The COVID-19 pandemic has affected different communities in different ways. For many members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, it has meant an increase in hate and violence. That became a central part of the national conversation after the Atlanta spa shootings in March, when eight people — including six Asian women — lost their lives.
“It really shook me, I guess, there’s really no other way to describe that,” said Jackie Nguyen, the owner of Kansas City-based mobile Vietnamese coffee shop Cafe Cà Phê. “There was a different level of fear that came to owning my business as I saw that more and more business owners that were getting attacked were female and Asian.”
Nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents, ranging from verbal harassment to assault, were reported between March 2020 and February 2021, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks incidents of discrimination and hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The most common place for that discrimination, where more than 35% of instances occurred, was businesses.
“I have to be pretty wary of protecting me and my other coworker, but as soon as those other attacks happened it really put my guard up super high, because I felt, like, “Whoah, am I even more of a target,’” Nguyen said.
One way that Nguyen has tried to protect herself is by hiding her identity altogether in public.
“I feel like my life can be in danger,” she said. “I dress up and kind of cover my face. … I don’t want people to know that I’m Asian and I’m out in public. … That’s really messed up, but that’s kind of what I’ve had to do.”
Sumie Okazaki, a New York University psychology professor focused on the impact of immigration, cultural change and race, said one reason for the hate is implicit biases that affect how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are perceived.
“No matter how many generations that Asian Americans have been in this country, because of differences in culture traditions, whether dress or other traditions from our heritage countries, there’s a sense that Asian Americans are never truly American,” Okazaki said.
According to Okazaki, negative political rhetoric connecting Asian Americans to the coronavirus is another reason for the trend.
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Chris Benson, the director of marketing for Kansas City-based advertising agency Timewise Media, said the local Asian American community was affected by this association with COVID-19.
“Asian businesses and Asian events were definitely put on hold because of the pandemic,” Benson said. “There was just that stigma. … The Chinese, they had to postpone a lot of their events, because they were just, like, “We can’t be doing this now because there’s the controversy with the coronavirus. There’s some people who might protest against us and might cause violence.’”
Benson has been a member of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City, or the AACC, for more than a decade. He said the group helps to strengthen the local Asian American entrepreneurial community.
Though Asian Americans often get generalized under one label, Benson said, it’s important to understand there are dozens of Asian countries with their own unique cultures.
“A lot of the hate or things are geared towards Chinese, but we’re all categorized as one,” he said. “That’s something that the AACC accomplishes. It binds us, but also segregates us. We’re different, but we have a lot of the same influences.”
After the Atlanta shooting drew attention to anti-Asian discrimination, Benson said he has noticed increased awareness and support of Asian Americans, as well as improved representation.
“There has been a shift and a change,” Benson said. “There’s a lot of demand for Asians in the marketing world. If you look at commercials and how they’re advertising, they’re showing a lot of Asian influence. … The awareness is definitely there.
“We’re here, there’s going to be more Asian community, more Asian population growth, and we can have a positive impact on America as a whole.”
Nguyen said her coffee shop has experienced this community response as well.
“We held a vigil for the victims in Atlanta, and ever since then … our customer base has doubled in size, our following on social media has doubled,” Nguyen said. “We’ve found that a lot of the products that we’ve released that say “Support Asian-owned businesses” — a lot of people are purchasing those. So I’ve seen a lot of the community come out and support us in particular.”
Nguyen said she is determined to continue running her business in hopes of “amplifying the Asian narrative.”
“I haven’t really changed much with my business,” she said, “because, in a way, I feel like that’s a sign of, like, giving in to the fear tactics of certain people who try to be behind the hate crimes.”