‘I don’t have the virus’: Asian Americans in Minnesota confront a COVID-19 backlash

Published 3:12 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2020

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By Riham Feshir and Hannah Yang, Minnesota Public Radio News


A white woman plugs her nose at the sight of a Hmong American shopper at a Twin Cities mall.

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A St. Paul mother, also of Hmong descent, says two delivery men refused to install a new washer in her home after accusing her teenage son of being sick.

And a state Health Department hotline intended to answer questions about the new coronavirus has been fielding a high volume of calls from the public complaining about Asian Americans.

Many Minnesotans of Asian descent say they’re facing increased hostilities — from name-calling to denial of services, as COVID-19 spreads across the state. State officials say it’s too early to say whether there’s been an uptick in complaints, but say they’re busy investigating cases related to the backlash.

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, said she heard from someone who was harassed on a recent walk.

“Somebody else saw them and said something like, ‘Take your virus and go back home,’” Thao-Urabe said. “Things like that are making people feel like there is a lot of assumptions about who are carriers. And Asian Americans, regardless of whether you’ve traveled, seem to have become the target.”

Earlier this month, Gao Fitch searched for her daughter’s birthday present at Rosedale Center in Roseville. The mall was mostly empty except for small groups of walkers trying to get in a good workout.

As Fitch made her way to the mall’s exit, an older white woman was walking toward her and noticed that Fitch was getting closer.

“She plugged her nose, and I didn’t think of it at all,” said Fitch, who is Hmong American. “I just thought maybe she’s kind of walking by an area that maybe had a bad odor.”

Then it hit Fitch that there wasn’t a foul smell. In her mind, the walker’s strange behavior went way beyond the social-distancing measures recommended by public health officials. Fitch ended up walking to her car, where she cried.

“I felt like, ‘OK, you know, I wasn’t sick,’” said Fitch, who still gets emotional when she thinks about the incident. “I don’t have the virus, and I felt judged based on my race.”


Shouted at and refused service

Rebecca Lucero, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, said her office is hearing from a number of Asian American community members and community leaders about the public resentments they’re facing due to COVID-19. People being yelled at in public or being refused service are two common complaints.

The department collects these reports, investigates them and then concludes whether any amounts to a violation of state law.

Some of it falls under free speech and does not rise to the level of a charge.

It’s still early in the data-gathering stage to be able to share details of these reports of discrimination that the department has received, Lucero said. Her office is urging people to call the police if they experience hate crimes or violence. The department is trying to create a system that responds to oppression and xenophobia.

“In times of fear and uncertainty, it can be easy to pull back into the past of oppression instead of moving forward together,” Lucero said. “Any language that creates divisiveness, that adds bias, that creates discrimination, that amplifies hate crimes, is not the Minnesota that we want.”

Critics of President Donald Trump say his rhetoric isn’t making it easier for Chinese Americans and by extension, Asian Americans at large. Trump has repeatedly called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

The World Health Organization warns against associating viruses with specific countries or ethnicity, and Trump appears to have backed off in recent days. This week, he urged people to look out for Asian Americans, who might be subjected to, as he put it, “nasty language.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has weighed in on Twitter, reiterating that “Viruses don’t discriminate and neither should we. #OneMinnesota.”


‘Is it because we’re Asian?’

Kathy Thao felt her family was on the receiving end of virus-related discrimination last week after two delivery men failed to install her new washer. She said one of the men accused her son of being sick, even though she said he was healthy and not showing any symptoms.

Thao’s son, who is 19 and was home at the time, told her they scoped out the laundry room. But when they came back upstairs, one of the workers asked him if he was sick.

“My son told him that he wasn’t sick, and he asked if my son was lying,” Thao said, “And he actually told my son that, ‘We can’t do this.’”

Thao said she suspected her family was being discriminated against because they are Hmong. The family had paid for the washer to be installed and the old one to be taken out. But the delivery men ended up leaving the new washer in the garage instead.

“My husband quickly called the delivery guys,” she said. “My husband asked, ‘Is it because we’re Asian?’ And he answered, ‘Yes.’”

A spokesperson for Best Buy, where Thao purchased her washer, said it’s hard to know exactly what happened, but is asking its third-party delivery team to look into the matter further.

“On one hand, there may have been racist behavior, which would be clearly intolerable under absolutely any circumstance,” said company spokesperson Carly Charlson. “On the other, you may have appropriate precautions being taken by a third-party delivery team who say they saw a member of the customer’s family coughing and looking sick, and therefore made their own decision on behalf of their own safety. We would strongly condemn the first behavior and support the second, but can’t know which one to apply in this case.”


Callers take to a state hotline

Meanwhile, the state’s main hotline for providing answers to Minnesotans’ health-related questions about the coronavirus has gotten lots of calls from people blaming Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans for the virus.

Danushka Wanduragala, international health coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Health, said callers were also blaming other immigrant and refugee communities, saying that they believe lax immigration policies have contributed to the spread of the virus.

“We received enough racist and xenophobic comments on our hotline that we had to develop resources for our hotline staff to be able to respond to some of those comments,” he said, “and make sure that they can focus on getting information out to the caller and not spend so much time having to deal with comments like that.”

The Health Department receives about 2,000 calls a day now, Wanduragala said, but it’s not clear what percentage of those are from either victims of racism or complaints about immigrant communities.

The talking points developed by MDH urge hotline staff to acknowledge people’s concerns, stay away from language that blames others like “carriers” and to avoid assumptions about who the caller thinks is sick.

Sai Xiong, 33, of St. Paul said he’s seen so many incidents of racial discrimination tied to COVID-19 on his social media feeds that the owner of a local Hmong American clothing line decided to create T-shirts and hoodies that say: “I am not a virus.”

Xiong began producing the clothing last week and is already filling orders.

He said he personally has experienced subtle forms of racism ever since fears of the pandemic emerged several weeks ago. Now, he said, he’s hyper-aware of the color of his skin and how other Americans view him.

“It hurts to have it here in the back of your mind,” he said. “Because your focus is never 100 percent at what you do.”