'Just painful': Westport residents react to rise of anti-Asian-Pacific Islander hate crime

Photo of Katrina Koerting

WESTPORT — Reports of hate crimes and discrimination toward the Asian and Pacific Islander community have increased during the pandemic, but residents say racism toward these communities isn’t new.

More than 50 residents gathered virtually for a community forum on Wednesday to share their experiences and reactions to the recent rise of these incidents, culminating in the shooting at spas in Atlanta on March 16, which killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.

“I feel like I’m on the verge of tears every time I think about it,” said Patra Kanchanagom, one of the residents who spoke.

The forum was organized by TEAM Westport as part of a larger effort to dismantle white supremacy and address diversity and equity. The event was also a show of support for the Asian and Pacific Islander community and what they’re experiencing.

“We’ve heard what’s happened, see what’s going on and we’re very much in solidarity with the AAPI community,” said Harold Bailey, chairman of TEAM Westport.

Residents who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander who spoke during the forum recalled instances where they were personally attacked, including being called racial slurs, having people mock the shape of their eyes and strangers yelling at them in public to go back home. Others said stereotypes were thrust upon them, including the assumption they would be good in STEM subjects and so their hardwork was devalued.

Others spoke of feeling invisible and like they don’t belong in a particular group.

“This has gone on since before the pandemic,” said Evelyn Chen, who added she started seeing more occurrences in 2017 and 2018 with national leaders enabling it with their own comments.

When the pandemic hit and news came out about the connection the coronavirus had with China, some people said they started seeing people avoid them in public spaces, even before COVID was reported in Connecticut.

There have been about 3,800 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents in the U.S. since March 2020, according to Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative created last year to track and respond to incidents of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It was started by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University in response to to the “alarming escalation in xenophobia and bigotry resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the coalition.

The FBI hasn’t released its 2020 numbers yet. In 2019, it reported more than 7,300 incidents of hate crimes motivated by race. Of those, 159 were anti-Asian and 21 were against native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders.

“The Georgia shooting is just painful,” said Heather Lee, one of the residents who spoke. “No one should get shot for going to work, especially because of your race or stereotype.”

She said it’s important to understand the historic aspect of how waves of hate crimes against different groups changed over time in the U.S. Still, she said she’s concerned.

“The recent phenomena has been really painful, especially as we see elderly people of Asian descent getting attacked and killed,” Lee said.

It’s one of the reasons she started a program in the district where she teaches that tackles stereotypes and their harmful effects. She was speaking with another colleague who teaches about genocide and said it often starts as a joke but it can escalate to different levels, all the way up to genocide.

“It’s very important as a parent and educator to stop it at the baseline,” Lee said.

Nat Smitobel said there seems to be a growing trend of “color blindness” among children, but this is actually harmful to people of color because it fails to recognize their different experiences.

Others agreed it was important to have conversations with children about race from early on about race and differences so that they could understand those differences without levels of fear added in.

Some said the recent incidents have been triggering and prompted them to reexamine events from their childhood when they knew something was wrong but didn’t have the vocabulary or background to understand why. They said something needed to be done to prevent other children from experiencing this.

“I think culturally you’re taught not to speak up and that has hurt us,” Chen said.

Some said they’re no longer teaching their children that and to instead stand up for themselves, yet the problems persist.

“I think standing up isn’t enough,” Lee said. “You need the environment to change too.”

Minnie Seo, another resident who spoke, said she’s proud of her heritage and stood up for herself when she experienced racist incidents but felt unsupported and nothing changed. She said it shouldn’t also be her responsibility to constantly challenge a system that protects whiteness.

“I’ve never hated my identity,” she said. “I’ve never hated being Korean. I’ve hated what happened to me.”

She knows of people who had surgery to change the shape of their eyes and many anglicize their names.

People at Wednesday’s forum also wondered how they could break down barriers and be accepted in a town that’s predominantly white.

About 90 percent of Westport’s nearly 28,500 residents identify as white. About 6 percent identify as Asian, 4.5 percent as Hispanic and 1.1 percent as Black, according to U.S. Census data.

Some of the speakers said they were pleased to see so many people in the forum, including those who are white and want to be allies.

Several of the residents who spoke on Wednesday also organized a peaceful gathering for 10 a.m. Saturday on Jesup Green as a way to show solidarity with the AAPI community and stand against hate incidents against these groups.

Bailey said TEAM Westport and the schools have a number of initiatives in the works, including teams in the schools to address incidents. The equity study is also set to launch in the district.

“There’s a great deal of work going on to change the environment,” he said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com