DULUTH -- 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, Minn., home. At a Brooklyn Park bank, someone spit at a man and blamed him for the pandemic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.