“Just don’t eat bats and you’ll be fine,” said my friend of several years, laughing. I had just shared with her my heightened anxiety due to an increase in racism against Asian Americans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speechless, I stared at her.
“I was just joking,” she added quickly.
“It’s not funny.”
She’d probably had too much wine. She did not intend malice. Most of my life, I have been told not to take “it” the wrong way. As if there’s a right way to endure racism. For too long, racism received a pass if no harm was intended, no matter how much harm it actually caused. Justice for Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others has yet to be served.
Victims are expected to swallow the hate, no matter how potent the poison. As a Chinese American immigrant, the dosage of this hate poison has increased dramatically in 2020. Images from news stories haunt my dreams: A family with small children being stabbed in a store, an old woman set afire while walking on her street, violent assaults in front of grocery stores, all for being Asian during the pandemic. I cannot stomach this much hate. It feels hopeless, but I must fight for my survival.
When faced with racism, clever comebacks jumble in my brain, and I rarely get a coherent one out in the moment. Instead, I hope that I’m never faced with these situations again. Here are some things I wish people would never say to me about facing racism and what I hope they’d do instead.
“You should leave this country for your own good.” Well-meaning people have told me to get out for my own safety, but it feels like a slap in the face, hurtful, and alienating. It harkens to, “Go back to where you came from.” I am a citizen of the United States and nowhere else. The U.S. is my home and I love this country. The statement reflects a faulty belief that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners who don’t belong here, no matter how deep our roots. My loyalty to my country is strong and my desire to fight for social justice stronger. Telling me to leave does not make sense.
“You shouldn’t have been there.” It might be tempting, but please don’t blame the victim. During high racial tensions against Asian Americans in the immediate wake of the pandemic, I chose not to go out alone for my safety. However, advising people to avoid certain neighborhoods due to potential hate is problematic because it restricts the freedoms of victims instead of putting the onus on the perpetrators. This is like telling women to avoid dance clubs or going out at night for their own safety. The tendency to blame the victim is biased thinking.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Advice to not speak a foreign language or wear a type of clothing that calls attention to race also blames the victim and lets the perpetrator off the hook.
“Other people have it worse than you.” There are always people who have it worse, but this is not a supportive response to your friend or loved one experiencing racism. Because others have it worse does not lessen the pain your friend is experiencing. This video on empathy from Brené Brown spells out the type of comments that are helpful and those that are divisive, including pointing to silver linings when someone is in pain.
“Maybe you’re over-reacting. Maybe it wasn’t race-driven.” This is a form of gaslighting. If your friend is a person of color, chances are she has experienced this type of invalidation for years. Your friend needs validation and an outlet more than anything right now. Please don’t ask her to doubt her perception and instincts.
Listen. An empathetic ear makes all the difference. This may be all your friend needs.
Check-in with your friends. Calling every acquaintance who may be experiencing heightened racism is not necessary or constructive — and might be downright awkward — but reaching out to those you have trusted relationships with might make a big difference. We live in a culture that encourages drinking away stress or trauma, and especially with many businesses advertising alcohol delivery or curbside pickup during the pandemic, your sober friends experiencing racism may need extra support.
Validate. Simply say, “What you’re going through is terrible and wrong. It shouldn’t happen and needs to stop. What can I do to help?” Reinforcement from a confidant that what happened is unjust and unfair can make a big difference.
Offer to help report incidents. Your friend may feel too traumatized or depleted after a racist incident to file reports. Offer to help do it. Here’s a resource of first steps from the Human Rights Campaign. In Asian American communities, we are often conditioned to downplay racist conflicts in order to assimilate, but reporting these incidents is important. With more information, better prevention and response are possible. Stopaapihate.org encourages all who have witnessed or experienced micro-aggressions, bullying, harassment, hate speech, or violence against Asian American Pacific Islanders to submit a report on their site. The Southern Poverty Law Center also has a form for reporting all hate incidents.
Take bystander intervention training. Hollaback! is one nonprofit that provides free trainings on how to do your part to protect others when bias and harassment occur in front of you. Their high-level 5Ds are: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct. Knowing how to safely react in these challenging situations can be vital.
Speak out in solidarity, organize, and protest. Racism is not a Black people problem nor is it an immigrant problem. The weight of the fight should not lay solely on those on the receiving end of hate. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Smile and wave (if you feel safe doing so). Walking my dog in the wake of COVID-19, I was never sure if the strangers I encountered would be the sort to yell at me or charge toward me and my young son in their car, as we’d already experienced. Would they spit at me like the woman who spat on my Korean American friend and his baby? But the tight tension of fight or flight in my shoulders would dissipate instantly if the person smiled, nodded, or waved. A simple gesture of goodwill put me at ease, assuring me of my safety, that this person was like the majority of kind and inclusive people I live among in this land I love.
Trying to always say and do the right thing isn’t easy, especially if you’ve never been on the receiving end of racist actions or comments. But being there for our friends and community in solidarity, offering empathy and compassion while continuing to educate ourselves, are steps toward building a more hopeful and just society.