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As Anti-Asian Attacks Continue, What Kind of Bystander Are You?

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Source: Vanity Fair 

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What R.O. Kwon didn’t fully expect, she writes, was the abiding and overwhelmingly white silence many Asian people have encountered from even would-be allies.

On March 29, in security-camera footage filmed on 43rd Street in Manhattan, Vilma Kari, a 65-year-old Asian woman, was ruthlessly beaten while walking to church. The violence of the assault was shocking; even more shocking, for many people, was the fact that three men stood by and watched, one going so far as to close a glass door in front of the woman’s injured body. (According to the Associated Press, the lobby workers’ union said they “told a union representative they waited until the attacker left because he had a knife” and then flagged down help.)

This assault on Kari is one in a crowded string of attacks on Asian people; 6,603 racist incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, mostly against women, from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021—and those are just the documented incidents of the past year, with Asian people significantly less inclined than other racial groups to report such hatred. From the minute the previous president flouted public health guidelines by calling the virus “Chinese,” I knew, as so many Asian American Pacific Islanders knew, that a lot of ignorant people would blame anyone who looks remotely Chinese for a pandemic that has by now killed more Americans than died on the battlefield in the Vietnam War and both World Wars combined.

And while I expected most white Republicans’ utter disregard for Asian people’s well-being, for they have consistently shown the rest of us who they are, what I didn’t fully expect was the abiding and overwhelmingly white silence many Asian people have encountered from even would-be allies. The day after the Atlanta shootings in March, while our grieving texts to one another flew back and forth, devastated Asian friends brought up close white friends and family members who’d gotten in touch only to ask how they’d celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day. Friends talked about trying to hold back tears while sitting in back-to-back video calls during which not a single colleague even alluded to the massacre. We cried hard and often, when we could. Days passed, then weeks, and still more silence. Did they think we didn’t feel anything?


It seemed that every Asian person I knew had white people telling us that, until Atlanta, they’d never heard of the anti-Asian hatred that has shaped our existence in this country from the very beginning. A lot of people believed and spread the alleged Atlanta killer’s much-publicized explanation that, in targeting three separate Asian massage parlors, he wasn’t being racist. After the FedEx shooting in Indianapolis, though the shooter had white supremacist websites on his computer and targeted a facility known to employ predominantly Sikh people, once again, a lot of people repeated the lie that the killings weren’t racist. And so, silence helps the racism grow, a turning away that can feel not entirely unlike the seeming indifference of those three bystanders on 43rd Street.

The people most affected by the 43rd Street assault are Kari and her loved ones. Their pain is great; it is not mine. But because this hatred targets those of us who could look Chinese, many of us are mourning too, and many are deeply afraid. The Atlanta massacre was not a random shooting; hate-driven attacks are not the least bit random. As has been true for many Asian friends, my other friends of color have known to act accordingly: They’ve offered love privately, and spoken up publicly, understanding that when violence is driven by dehumanizing hatred of a group, a lot of others in that group are grieving too. Part of what I’ve learned from the attack on Kari is that if I am assaulted midday on a busy midtown street, three men could stand by and just watch. Part of what I’ve learned is that if my mother is beaten in the street, a man might look at her and close the doors.

Here is how the silence around anti-Asian racism has felt for the past months, year, and at times throughout my life: like I am mired up to my waist in a terrible, sucking sludge of anxiety and pain. Most days, I can move forward. Some days, I can’t. I look around, and I see some of my people in this muck up to their chins, up past their noses, and some are dying, while white people who say they love us, who believe they’re allies—not all white people, but many—float past on rafts, in garden clothes, chatting about their day.

In writing this, I know that part of what I am saying is “Look at how we’re hurting.” I find this hard to say; it adds to my fury, grief, and exasperation that it might help, a little, if I exhibit my own pain. Asian people in America are experiencing an ongoing catastrophe—as are trans people, Black and other brown people, sex workers, and really every marginalized group living in this powerful, absurdly sludge-flooded country—and with each variety of catastrophe, rafts keep floating past.


To any Asian people who feel bewildered, angered, and gaslighted by white silence in your workplace, classroom, and personal life, I want to say this first: The silence is not acceptable. You deserve much better, and I’m tempted to end this piece here, with us. I’m exhausted by explaining.

What I’m keeping in mind is that, with white loved ones I’ve reached out to, asking why they’ve stayed silent, I’ve been told they hadn’t known what to say, and were afraid of making the pain worse. I too am always learning; I believe myself to be a work in progress, and will believe this until I die. And so, I asked experts what they’d recommend to those at a loss for how to speak up.

Lani Chow, a Bay Area psychotherapist with experience in community mental health, says, “With whatever is silencing you, try to do some of your own work around that. Push through it. Get out of your own way. Dare to do what’s difficult.” To those who fear damaging a relationship by saying or doing the wrong thing, Chow says, “What’s actually going to be more damaging is if you don’t find a way to engage.”

“There are, I think, a lot of people who want to help,” says Linda Leu, executive director of Impact, a Bay Area organization offering bystander-intervention and oppression-interrupting classes. But when injustice is happening, whether in the news or right in front of us, she says, adrenaline can freeze our bodies; practice can help us unfreeze and act.

With China continuing to grow in geopolitical power, as national rhetoric about China being an enemy, the enemy, rises in volume and hostility, this variety of racism, like all racism, will keep requiring countervailing action. Dehumanization begins in language; fighting it requires language as well. Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Los Angeles, notes that “you only have to look at history to see that often, when this country feels threatened, we’re targeted.” White people still constitute a majority in the U.S., and white allies, Joe says, “need to take that step and be brave enough to make public statements, and to express their support” for Asian communities. If something turns out to be not quite right, if it offends or isn’t appreciated, Joe says to take it as an opportunity to learn.

In the past months, in part because I’ve been writing and talking about this racism, I’ve heard from thousands of Asian people about the costs of white silence, but I still cannot, of course, speak for all Asians. We contain such multitudes. It is entirely conceivable that allies’ responses I’ve appreciated might not resonate with your close Asian friend—close, I said, not your high school friend you haven’t talked to in years—or your Asian sibling; they might even prefer silence.

That said, here are ways those I trust, including white people, have helped. The night of the Atlanta massacre, close friends texted with love and sorrow, and they promised to fight. What I heard them saying: I see you, I love you, I hurt with you. Often without telling me, friends posted and tweeted about how to volunteer to walk with Asian elders justifiably afraid to leave their homes, about Asian anti-racism organizations to support. Writer friends mentioned donating to Asian literary organizations. Those who teach held space for mourning students; a friend pushed his 200-person San Francisco company to offer bystander training. People organized fundraisers, attended protests and vigils. It all helped, allaying part of the profound alarm that comes of knowing Asian people constitute only about 6% of this country, of knowing what a majority’s hatred and indifference can do.

For now, until and unless more changes, the attacks will keep happening: I hear about new attacks on Asian people almost every day. And as long as our gun laws are as lax as they are, there will be more mass shootings; most likely, there will be more hate-based atrocities targeting marginalized groups. In other words, we need one another. It turns out that during the 43rd Street attack, there was one bystander, offscreen, who shouted at the man assaulting Vilma Kari, eventually drawing him away. In the GoFundMe for her mother, Kari’s daughter Elizabeth addresses this one other bystander: “I want to thank you for stepping in and doing the right thing. This gesture of action is what we need in our world right now.” If you’ve kept silent: Which kind of bystander are you, and what kind of person do you want to be?

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