By MAYA COLE , Rafu Digital Team
Derek Nam, a 23-year-old full-time student at the University of Nevada, has experienced two instances of anti-Asian racism since the coronavirus pandemic began. Here, he speaks out.
Have you experienced anti-Asian discrimination due to the coronavirus pandemic?
I have, and there were two occurrences. My first experience took place at the local gym I frequent. A man was joking about the virus and, considering I was the only Asian person within proximity, he decided to tell me, I bet you’d know a lot about that, huh? For him, it was nothing but a harmless joke, but for me, it was a tasteless remark of great offense and it took everything in my power not to snap at him. I let it go, but I made my discomfort known to him by ignoring him.
My second experience was much worse, and it involved my mother, as well. We were at the grocery store and I was speaking to her in Korean, which is our native tongue. My mother is not fluent in English, and someone immediately told us to speak it. They weren’t loud about it, but it became apparent to me that they were looking down on us. I am getting my bachelor’s in English, so as you can imagine, I find it hysterical when someone has the audacity to tell me to speak English in a country that should rightfully be open to all cultures. I began to argue with this person and they eventually left us alone, but it’s still something that annoys me whenever I look back on it.
What did you say to the individual who discriminated against you and your mother in the grocery store?
I kept asking them to repeat themselves and approached them directly, knowing they wouldn’t — out of cowardice. I definitely would have gone about it differently if it had just been me, but my mother is a hard-working immigrant who taught me how to speak English despite not being able to speak it well herself, so I took great offense to their comment. This person was Caucasian, and I told them not to discriminate against others for their ability to speak two languages proficiently when they themselves were incapable of even speaking their one language (English) properly. This had them stunned and after some nonsensical bickering from their end, I shooed them away. If they had chosen to stay, I may have pushed further, so I’m glad it didn’t get to that point.
In the grocery store, were there other people around you? If so, how did they react?
No one reacted, and once again, we were the only Asian people in the aisle. I’ve noticed a pattern in situations like this one; people are often too afraid to speak up. I believe the few people who occupied the same space as us knew it was wrong, but they were probably uncomfortable. That’s exactly the problem; when people grow uncomfortable, they back away on instinct. Racism is a sensitive, uncomfortable topic for many people, so it doesn’t surprise me that a couple of strangers minded their own business. I was thankful to be there with my mother at the time, but it makes me fear for her in possible future occurrences. What if she’s stuck in a situation without me? This is exactly what happened to many elderly Asian civilians ever since the outbreak instilled fear into non-Asian Americans.
What would you say to anyone facing anti-Asian discrimination?
My biggest piece of advice is to stay safe, first and foremost. I’m usually not one to back down from a fight, but a heated exchange is never worth your life — especially to the hands of a racist. Unfortunately, racism still remains rampant today. Because the coronavirus has been labeled as the “Chinese virus” (thanks, Trump), it’s easy to come across ignorant people who will consider all of us Chinese. I’ve seen and heard of Asians being physically assaulted as a result. If you’re dealing with verbal discrimination, or if someone just makes what they perceive to be a harmless joke, stand up for yourself and the Asian community. In some way, I regret brushing off what happened at the gym. I should have called him out on what he said, and if it weren’t for feeling intimidated by his size and demeanor, I definitely would have. It’s important to not allow people to get away with their insensitivity and ignorance.
Do you think that anti-Asian discrimination via COVID-19 is majorly founded in ignorance or hatred?
I believe it’s a little bit of both. Asians are commonly seen as the “model minority” (which is far from the truth), but they’re also generally considered weak and submissive by non-Asian folks. Because of these stereotypes, there are some people out there who take advantage of us. With COVID-19 known as the “Chinese virus,” the blame is automatically shifted to us and these people project their hatred onto Asian folks under the assumption we’ll simply take it. Their extreme paranoia and ignorance drives them into spiteful, racist territory. As the common saying goes, people fear what they do not understand. That being said, I believe the virus played a big role in making us targets to racism, and while anti-Asian racism certainly exists, the reputation of the virus fanned the flames and gave those people a motive to display their hatred.
What would you like to say to the Asian community as a whole regarding this issue?
I think the Asian American community already does a relatively good job when it comes to defending themselves from discrimination. A lot of us hold so much pride when it comes to our cultures and our families. That being said, I’ve seen far too many incidents of elderly Asian folks being attacked in broad daylight by people who genuinely believe we are the root of this pandemic. We must do a better job at educating others around us, and we should also focus on protecting our families whenever we can at this time.
Aside from this, we also do need to collectively improve on being vocal about people of color as a whole. Oftentimes, I realize we’re too busy standing up for ourselves in our own personal bubbles, but we tend to forget about the racism that affects others.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Karen”- a slang term for an obnoxious, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman.