The COVID-19 pandemic brought out the best in some people.
We saw healthcare and grocery store workers going above and beyond their duties, kids painted rainbows in their windows to lift the spirits of others, we wore masks to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and those with the financial means stepped up to help those going without.
But, it also brought out the worst in some people.
According to a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, which cites statistics from the FBI, hate crimes aimed at Asian American individuals in America’s largest cities rose by nearly 150% in 2020. In addition, the activist group Stop AAPI Hate recorded firsthand accounts of more than 2,800 incidents of violence toward Asian Americans between March 19 and Dec. 31, 2020.
This hatred and violence gained a spotlight back in April when a man went on a shooting spree in Atlanta, killing eight people — six who were Asian American women — sending shockwaves across the nation and sparking protests to end Asian hate.
Meanwhile, Asian American parents in metro Detroit and Chicagoland grapple with raising kids in a world where they are increasingly at risk of being harmed because of who they are, how they look or where their family originated.
Here, two parents sound off on raising Asian American kids today and what anti-racists can do to put an end to the violence.
The effects of hate
According to Catherine Vuky, an assistant professor and the director of the Asian Mental Health Program at William James College in Boston, the trend in violence toward Asian Americans is nothing new.
“What I’ve seen with my clients and in the news has been happening for many years,” she explains. “It’s more noticeable now because it’s in the news. Since the pandemic, we saw a rise in it but then it went down because people were shut in and it went back up in January.”
And this violence is something that parents of Asian descent have felt all their lives, too.
“I lived and went to school in Livonia as a child from elementary to high school and it was a pretty terrible experience,” says Ron Galang, a father of three from Wayne County. “When you’re growing up, you don’t know what’s happening to you until you put a lens on it as you get older. It was a very racially-driven upbringing.”
Galang, whose parents are originally from the Philippines and moved here in the early ’70s, says that he remembers feeling like an outcast and being bullied because of his heritage — something that ultimately made him reject who he was for a time.
“I didn’t want to be different,” he says. “At the time when I was growing up, there really wasn’t a lot of Asians to surround myself with, but in fitting in, that kind of meant denying who I was. You don’t realize you were doing it, but it’s systemic.”
On the other hand, Ria Pretekin, a mom of two from south Chicago that runs the popular Instagram account, Urban Ohana, never really felt like an outsider — at least not until she moved from Los Angeles to Chicago in her early 20s.
“I grew up in a very predominately Black and Filipino neighborhood and I never really felt othered because I was exposed to so much of my own culture,” she says. “Being in the Midwest is completely different.”
She experienced her first bout with racism while working on the west side of Chicago when kids in the neighborhood would lift their eyes and make derogatory noises at her — and she still feels it when she travels to see her husband’s family, too.
“My husband is from Dayton, so we travel to Ohio to see my in-laws and we see magnets of confederate flags, which is overtly racist to me,” she says. “So, I’m always on guard when we’re stopping and eating. Usually nothing happens, but I’m just ready for it.”
Violence, kids and COVID-19
Since the start of the pandemic, both Galang and Pretekin say that they have felt some of the effects of the rise in anti-Asian violence.
When the shooting in Georgia occurred, Galang says he was full of sorrow and anger.
“When the Atlanta shootings happened, I cried. I was pretty distraught for a few days because I don’t understand how this keeps happening. When I was younger I thought it’d get better as I got older,” he explains. “It’s hard to process because you don’t want to be angry, but I’m angry. You don’t want to lash out, but I want to lash out.”
For Pretekin, the rise in violence causes a sense of sadness and exhaustion.
“We knew that there was going to be a target because of where (the virus) originated (and) it takes a mental toll,” she says. “Prior to the pandemic, I was on the go, a hustler, and now I’m realizing I can’t do that. I’m so exhausted and with the rise in civil unrest, it’s just been a lot.”
In addition to processing their own feelings, both parents also have to help their kids understand what’s happening in order to prepare them for what they may someday have to face, while also encouraging them to embrace who they are.
“I haven’t addressed the recent violence directly, but I think my oldest would understand. I don’t think my 8-year-old would and my 5-year-old just loves life right now, but with my oldest one, I keep telling them that you have to be careful,” Galang says. “Thankfully, and oddly enough, with the pandemic, we aren’t out and about a lot but when we are, we ask them to be careful, to watch out and if anyone says anything, to let us know.”
Pretekin takes a more direct approach by talking to her kids about racism and diversity. She also fights the hate by teaching them to be proud of who they are.
“(My kids) are multi-racial, so knowing that they can be really proud of what it means to be Filipino and Asian American — being proud of our culture, our heritage — (helps),” she says. “My husband is Jewish, so the other part of it for us, is that they realize that Jewish people have also been attacked and what it means to stand up for your beliefs.”
Beyond worrying about their own safety and the safety of their kids, both Galang and Pretekin say that one of their biggest worries about violence toward Asian Americans is that a lot of the violence is directed at the elderly, which causes them to worry for their parents, too.
“I read that a 65-year-old Filipino woman was stomped and kicked at a New York shopping center by a person who was screaming anti-Asian remarks to her and instead of helping, a lot of the store employees just stood there and let it happen,” Galang says. “It hit close to home because my mom is a 65-year-old Filipino woman. That could have been her. Someone could have targeted her, said whatever racist remark and attacked her, and it really bothers me.”
Pretekin adds: “People not doing anything (bothers me) because it just adds to that pain. Before the pandemic, my parents would walk to church, but now you could be going about your business, be attacked and no one would care to intervene.”
With so many different worries that come along with the violence toward Asian Americans, Vuky says that many of the people that she sees experience both anxiety and depression.
“They feel like it’s their fault, that they’ve done something wrong or something is wrong about them,” she explains. “They internalize their negative messages and when no one corrects it, they start believing it.”
To combat these messages at home, Vuky recommends that parents of Asian American children check in with their kids to ask them how they’re feeling and what they think of what’s happening in the world.
“Invite a conversation and ask them what they’re thinking,” she says. “Your kids may not know what to say at first, but let them know it’s OK and keep it open.”
Friends of people who are taking the brunt of Asian American hate or bystanders in instances of violence should also stand up for the person who is experiencing the attack, shut down racism whenever they hear it and talk to their own kids about standing up to bullies.
“We’re all human beings. We might look different than you do but we all have our lives and we’re trying to do our best. We all love, we all hope, we all have a heart and lungs, fingers and toes and we want to make this life the best that we can,” Galang says. “I really do hope that my kids can live in a world where this kind of thing isn’t accepted anymore… I want their world to be better than this one, just like I hoped that the world at this age would be better than what I grew up in.”
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