[Trigger warning, this article mentions acts of violence]
More than a year ago, the coronavirus brought fear and uncertainty to our communities. (Mis)information spread as fast as the virus itself. Media outlets mentioned Wuhan, China where COVID-19 was first reported; driving a narrative that blamed China for the virus. Former U.S President Donald Trump’s references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” put Chinese Americans (and those perceived as Chinese Americans) in danger. Even after Trump’s presidency and amidst the U.S. vaccination rollout, I still fear for Asian American Pacific Islander communities (AAPI). A post-COVID world does not equate to a post-racial world.
On March 26th 2021, Vilma Kari was attacked on the sidewalk on her way to church in New York City. The assailant kicked her to the ground and stomped on her head repeatedly, saying she did not “belong here”. He walked away, leaving her on the ground bleeding. The attack was caught on security camera from inside a luxury residential building. The footage also captures the building’s doormen, who remained inside as the violence occurred; one of them even closing the door on Vilma.
Vilma’s story was an added weight on my already-heavy heart. Exactly two weeks earlier, a mass shooting left eight people dead in the state of Georgia. Of the eight victims, six were Asian women. The shooting was an example of intersectionality: violence based on gender and on race. I saw my identity in the crosshairs and my worst fear realized; that as an Asian American woman I could be sexualized, dehumanized, and my life put in danger.
I was still feeling vulnerable when Vilma’s story trended on Facebook. It hit closer to home – literally and figuratively. Vilma is a 65-year-old woman who emigrated from the Philippines to New York City. Just outside the city lives my own Filipino mother who is already risking her life daily working in a hospital during a pandemic. Would someone tell my Mom she does not belong here? While I still needed time to reclaim my peace after the shooting in Georgia, Vilma’s story reminded me that it wouldn’t be enough; I must also do my part to help reclaim peace for the global Asian community.
The way I see it, there is an important difference between reclaiming or seeking peace for ourselves, and peacebuilding. Seeking peace is a personal effort that ultimately helps us to manage and find respite from the trauma and stressors in our lives. Peacebuilding, on the other hand, is different. What is being built is not just for you as an individual, but for the communities you belong to. Peacebuilding is a social act. Therefore, if we choose to build peace, we must be brave enough to engage with others.
Engaging with others, particularly perpetrators of violence, can be risky. Unregulated online speech, reinforced by targeted algorithms, has polarized personal and political beliefs. These echo chambers of harmful belief systems have encouraged individuals to publicly dehumanize and abuse others – in this case, those who they believed “caused the coronavirus”. Amongst the aggressors and victims are onlookers, who for varying reasons may feel disengaged or disempowered to do anything. Addressing the issue of disengagement is another conversation, but for those who feel disempowered, there are resources available on how to become an active bystander and respond to harassment safely.
As we “close” the social distance put in place to protect each other’s health, let us continue to prioritize each other’s safety by committing to be active bystanders. In Vilma’s GoFundMe page, her daughter Katherine expressed thanks to those who donated and one person who chose to intervene:
One of the first methods each organization advises to avert violence is to distract. I am grateful someone intervened, luring Vilma’s assailant away. My hope is that we all have someone keeping an eye on us from the other side of the street. That in times of need, we are brave enough to be that person on the other side of the street.
To report a hate crime or attack, call 9-11 and visit stopaapihate.org/reportincident/