Xenophobic behavior on the rise towards Asian Americans in Utah in relation to COVID-19 misinformation

Coronavirus Updates

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – As COVID-19 impacts communities around the world, Asian Americans across the country and in our state are facing more than just the fear of contracting the virus. Officials at Weber State University said xenophobic behavior against Utahns of Asian descent are on the rise.

Across the country, physical assaults have been reported in New York, vandalism in California, and many more incidents of name-calling and similar discrimination.

“While this global pandemic is affecting all of us […] in our day-to-day lives, some of us are impacted in more direct, hostile, and overtly racist ways,” said Adrienne Andrews, Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Chief Diversity Officer for Weber State University. “The primary thing I’m seeing or hearing is that people are associating the pandemic with Chinese individuals.”

In a letter addressed to campus Friday, Andrews mentioned several reports of attacks against Chinese American students and community members:

“Let me share that two Chinese students were sprayed with Lysol at a Cedar City Walmart and told to ‘go home.’

In our own community, a Chinese family was sworn at and told to ‘go back to China,’ when they were out in their own yard.

Another Chinese community member was running on one of our beautiful trails when another woman, picked up a stick, hit her with it and told her ‘go back to China.’ The fear and hatred is real, and it is here.”

Andrews said officials are concerned about the safety and well-being of their students, staff, faculty, and community members and want to foster an inclusive and supportive environment.

“Here in Ogden, Salt Lake City, Cedar City, wherever it may be, people are saying, ‘You are the cause of this pandemic. It’s your fault’ and that’s not true,” she said.

West Valley City native Chamnap In said his parents experienced xenophobic treatment while they were shopping at the Walmart on Friday.

“My mom was looking at the rotisserie chicken and some customers told the clerk that she was opening up the chicken, going through and spreading germs. The clerk came and started yelling at my parents without even looking into what happened,” said In. “They told my parents to leave because they were ‘making people sick.’ Those customers harassed her afterwards, called her profanity words, and told her to go home.”

In said he was out in Omaha, Nebraska for work at the time of the incident. As the only child in his family, he felt helpless being unable to support and console his parents in person. Walmart has not returned a request for comment.

“My mom is in her late 60s and just 4’9. Ever since then, she and my dad are scared to go out. They’re fearful. They’re going to be looking over their shoulders,” he said. “A part inside me just died and I’m in so much pain that my parents have to go through this because I wasn’t there to protect her. I would never wish that upon anybody, especially our older folks. Nobody should be afraid to leave their homes because of something like this.”

On social media, multiple people shared their own xenophobic experiences.  Taylorsville resident Kaysha Matsuura posted that someone said, “Go back inside, you nasty Chinese [expletive]” when she was taking the trash out on Friday. Linda Huynh shared a post by a Facebook user under the name Grant Wolsey Jr. that said, “Home Depot closing at 6 p.m. because of the gook flu. Chinese hitting us where it hurts.”

“The reality is people become their worst selves in this sorts of situations and pandemic. They lash out at anyone that they perceive as different from themselves out of fear, out of anger and confusion,” said Andrews.

She added, “It’s horribly damaging and emotionally shattering, no matter your age. But for a young person, it makes you think there’s something wrong with you. You start to question yourself. But the reality is no, you’re not doing anything wrong.”

Christian Phomsouvanh, President of WSU’s Asian Student Involvement Association (ASIA) said there tends to be less dialogue around racially-motivated attacks and rhetoric towards Asian Americans because often times, race can be viewed as a black and white issue. He said his goal is to spread awareness about anti-Asian racism, inform others on how to report it if it happens to them, and know to respond or react in an appropriate way.

“What I don’t want to see is racism against Asians normalized or for people to forget what happened when this whole outbreak dies down,” he said. “This is happening to somebody you know so make sure you’re educated. We will show that we are here, we’re not going to be shut down by the negative comments or behaviors. We can and we will persist and we have persistence for years.”

Andrews is now working with Phomsouvanh and other groups to urge the public to condemn this type of behavior and offer support.

“We urge all people to actively dispel xenophobic misinformation that COVID-19 is linked to individuals of a specific ethnicity, race, or national origin and to prioritize efforts in addressing the needs of marginalized populations while stamping out stigma, blame, prejudice, myths, rumors, and hate,” said Andrews. “We love all the members of our community. We welcome everyone. We all belong here and if people are attacking you, please tell someone.”

She also urges elected officials and law enforcement to speak out and condemn acts of hate to help combat the issue.

“Our leadership has every opportunity to step up, say this is not acceptable, and that there will be accountability for these types of incidents,” said Andrews. “We are only as strong as our weakest community members and when we have people who are targeted based on ethnicity or race, then we are not strong at all.”

For more information on how to address xenophobic behavior in your community, click here for Teaching Tolerance’s article on “How to Respond to Coronavirus Racism.”

To report biased incidents against Asian Americans related to COVID-19, click here for the Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s website.

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