'I'm afraid to go anywhere alone': Racial backlash during pandemic raises concerns in Minnesota
Reading articles about Asian hate crimes triggers a physical reaction and memories of past traumatic experiences.
While many people are looking forward to when the stay-at-home order is lifted, it’s a bittersweet prospect for Kim Nordin.
“I'm afraid to go anywhere alone,” she said.
Reports of racism, aggression and even violence toward Asians and Asian Americans are on the rise. The FBI warned about a surge in hate crimes , which some attribute to “China virus” rhetoric.
During the past two months, an Asian American couple found a threatening note at their Woodbury, Minnesota, home. At a Brooklyn Park bank, someone spit at a man and blamed him for the pandemic.
In the Bronx, four teens were charged with attacking a woman with an umbrella on a bus. A family, including a 6- and a 2-year-old, were stabbed in a Texas Sam’s Club .
Reading articles about Asian hate crimes triggers a physical reaction and memories of past traumatic experiences, Nordin said.
“I thought about my 9-year-old son and had flashbacks of how hard it was for me as an Asian in a pretty all-white community — being bullied as a kid or being fetishized as a young woman, all of that bubbled up to the surface on top of being afraid of getting coronavirus,” she said.
“COVID is exposing what has always been true, that racism, xenophobia and oppression are pervasive and persistent,” said Rebecca Lucero, Minnesota Department of Human Rights commissioner.
The organization has a long history of investigating reports under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and in early April, MDHR and Gov. Tim Walz launched a help line, open for anyone to call in experiences of bias or discrimination.
Julie Kim said she braced for a backlash toward people who look Chinese. Kim is Korean and has lived in Duluth for 45 years.
Pre-pandemic, she said there were glares, stares and a sense of not belonging. And sometimes that comes in the form of culturally insensitive questions, such as “Where are you from?" followed by, "Where are you really from?”
Kim relayed reports of harassment at a laundromat, and Asian Americans being called “COVID-19" in the Duluth community.
People don’t think to report small, hurtful actions to a hot line, Nordin said. It instead leads to a fear response, withdrawal and early self-rejection.
Nordin recalled when her son’s classmate yelled across the room, “I know you’re from a different country.”
When her son returned home: “Basically, what he was saying was, ‘I wish I was white, I wish I had blonde hair.’ And I remember that from when I was younger.”
“Yeah,” added Kim.
Talking about it comes with anxiety, but it's important to give these experiences a voice, they said.
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The City of Duluth has processed complaints from people of Asian descent in recent months.
Human rights officer Carl Crawford listed a few: “The different looks, the murmurs, conversations under people’s voices they get at the grocery store or out handling day-to-day business.”
He noted effects on children and their relationships with friends due to xenophobia and beliefs about the cause of the pandemic. There’s also an impact on black and brown people, he said. Crawford recalled recently standing in a grocery store checkout line. The cashier put on gloves when Crawford was ready to pay.
“At first, I was, like, ‘I get it; you’re trying to be safe.’ Why not be safe for anyone? For me, it felt as though because of who I am, a man of color, they had to protect themselves against me,” he said.
There’s also an added connotation to wearing a mask or facial covering for men of color, and Crawford described mentally preparing for how he might be treated in public.
People generally keep these issues to themselves, he said. It may feel triggering or traumatizing. Crawford encouraged the public, friends or witnesses to report issues and experiences to the Human Rights Office or the MDHR. After a report is submitted to the state, an investigation can lead to mediation, structural or policy changes, training, education, outreach.
“When that happened in the grocery store, I absorbed that myself. I was definitely hurt, but the only way we can fix and challenge these things is if we know about them,” he said.
Crawford noted heightened fear of “the other” affecting local transplants, people with different accents and those who have traveled outside of Duluth. And economically, the pandemic hits families that don’t have resources to stock supplies.
Across Minnesota, there's concern for Pacific Islanders, Muslim and Jewish communities, Lucero said.
We know that stigma hurts everybody. It creates fear. It impacts how people of color engage here, and that’s something we don’t want in our community, Crawford said.
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Passing off xenophobia and racism as a public health concern runs deep in U.S. history, according to Erika Lee, University of Minnesota professor and author of "America For Americans: A History Of Xenophobia In The United States."
SARS was first reported in Asia in 2003, Ebola in 1976 West Africa, typhus in 1800s Ireland. In times of epidemics, existing prejudices and ideas about groups get medicalized.
“It’s no mistake that certain diseases get attached to immigrant groups that are the perceived threat at the time,” Lee said in an NPR interview.
Weeks ago, Nordin posted her concerns on Facebook, and the number of people who commented and reached out with support was affirming, she said.
Caring actions and acknowledgement are what can help right now. It’s amazing how far a “hello,” wave or “How ya doing?” can go. We can practice social distancing, and still check in on our neighbors, Crawford said.
“That sends the message that you're not alone in this fight, that we have your back and if anything happens, that I will be there,” added Kim.
What also helps is to call coronavirus what it is, to correct people who refer to it otherwise. Speak out against negative behaviors in person and on social media.
Lucero said this is a time of grief, but it also compels us to build on our interconnectedness, to move away from blame and "othering" and to move toward solidarity.
“There are so few moments in history where everything gets reset,” she said.
Many people find racism deeply embedded in every part of the American system, and we have this “structural reformation” in front of us, Lucero said. There will be tremendous pressure to return to the status quo, but she wants a better world: "I think Minnesota really wants to get through this together.”
How to help
- Educate each other. Call coronavirus what it is, and correct others.
- Support Asian-owned small businesses.
- Reach out to friends and co-workers of marginalized groups.
- Don't underestimate the power of a smile, a wave or a nod of acknowledgement.
- Speak out against negative behaviors in person and on social media.
- To view the City of Duluth's complaint process, visit https://bit.ly/2VNMna0 . Call the Human Rights office at 218-730-5630, or email HumanRights@duluthmn.gov .
- To report to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, visit https://bit.ly/2yuLuLL or call 651-539-1133, toll-free at 800-657-3704.
- Other ways to help: Navigatemn.org, https://bit.ly/3aCmv6y
Health care disparities
There are reported rates of infection based on race, but data isn't aggregated in a way that is most helpful to Minnesota, said Rebecca Lucero, Minnesota Department of Human Rights commissioner.
Undocumented immigrants are afraid to go to the hospital, and they’re dying at home, potentially unaccounted for, Lucero said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting underlying health issues and racial disparities, which are the result of poverty, inadequate access to health care and educational inequalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many people of color work in essential jobs, which leads to a higher risk of exposure. And some people may be suspicious of or resistant to seeking medical treatment.
There is a history of distrust between communities of color and health care, such as the Tuskegee Experiment , said Carl Crawford, Human Rights Officer for the City of Duluth.
The Duluth NAACP branch has posted pandemic-related health care videos on their YouTube channel . With ASL interpretation, regional Drs. Arne Vainio and Verna Thornton talk about why sheltering in place matters, maternal care during the pandemic and safety measures for black, indigenous people of color, those living in rural communities and more.
The pandemic is hitting housing for marginalized communities, said Ruth Cabrera, administrative assistant for the local NAACP chapter. Also, attempts to get protections are exasperated or halted completely.
“It’s an expansion of what minorities face daily,” Cabrera said.
There were challenges pre-pandemic, and there will be challenges afterward.
“In between, we have an opportunity to work on some of the disparities in our health care system that have kept people unequal," Crawford said.
He encouraged people to report bias or discrimination by calling the Human Rights office at 218-730-5630, or by emailing HumanRights@duluthmn.gov.