Coronavirus In Ohio: Asian Americans Targeted By Racism During Pandemic

May 19, 2020

Kiwi Wongpeng was driving down Detroit Avenue in Lakewood last month when she noticed another driver who seemed to be yelling at her, so she rolled down her window to hear him.

The Thai American woman caught a barrage of racists insults coming from the red pickup truck as they both drove through Cleveland’s West Side suburb.

"He said lot of mean stuff," Wongpeng said. "But all I heard was, 'You're a virus and get out of America. And that's an order.'"

Racism targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) is on the rise in the United States, including in Ohio, during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of civil rights organizations, in March created an initiative called STOP AAPI Hate, aimed at collecting incident reports of racial discrimination.

Wongpeng said she intends to file a report with A3PCON.

“All this time that the pandemic happened and I heard a lot of stories about hate crimes, every day I was hoping that it would not happen to me or my family or my friends,” she said. “And it happened to me and I was just in shock. It made me feel really small.”

In its first month, STOP AAPI Hate received about 1,500 reports from around the country. About two dozen of those were from Ohio residents, and more than two thirds of all reports came from women.

Wongpeng's story and the 1,500 reports from around the country might not properly reflect the vastness of the problem because most acts of racism go unreported.

A women who wanted to remain anonymous told ideastream that two young men spit on her, told her to go home and chanted 'Corona, corona,' as they biked past her in downtown Columbus.

In Cuyahoga County, the prosecutor’s office says it has not received any recent reports of hate pandemic-related crimes towards Asian Americans so far.

“It is unfortunate to learn that such trends are increasing on the national level, as racism and discrimination has absolutely no place in our society,” the prosecutor said in a written statement. “If we were to receive a case, we would handle it appropriately.”

Stacey Litam, a Cleveland State University professor who studies the impact of racism toward AAPIs, expects these incidents to be grossly underreported.

"A lot of us were raised with the belief that saving face is really important and no one wants to bring shame to their families or to bring shame to their own personal experiences," said Litam, who is also Asian American. "Many Asians tend to try and ignore it and move on."

Litam wants Asian Americans to feel comfortable coming forward when something does happen.

"Until we label our experience, it remains invisible," Litam said. "So, Asians need to call it like it is and say, 'This is racism and I'm going to actively put a name to this and use my voice to challenge people and challenge oppression where it lies.'"

At the same time, AAPI communities need help from allies — people from other cultures — to speak out against racism.

“We find that just that simply challenging when people are engaging in racial types of comments or making racial jokes or even posting a really racist picture on the internet, one person saying ‘Hey, that’s not funny,’ can make a big difference," Litam said. "It makes that person who posted the picture stop and think, ‘Oh, well what meaning am I really sending about who I am and what my beliefs are?'"

Some people fear that shouted racial slurs and verbal abuse could quickly lead to more violent acts. Litam said today’s coronavirus-related hate mirrors "Yellow Peril" – a century-old stereotype of Asians, especially Chinese people, as a threat to Western civilization.

“There is this trend that has existed in America for a long time when things get bad and infectious disease starts to spread,” she said. “It’s not the first time Asian Americans and Chinese people have been scapegoated.”

When some media outlets and politicians – including President Trump – refer to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” the Wuhan virus or the “Kung Flu,” Litam said it heightens the scapegoating and perpetuates hate for AAPIs. Remaining silent, even out of fear, lets the problems continue.

After Wongpeng was harassed while driving in her hometown, she wasn't shy about sharing her story and speaking out on social media, in the hope that word would get around to local politicians and allies. Moving forward, Wongpeng said she hopes more leaders will speak out against coronavirus-fueled racism.