What do Asian Americans think of whites?

Coronavirus: Asian Americans fear physical attack

Sarah Baker and Bill Tashima are third generation Americans with Japanese grandparents. Both live in Seattle, northwest Washington state, and have seen the city grow into one of the hotspots for coronavirus cases in the country. As of Sunday (March 22nd, 2020) more than 90 people had died in the Seattle district and more than 1,750 were infected.

Baker and Tashima are on the board of directors of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the country's oldest and largest Asian-American civil rights organization. In addition to their work for the JACL in Seattle, they set up a Facebook group on their own. Its aim is to help Asian Americans cope with the impact the coronavirus is having on their lives and businesses. The online community grew to more than 11,000 members in just 12 days.

DW met Sarah Baker and Bill Tashima for an interview and first wanted to know what triggered the group to be founded and what they had achieved so far.

DW: What did you notice about people's reaction to the coronavirus and why did you start a Facebook group?

Bill Tashima: There is latent, sometimes less latent, xenophobia in the United States. And when something has to do with a recognizable race, it is seen through a specific lens. For example, if COVID-19 had broken out in England, I think the response to people of that ethnicity would have been different.

When the new coronavirus first surfaced and news of it came from Wuhan, China, the first reaction in Seattle was that many people were simply avoiding Chinatown. And in Seattle we have a Chinatown-International District, which means that it's not just Chinese, but a lot of Vietnamese, a lot of Filipinos. There is also the former Japantown.

Chinatown and the District are small family businesses and rely on customers. Sarah started a whole bunch of Facebook posts about how sad it was and how empty some places were.

I thought, "I can do my part too," and went to a restaurant in the District that is usually very busy. I was the only person there and thought, "This can't go on like this. We have to support our community." And that's how I started this Facebook group.

We all felt that it is still safe to eat and shop in small groups in restaurants. And there were other ideas: take-away, vouchers or food delivered to you. First of all, I sent out an invitation to the group to friends. In a few hours we had about 400 members. That was twelve days ago. We currently have an average of 1,000 new members per day and have just passed the 11,000 mark.

The nice thing about it is that it is based on individual posts from those affected and the posts tell stories about the restaurants, the shops and the district, which makes it very personal. With beautiful pictures of the food, of the people, so that people want to go there.

Has the platform changed anything?

Tashima: The number of customers has increased again and we were very satisfied. And we've expanded the idea to include small businesses and family restaurants in other areas. Because now all of these Seattle shops and restaurants are suffering.

Sarah Baker: As the coronavirus situation changes every day, we need to stay vigilant because we don't want people to put themselves or others in danger.

So it went from "Get out there and support local restaurants!" to "Stay at home and support local restaurants!" The coronavirus is definitely not hype. When we initially decided to call it "Beat the Hype", we meant the hype of racism. It's really about communities all over the city of Seattle coming together.

How have your interactions changed since the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan?

Tashima: We're lucky, so far there has been no violent reaction against the group. But the stricter the rules get and the more isolated people are, the more fear builds up and I worry about possible physical violence. I think as Asian Americans we feel this suspicion from people all the time. I rarely go shopping. I participate in social distancing, but I notice the added social distancing that people bring to me.

Baker: Overall, this speaks for many systemic problems that we had anyway and that are now coming to the fore. We've talked about people seeing Asians as a group. But if you look at these different communities, they are very different. The fact that this generalization is happening right now shows what the world actually is like, though people are otherwise trying to hide it.

I haven't personally seen any attacks, but I've definitely heard stories from people who have been discriminated against. In Seattle it has probably remained with minor aggression so far. But there have been reports of other places in the United States and the world where people of Asian descent have been physically assaulted. We are also afraid of it.

Tashima: There was a really disturbing post on our Facebook group that went something like this: Now, if you feel paranoid and threatened every time you go to a store or meet other people - remember that there are others who do too are not white, so long goes on every day. And now it's the same with Asian Americans.

Baker: For Japanese-Americans, this is definitely also a reminder of what happened to the internments during World War II, when people were openly hostile to Japanese, Asians, and Asian-Americans just because of their looks. To see that again now is sad.

What can an online group like yours achieve in these times?

Tashima: I think, if anything, our group created a platform where people can be encouraged and inspired. Right now the situation is so unclear, there is so much fear. And yet we still care about other people and try to consider: What can we do? How can we help? I think the success of this group is having members post what they do, how they can help, and share creative ideas. Sarah and I are overjoyed and encouraged by the community's response. So we owe a lot to everyone out there.

Sarah Baker and Bill Tashima are third generation Americans and on the board of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the oldest and largest Asian-American civil rights organization in the United States. Julia Mahncke conducted the interview.