the store had and said I should use it…”
“Personally, I have also noticed an increase in coldness to and/or aversion to me when I’m out walking alone. Prior to COVID-19, people would say hello, or nod and meet my gaze. But now they move away (well beyond the social distancing norms) and avert their eyes. Strangely when I am with my Caucasian spouse much of this social aversion diminishes.”
“Before the restaurants closed, my friends and I walked into a Mexican restaurant for happy hour. We sat down at the bar and I ordered a Corona. The guys sitting at the table behind us said ‘Hey, why are you ordering a Corona? Don’t you already have it?’”
“Today, a little boy (who was wearing a Batman mask) and gloves in the store, saw me and said, ‘Hey Dad! Do we have to hold our breaths because there’s a Chinese woman over there?’”
These are only some examples of the realities that Asians around the world are encountering, not only Asian Americans. Thousands of microaggressions or verbal or physical assaults have been perpetrated on Asians globally over the past few months. In the U.S., we are expected to be the model minority —- those who are not only smart, but hard-working, docile, and soft-spoken. Is this why people target us for blatant racist attacks? Because they see as quiet, submissive, virus-carriers?
But what is the reality? Viruses don’t see race. Viruses don’t discriminate. Viruses don’t stop at travel bans or closed borders. We are all at risk. But many are in denial, especially when it comes to racism and xenophobia. Many will say “I’m not racist,” but the truth is, those who use the excuse of “social distancing” because of COVID-19 to avoid a local Chinese restaurant they always eat at on Friday nights; those who tell the waitress they will wait for a new table, but it is really because an Asian couple was sitting there, that is not “social distancing.” In fact, that kind of behavior feeds into the fear, ignorance, racism, and xenophobia that is plaguing our country and our world and that is spreading faster than COVID-19 itself.
In point of fact, the non-discriminatory nature of this fast-moving contagion, that has skipped no racial or ethnic group and respected no national boundary, should be reminding us that we are all vulnerable because we are humans, and that we are all in the same boat. Instead, illogically, the opposite seems to have happened.
While no one should experience this kind of hate and racism, I am most worried about children, such as Anne’s daughter. I have received an increase of emails and phone calls and have seen post after post on social media from parents whose children have had vicious things said or done to them in recent months. I worry about the long-term, negative effects these constant racist assaults will have on this current generation of children. Is this what we want to teach the next generation?
Children are the world’s future. They are also a fragile human resource, because they are impressionable. Those watching their parents or family members exhibit racism —- this is the same as being told it is okay to do these things —- to hate and discriminate.
For children such as Anne’s daughter, still young enough to not fully comprehend everything, each confrontation with discrimination and racism represents a small scratch —- a minor wound on the inner self. But, when looking back, this minor wound could contribute to a much larger wound in a person’s overall self-esteem. This large wound could become insecurity, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.
I am tired… I am tired of the panic, of the hate, of all of this.
I miss the “Minnesota Nice,” where I could look into other people’s eyes, smile, and not see fear or anxiety. But now everyone walks quickly past one another… there is no Minnesota nice, especially not to Asians.
Perhaps one day there will be a magic vaccination not only for COVID-19, but for all the hate and racism that people have spread as well. We can only hope both will come sooner, rather than later. l
Here are some resources/organizations to report hate and discrimination or to get support during these times of uncertainty. Please note: This is not an all-encompassing list. Of course, in an emergency, dial 911.
~ Minnesota Department of Human Rights: firstname.lastname@example.org 651-539-1133 or 1-800-657-3704
~ NAMI Helpline: 1-800-950-6264 or email@example.com
~ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-8255 to speak with a trained crisis counselor.
Christine Heimann is a Korean American adoptee who grew up in Minnesota. She has worked in the field of post adoption and in 2017 founded AdopteeBridge which provides post adoption support services to transracial/transnational adoptees and their families.