How you can fight racism, according to Asian American doctors

Dr. Alok Patel is In The Know’s health and wellness contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more.

I remember the days of unimaginative kids calling me Aladdin, Mowgli or some other brown-skinned fictional character at school. I brushed it off for years until a family friend was killed in Arizona after 9/11 by a gunman who announced he was going to go out and “shoot some towel heads.”

Alongside every other brown-skinned person, I constantly worried about my family’s safety.

Racial scapegoating, sadly, is a common feature in our world, and fear and ignorance are once again leading to abuse and heinous acts of violence amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reporter Dion Lim’s Twitter feed rattles me every time I see yet another video of the assault or abuse of an innocent Asian person. Since the start of the pandemic, the culture of fear mixed with racist rhetoric about the origins of the virus has led to nearly 3,800 reported hate incidents. Some feel that this may be an underestimation.

After the recent shootings in Atlanta, in which six Asian women were murdered, the outcry against Asian hate reached a peak with #StopAsianHate trending everywhere. I hope this merely isn’t a social trend, but the mark of real change. 

Addressing racism “starts with a conversation,” per rapper and activist China Mac. I took the advice and started a conversation with six of my Asian American physician colleagues. I felt compelled to ask doctors because of the unique position they’ve been in over the past calendar year: working on the frontlines in health care during a pandemic while facing increased racist verbal abuse.

I asked if they experienced any racist attacks in the past year, and here were their replies:

Dr. Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist, said someone yelled racial slurs at him as he walked into the hospital early in the pandemic. 

Dr. Nancy Yen Shipley, an orthopedic surgeon, said while dining at a restaurant, an older couple told her family to “Go back to China.”  

Dr. Staci Tanouye, an obstetrician-gynecologist, says a user on social media asked her, “Why do you eat bats?”

Dr. Dagny Zhu, an ophthalmologist, said she received an anonymous phone call in which someone mocked her Chinese name and kept repeating made-up syllables resembling “Ching Chong.”

None of this surprised me, given the racially-based fear-mongering that has been prevalent throughout the pandemic. A French newspaper used the phrase “Le péril jaune?” (which translates to “Yellow peril?”) in headlines. The phrase yellow peril “frames Asians as perpetually foreign and threatening to Western civilization,” according to Linh Thủy Nguyễn, an assistant professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington.

French Asians immediately fired back against the inflammatory headline with #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (which translates to “I am not the virus”).

And no one needs a reminder of how many times our national leadership used terms “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” to describe COVID-19. Asking politicians to change their speech feels like yelling at a brick wall. We can, instead, change our behavior on an individual level. That being said, I asked my colleagues what the average person can do, on a day-to-day basis, to combat racism.

“It’s important for all of us to reflect on what motivates prejudice,” Dr. Chiang said. “Doing so will help inform how to approach others who may be struggling with the concept of equity and race as merely a social construct.”

Others added that individuals need to accept responsibility for social change. Remember how Dr. Yen Shipley was told to “go back to China” at a restaurant? Her family was asked to leave while the family yelling the slurs were allowed to stay and eat. It’s no surprise her advice is for onlookers to “speak up.”

“Be an active advocate, whether it be for someone you know or for a complete stranger,” she said.

Dr. Staci Tanouye echoed the same sentiment.

“Stand up for us when you see and hear people using racial slurs,” she said. “Don’t let your friends and family make racist comments in private, because what happens behind closed doors is what impacts what happens out in the open.”

Practice what you preach, because, as Dr. Zhu puts it, “challenging these biases starts with yourself, your circle, and ends up going a long way.”

Dr. Jennifer Chung, a physiatrist, emphasized the power of cohesiveness, as embodied by her culture: “If we each assume the mentality of community-over-self, together, we can erode the hate in those emboldened by racist rhetoric.”

Attacking our fellow citizens solves nothing and only further divides us. As comedian and actor Ken Jeong recently said, addressing racism “takes listening, learning, loving” No single person is going to turn the tide — it takes the community-over-self approach to build a culture of empathy.

“Realize that there is more than the neighborhood you live in and that there are so many different cultures that make up our country,” Dr. Wang told me. “When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, your perspective will grow and change dramatically.”

Always remember — we are stronger together when we give each other mutual respect, stand up for one another and band together to fight hate.

If you or someone you know needs support after experiencing race-related bias, discrimination or violence, contact Asian Americans Advancing Justice at (202) 296-2300 or contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at 212-549-2500. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Find a local therapist prioritizing racial justice and liberation through the Inclusive Therapists directory.

Learn how to donate to and support Asian American organizations here.

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