By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Just walking down the street, Joshua Lee felt rejected. People would move backwards or out of the way—even more than the standard six feet called for by social distancing. But standing in line at the supermarket was worse.
“As an Asian guy with allergies, it’s been super stressful. You feel so weird coughing or sneezing, all the heads snap at you,” said Lee, 27, a Korean American law student at the University of Washington (UW). “If someone else coughs, it’s no big deal, but if an Asian coughs, it’s a really big deal.”
But after seeing a video at the law school about racism, he felt relieved and better able to endure the countless aggressions aimed at Asians and Asian Americans that have been increasing in Seattle and the rest of the country during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Just understanding that they’re not necessarily attacking me personally, that they’re just trying to have control over this situation, has made a huge difference,” he said.
The video, “Disarming Racism,” suggests that people become racist when faced with an “ambiguity” of information about a threat.
“Psychologically, when there’s little information about something as dangerous as a virus, people feel out of control, unable to identify it, and not really knowing the course of the virus,” said Talee Vang, a psychologist who made the video. “In situations like these, humans will seek to find ways to control the situation or at least to try to feel like they are more in control.”
“Throughout history, it has been common practice for humans to find those that are different from them in order to unload all of their fears onto those identified persons,” Vang added.
The video, which also suggested practical strategies for escaping from dangerous situations, is one of many techniques being offered by psychologists, educators, and administrators to cope with racist aggression.
Such strategies have proven useful for another student at the UW law school, a 29-year-old Chinese woman who was shaken when her friend, a Korean American classmate, was verbally attacked in the underground parking garage at the UW.
“She was wearing a mask and some guys drove up and yelled, ‘That’s not going to work, bitch!’” said Kay, who asked that only her English name be used.
After that, Kay decided not to wear a mask in public, for fear she would stand out as an Asian woman—and be subject to the same kind of attack. But after she saw the video, she understood the power dynamics behind such attacks and it reassured her.
“One thing that the video said is that when people feel they are out of control, they are looking for someone to blame, they need a scapegoat and Chinese people are to blame,” she said.
But she still doesn’t wear a mask, “unless it is in a crowded place,” Kay said.
What to do if you are attacked
Sometimes, simply enduring racism is not enough to procure safety. In her video, Vang gives specific tips for escaping from dangerous situations.
Foremost among them is recognizing the “bystander effect,” a paralysis that grips crowds or groups of people when no one has a pre-assigned role, and countering it by asking a specific person for help. The bystander effect was named for a situation in which a young woman was murdered outside her apartment while several people looked on.
To overcome this, Vang exhorts anyone subject to a racist attack to call on someone in the vicinity for help.
She painted the scenario of someone being caught in a grocery store while a person verbally attacks him or her. The person under attack should immediately point to another person, describe how unsafe he or she feels, and then ask for a safe escort out of the store.
“Look for someone, point to them, and say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t feel safe right now, this person is threatening me, can you please’—and this is the part where you get to have an ask—you say to that person, ‘Will you please walk me to the cashier? Will you please walk me to my car?’” said Vang.
Psychologically, the person asked would feel “compelled” to help, said Vang.
But even if that person doesn’t respond immediately, by involving a third party, the targeted person has already disrupted the power dynamic, and can now simply walk away.
It is equally as important to provide support to those who have been targeted.
“If you are someone who’s out and about and you see a racist act, maybe you hear someone refer to Asians in a derogatory way, interject yourself, say something. You can say something as simple as, ‘Excuse me, that is really rude and hurtful. You need to stop being racist.’ Call them out. Then walk away,” said Vang.
Such an act will provide comfort to the targeted person.
Still, not everyone might feel comfortable confronting an aggressor, said Lee and Kay, who both saw the video in a class for peer counselors.
They found another strategy perhaps easier to implement—recognizing the hurt experienced by the person targeted.
“Another thing you can do as a bystander or as an ally is you can go up to the person that was targeted and you can say, ‘Hey, I saw that person was really rude to you.’ Being seen, being heard can do amazing things for the person that was just being targeted,” said Vang.
Lee said this was the technique that he liked the best.
“Even if you see something, even if you couldn’t stop it, just going up to the person afterwards and saying, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through that’—that has stayed in my mind,” he said.
A final technique for disarming racism involves cultivating and nurturing relationships—both with friends and strangers.
“We humans want to connect, we crave relationships. And during times like this, in times of uncertainty and fear and anger, suspicion, it is incredibly important that we connect with one another, find ways in which we are similar and build relationships, build bonds,” said Vang.
She counsels people to practice even making the simplest of gestures as waving “hi” at someone.
“Be warm and be kind,” she said. “These simple gestures can go a long way.”
To view the video, “Disarming Racism,” go to youtube.com/watch?v=O1q1hPLGq24&feature=youtu.be.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.