Rising episodes of racism, hate and discrimination against people of Asian descent amid the coronavirus pandemic often take place right in front of bystanders.
But people who have felt the sting of coronavirus-fueled hatred say the pain is deepened when those bystanders fail to react to the outrage.
“I can no longer walk the streets or take public transport without someone scrambling to get away from me,” said Rachel Zhang, a medical student in Sydney who said the pandemic has made her feel unwelcome in a country she calls home. “If I cough to clear my throat, people stare at me in fear.”
Acts of hate are upsetting, Zhang told HuffPost, but what’s more hurtful is when nobody acknowledges what has happened.
“When no one speaks up it almost solidifies ’Oh, this is what everyone thinks,’” she said.
As the coronavirus outbreak worsens, Zhang said she has received a growing number of messages and calls from friends and family about similar experiences.
With members of conservative media, President Donald Trump and others amplifying the xenophobic “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus” terminology to describe the coronavirus, the stigmatization of Asian communities and reported incidences of hate crimes have worsened in America and abroad.
In New York, where numerous attacks on Asian Americans have been logged in recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to report hate crimes. “We have to look out for each other,” he said.
People targeted by racism are shown to experience mental and physical health consequences. Onlookers can play a key role in the seriousness of that suffering with proven ways to reduce distress for victims, according to advocates and experts.
Some responses to obvious racism may seem obvious. Still, research shows that a majority of bystanders will fail to intervene.
For victims of abuse, small gestures from bystanders can go a long way, explained John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“So, for witnesses that see a hate incident, especially verbal abuse, even standing next to the victim, without even saying anything to the perpetrator, gives the victim comfort and a sense of protection,” Yang said.
“And having more people stand next to them to show their solidarity helps to defuse the situation in a way that we don’t want to escalate or have it become physical.”
The Bystander Anti-Racism Project advises bystanders to consider their own safety and seek to avoid being targeted themselves. But standing up to an abuser and labeling acts of racism can be a powerful show of support for the victim, the group said. That kind of support may even show the perpetrator their behavior is unacceptable.
Rosalind Chou, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, explored the concept of witnesses speaking out against xenophobic attacks in her book “The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism.”
“If it’s safe ― and I teach all my students this, we do an exercise about it at the end of the semester ― you support oppression by saying nothing when you know it’s wrong,” Chou said.
“Even just speaking up and saying ‘Hey, that’s not OK’ ... it goes a long way.”
Just physically standing by someone provides comfort, Chou said.
In cases involving violence or where you otherwise can’t do anything, consider calling the police.
And, of course, there’s the overwhelming amount of race-based vitriol on social media.
Andrew Jakubowicz, a sociology professor emeritus at University of Technology Sydney who specializes in cyberracism and race relations, said the coronavirus pandemic had undeniably ramped up racist memes, tropes and disinformation online.
Anyone who sees these hateful or false messages should report them to the social media platform and ask others to as well, Jakubowicz said. But joining the dialogue can also be helpful.
“We know that bystanders have a really powerful effect on racist outbursts,” Jakubowicz said.
This could range from a supportive comment, calling out prejudice or participating in groups intended to support targeted communities.
“If targets get upset and push back, racists often celebrate that as a sign of their success,” Jakubowicz said. “If bystanders, who racists are actually trying to recruit into their mindset, push back, that can demobilize racist attacks significantly.”