With attacks against the AAPI community on the rise during the pandemic, this is how families across the country are experiencing racism and xenophobia in their daily lives—plus how we can all work to stop Asian hate.

By Melissa Mills
March 19, 2021
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An image of a mother at the window with her daughter.
Credit: Getty Images.

On the first day back from maternity leave this past November, Korean American New York mom of two Christina K. was called a "Chinese b*tch" over and over again by a man while heading to the elementary school she works at. Everyone around her on the subway just kept their heads down. "Because of this incident, I carry around a Birdie alarm that makes an ear-piercing sound if I pull it in one hand and a monkey fist keychain in my other hand when I am commuting." 

For members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, these experiences of racism, xenophobia, and microaggressions come as no surprise. During the pandemic, things have gotten worse. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks and responds to incidents of hate, violence, and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., there were 3,795 reports of anti-Asian incidents between March 2020 and February 2021—and those are just the ones we know about. And the recent killing of eight people in the Atlanta shootings by a white male, including six women of Asian descent, has been triggering.

"The recent events happening in America and around the world has triggered memories I think I have buried in the back of my mind for years," Christina K. says. "My sister and I were two of the few nonwhites that attended a local K-8 Catholic school in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood. I remember kids in elementary school making fun of the foods I ate, like seaweed, which ironically is a popular snack among kids now. Kids would ask me, 'How do you say my name in Korean?' and I would say their name back to them in English. Another memory I remember fondly is of kids at my school calling me 'flat face,' 'gook,' and 'chink.' I remember kids asking me if I could see because my eyes were so small and 'chinky.'" 

Anti-Asian Racism Is on the Rise During the Pandemic

AAPI individuals—and especially AAPI women—are being targeted more than ever, but many of these attacks are not charged as hate crimes or go unreported. Because of this, data is limited and it's hard to know the exact extent of this ever-increasing anti-Asian discrimination and hatred in America.

What we do know, unfortunately, is that this racism and violence is affecting parents, educators, and even trickling down to our kids. A 2020 report from the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign found that 77 percent of AAPI youth were angry about anti-Asian hate in the U.S. and many had experienced verbal harassment, shunning, online bullying, and even being coughed on or spit upon firsthand. Much of this discrimination related back to the idea of Asian Americans causing or carrying COVID-19.

"My brother and I were at a grocery store during the end of March [2020] when an old white couple started to call us 'chinks' and told us to go back to where we came from," one 18-year-old in California who participated in the report recalled.

Anna Gabriella Casalme, a Filipino American and founder of education nonprofit Novelly, a civic-minded and tech-enabled book club for teenagers, says that the message is loud and clear when it comes to the Asian American teens she works with: "They're feeling helpless and scapegoated during this pandemic. They're shouting, but it feels like no one is listening." 

Words Really Do Matter

Another AAPI teen directly related the rise in anti-Asian rhetoric to former President Trump. "I think it's demeaning to see fellow Americans ridiculing, harassing, and abusing other Asian Americans," the 16-year-old said. "I find it absolutely disgusting how Trump calls it the 'Chinese virus,' which leads to more xenophobia. We should be coming together to overcome this rather than harassing people who aren't at fault." Turns out the connection wasn't wrong: After Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as the "Kung flu" and "China virus," first tweeted the phrase "Chinese virus," there was a spike in anti-Asian hashtags.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last year that words matter when talking about COVID-19 and, if not avoided, could "mean people are labeled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease." We're now living in the reality that the WHO feared could happen.

Christina K. has experienced seemingly more innocent incidents, too. "Right at the beginning of the pandemic before the shutdown occurred, one of my students' parents came up to me at pick up and asked if I had any family in China," she recalled. "I said, 'Excuse me?' and she repeated her question. That is when I connected the dots. I looked at her and just said, 'I'm not Chinese so, no, I do not have family in China right now.'"

How AAPI Parents Are Reacting

"Parents are left to grapple with questions of safety for their children," says Disha Shah, director of strategy for Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a nonprofit working to end educational inequity, who points out the fact that educators need more training to address these issues. "Parents have to reckon with questions that have no objective answers, like 'Is it safe to let my child play outside alone?' 'Walk to school?' 'Go to school?' In addition to the stress of navigating safety due to the pandemic, AAPI parents have to carry the additional stress and emotional weight of navigating issues around safety due to racism." 

Deborah Lee, the founder and CEO of education technology startup Dancing Panda and mom of two in New Jersey, is having frank conversations with her 5- and 8-year-old about "what bullying looks like and what to do if bullying happens to them or to a friend." After a local Chinese restaurant was vandalized during the pandemic, she was honest about the hate crime with her kids and explained why it was so important to order food and support them.

For Kristen Morita, a speech therapist, founder of the blog Mochi Mommy, and mom of two based in Seattle, passing cultural traditions down to her kids—like speaking Japanese, eating traditional foods, and celebrating holidays like the Lunar New Year—is important. "As we can see from recent events, trying to distance ourselves from our heritage doesn't make us more safe."

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How Kids and Teens Are Reacting

"I feel scared to let my grandparents go out in fear that they may be harassed," said a 13-year-old who participated in the AAPI youth campaign. "I feel anger and confusion since society has normalized it so much that when we try to speak up about it, people still try and joke around about it."

Here's the sad truth: One in 4 AAPI youth are concerned for the safety of their families.

"I've spoken to many youth who don't feel safe, especially when racism against Asians has become normalized and the message is so clear from figures in authority," says Simon Tam, founder of The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit that is dedicated to equity and empowering ethnic minorities through art. "Parents and educators already have to contend with so much; those who care for Asian American students now have to address the pandemic of racism but are often ill-equipped to do so. Many feel that it is hopeless because they don't see action from those in authority and there's a larger culture that refuses to accept or acknowledge the racism that AAPIs experience."

How to Help

So what can be done to stop Asian hate? Here are just some ways to stand behind the Asian community and move forward:

"Realize that Asian Americans are not a monolithic group," says Tam. "We have many different experiences and needs, but one common theme is that many just want to be accepted as fellow Americans and receive the same dignity as everyone else."