I was born and raised in California and have lived in various states across the country, from New York and Texas to Illinois and now Washington. In other words, I’m an American.
Yet I’ve been told to “go back to China” more times than I can count.
I’ve had someone mockingly bow to me on the sidewalk and speak some made-up gibberish. I’ve had strangers yell at me from passing cars shouting for extra egg rolls and fortune cookies. I’ve even had well-intentioned coworkers ask if I can understand their pronunciation of some random Mandarin phrase.
And this was all before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Now with hate crimes against Asian Americans and those of Asian descent on the rise — including here in supposedly progressive and “woke” Seattle — I’m bracing myself for the worst.
Is someone going to scream at me, spit on me or try to hit me because they think I’m to blame for this pandemic? (For the record, those are all real things that have happened here in Seattle.) Should people who look like me expect to experience xenophobic or racist vitriol while grocery shopping, returning to school or even going to work?
Sadly, the answer is yes.
“Everything that happens in society happens inside our health system,” explains Paula Houston, EdD, UW Medicine’s chief equity officer. “All of the ‘isms’ and all of the phobias that are happening outside in society are reflected in our health system as well.”
The mental and emotional toll of racism
People of color are mentally and physically exhausted from having to constantly think about and deal with microaggressions, biases and racist interactions. And this pandemic has only aggravated those issues for Asian Americans like me.
Houston points to the Black experience as an example.
“As we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a lot going on inside and outside of work,” Houston says. “But as a Black person, we’re still expected to come to work and perform at a very high level. And we do, but we’re exhausted.”
For targeted minority groups — like Asians during COVID-19 and Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 — it’s a constant battle to deal with the stress, anxiety and indignation you might feel while also still caring for your family and fulfilling your responsibilities at work.
Even in the simple act of writing this article, I’m wondering how I might respond when I see or hear something racist directed at me. Will I be able to defend myself in the moment? Will I be able to go about the rest of my day like normal? Will I always feel like I need to watch my back just walking down the street? It’s impossible to say, but it’s draining to think about.
How UW Medicine is responding to racism
Aside from the toll that racism takes on your personal life and mental health, it can also infiltrate your life at work — yes, even at UW Medicine.
Asian American doctors, nurses and hospital workers across the country are reporting an uptick in verbal attacks from both strangers and patients.
So what is UW Medicine doing to support its employees who might experience or witness racism from a patient?
Currently, Houston is working with Jon Payne in Human Resources and clinical leadership to update language in UW Medicine’s policies to make it clear that patient requests based on bias will not be honored.
“We have had patients who were requesting a change in provider for the wrong reasons,” Houston explains. “They may not want a Black doctor or an Asian doctor or a nurse who wears a hijab. We want to make sure our employees have a right to be in a workplace where they’re not feeling discriminated against by our patients. Even if we do have our philosophy that patients are first, that doesn’t mean that staff don’t matter or that staff are last.”
Still, if a patient is acting in a way that’s disruptive and offensive, you have every right to ask your supervisor and others to step in to help you shut down the behavior. Together, you can all let the patient know that their actions are offensive, inappropriate and will not be tolerated.
If the racist act or microaggression is coming from a coworker, on the other hand, the Office of Healthcare Equity is also putting together a system to report it.
“When someone reports that type of behavior, we’d do the same things that you’d do with a behavior issue,” Houston says. “You do a supervisor talk with them, and you have conversations with them. We plan to have some processes in place to coach the person and also have accountability.”
How you can respond to anti-Asian racism
If you find yourself the target of a hate crime or derogatory comment, do what you can to stay safe but also don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself.
In a public setting, you may want to record the incident on your phone and call 9-1-1 to report it. If you’re a safe distance away, you can also tell the other person that what they’re saying is wrong and demand that they stop. This can also get the attention of bystanders, who may (hopefully) step in and intervene.
At work, where you may be trying to maintain a level of professionalism, it’s still perfectly fine to calmly but firmly tell the individual that the way they’re behaving is inappropriate and will not be tolerated at UW Medicine. If they continue, ask for support from others on your team.
Being open and honest with your coworkers ahead of time can also help. For example, while I don’t work in a clinical setting, I have had conversations with my colleagues about how racism affects me and how they can be good allies. I know that any one of them would step in to defend me, no matter how small the microaggression or how big the racist rant.
How to be an ally
If you want to know how you can help, there are several ways you can support your colleagues like me and others in the community.
For one, call out microaggressions and racist behavior when you see or hear it. Even if someone of Asian descent isn’t around, don’t let the comment slide. Just knowing that my coworkers aren’t letting people get away with offensive jokes is a big help in making me feel more welcome and accepted at work.
Familiarize yourself with the UW Medicine Healthcare Equity Toolkit, a list of resources you can use to educate yourself about how to foster equity and inclusion at work and in other areas of your life. Or read additional anti-racism resources from the Office of Healthcare Equity.
Join your department’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee. And if there isn’t one, consider starting your own. It’s important to have ongoing conversations about anti-racist work because, as we all know, racism exists all the time, pandemic or not.
Whatever you decide to do, don’t be afraid to do the work to further your understanding of these issues. Racism against Asian Americans and other people of color, in general, is nothing new. But by educating yourself, you’re helping to end the country’s legacy of discrimination.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about race,” Houston says. “It’s scary, but it’s OK. So much of this depends on people being willing to look at themselves and do the work.”
So, from this American, thank you.