EAU CLAIRE — During spring, Kong Pheng Pha would normally enjoy the warmer weather and fresh air on jogs and walks. This year, though, his ability to go outdoors has been severely restricted because Pha, a Hmong American, fears for his safety in public.

“Our everyday lives essentially have been transformed to avoid potential risk,” Pha said.

Pha, a UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, was one of several Asian Americans who discussed the physical and psychological impacts of the past year, and their historical precedents, during a “Stop AAPI hate” rally and vigil Friday at Owen Park. In front of a socially distanced crowd of about 200 people, many shared personal stories that included racism, seeming invisible and feeling like an outsider.

Friday’s event was organized to support Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who have been the targets of an increase in hate crimes and bias incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably at an Atlanta shooting last month that resulted in the deaths of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

Attendees wore masks as precautions against COVID-19. Masks and hand sanitizer were available, and contact tracing protocols were in place.

Tou Ger Billy Lor, president of the UW-Eau Claire Hmong Student Association, was one of the organizers of Friday’s event.

“I am a citizen of the United States, and I am proud to be Asian,” Lor said. “I am here today out of anger, out of hope, out of fear, but the biggest reason why we are all here is in solidarity against racism.”

Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, the first Asian American in the state Legislature, said Friday’s event allowed for communal mourning after so much recent pain and suffering.

“This is incredibly powerful: coming together collectively to grieve, so we can each, as individuals, heal,” Hong said. “It is not a weakness to feel, to see and to affirm one another’s pain.”

She stressed the importance of mutual support.

“Let’s grieve, let’s grow, let’s transform our communities so fewer of us have to suffer and more of us can thrive,” Hong said.

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said Friday’s event entailed listening and education, the first steps of many on the way to progress. She noted the social and economic impact of AAPI people in Eau Claire.

“Our community is better because of our Asian American friends and neighbors,” Emerson said.

With the goal of improving the community, Lor read a list of demands that included additional scholarships at UW-Eau Claire for Asian American students; more equity, diversity and inclusion training for faculty and students; hiring professors proficient in critical race theory; and better funding for Asian American programs and organizations.

Like Pha, Lor said going out in public has felt more unsafe than ever in the past year.

Hate crimes increase

Data support those feelings. From 2019 to 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities went up from 49 to 122 incidents, an increase of 149%, according to an analysis of official preliminary police data by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Asian American is a broad term that encompasses more than 20 million people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, but Pha said those differences are irrelevant when the coalition is being singled out.

“There are so many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who are part of this group, and not everyone’s the same, but in this current climate, racism only thrives because it lumps all Asians together,” Pha said. “Folks don’t differentiate who’s Chinese, who’s Japanese, Korean, Hmong, so all Asian Americans who have this perceived look are targeted.”

Dang Yang, director of the UW-Eau Claire Office of Multicultural Affairs, said there are several reasons for the increase in anti-Asian racism, which has always been an issue.

“What the last year has revealed is that inequities that were already there have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Yang said. “It actually peeled back the Band-Aid, peeled back the layers of bias that already existed.”

Yang, a Hmong American, said anti-Asian xenophobia contributed as well.

“Our ideas and our narratives about what an American looks like can be very narrow,” Yang said. “Because of that, it was very easy to scapegoat a lot of Asian communities in the United States when it came to what was taking place with the pandemic.”

Cautious in public

Over the past year, Yang and his family have become strategic about venturing to public spaces. They plan visits around when businesses will be less busy and go inside a store for as little time as possible. Yang said his partner, an avid runner, has stopped training outside for fear of what could happen to her.

Yang hasn’t personally experienced a bias incident but knows Asian Americans who have been called names, been spat upon and made to feel unwelcome by inappropriate looks. He said it requires enormous mental energy to figure out where and when to go in public. That constant self-doubt and anxiety are added stressors to many challenges caused by the pandemic.

“When looking at bias incidents or microaggressions by themselves, they seem exceptionally innocuous, but the totality of all those things, the weight of it — you always feel that you’re carrying that weight,” Yang said.

Pha’s friends and family have experienced verbal harassment and racial slurs in the past year, including people who have been called “coronavirus” and told to go back to Asian countries.

That aligns with a recent report from the nonprofit organization Stop AAPI Hate. Verbal harassment accounted for 68% of the 3,795 prejudiced incidents reported to the organization from March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021. According to the same report, “businesses are the primary site of discrimination (35.4%), followed by public streets (25.3%), and public parks (9.8%).”

Pha has not personally experienced harassment, since he has almost exclusively stayed indoors over the past year. In the limited instances that he ventures out in public, Pha texts his partner whenever he leaves and returns home.

Lack of support

Lor constantly feels that he must watch his back in public, an exhausting, ongoing challenge. That fear is grounded in experience. A few months ago, Lor said he was shopping at a grocery store when another customer called him an ethnic slur without consequence.

“I was surrounded by people, and no one said anything, and so it made me feel very alone, very small,” Lor said. “It made me feel unsafe, because I knew that if something was to happen, I don’t think that anyone would have stopped the person.”

Lor’s experience was not an isolated incident. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 31% of Asian Americans reported having experienced racial slurs or racist jokes since the start of the pandemic. Also, 58% of Asian Americans said it is more common for people to express racist views toward their group since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Now, Lor goes out in public as little as possible, and he often does so during the day with someone else. He has also struggled to find any activity that feels like an escape. Lor runs often, which used to be a great stress reliever, but now he constantly scans his surroundings for potential danger, a drain on his mental health.

The challenges don’t only affect him. Lor said his younger sister, age 10, recently asked him if she will be safe at school and if he also was bullied for the color of his skin, questions that devastated him.

Similarly, Jennifer Engedal, co-founder of the Chippewa Valley Equality Initiative, said her children “deserve to live a life of joy and not fear, of pride instead of shame.”

Engedal, who is Japanese American, described several incidents throughout her life when she experienced racism and noted that those attitudes and behaviors start at a young age and often continue into adulthood.

Racism amplified

Everyone stressed that these occurrences are not new but have been amplified over the past year. They noted the history of anti-Asian incidents and legislation in the country, including the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

They also emphasized that Asian Americans have continually fought back against these sentiments, as evidenced by Friday’s event.

“We haven’t been silent; you just weren’t listening,” Lor said.

Pha concurred.

“This is not new, but also we’ve been fighting and resisting and educating for a long time, and we’ll keep doing it,” he said.

Several people said the March 16 Atlanta shooting was devastating but not surprising.

“This was a predictable result of all the things that we have seen over the past year,” Yang said.

Many felt shattered in the wake of the shooting.

“I still don’t have a lot of words to explain how I feel,” Pha said. “I still feel like I’m in mourning.”

Yang had heart wrenching conversations with his parents and two young daughters after the shooting. During the pandemic, his parents have stayed home as a public health precaution, but Yang still worries about them.

“There’s no place that feels really safe after the Atlanta shooting occurred, even home,” Yang said.

In the wake of deadly incidents like the shooting in Atlanta, Pa Thao, executive director of the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition in Eau Claire, said she and many Asian Americans have gone into survival mode, which entails devoting significant energy to simply making it through the day.

“Survival mode is the short-term, fear-based mode of thinking,” said Thao, a Hmong American. “We spend so much time focusing on the dangers that we miss out on the opportunities.”

Yang said sexism and racism create a particularly challenging situation for Asian American women.

“Oftentimes we talk about the racial identity alone, but it’s so much more nuanced, because it’s difficult to talk about the Asian component of the Atlanta shooting without talking about the sexism, without talking about the stereotype of the fetishization of Asian women,” Yang said.

Indeed, women reported 68% of the prejudiced incidents gathered by Stop AAPI Hate.

Pha said women and elderly are more likely to be targeted because they appear weak.

“These stereotypes inform how anti-Asian racism is physically carried out,” Pha said. “Who are the most vulnerable? Then of course they will be the ones that will experience the violence more intensely.”

Aid the vulnerable

Thao stressed the importance of supporting the most vulnerable people.

“When we lift up those who are most impacted, we lift up everyone along the way,” Thao said.

Lor felt the Atlanta shooting was preventable and that political rhetoric played a role.

“With the Trump Administration coming up with ‘the China virus,’ and ‘the kung flu,’ that all built up to it,” Lor said. “It feels like my own government set my people up for this.”

Pha said the former administration is “not solely to be blamed, but (it) certainly amplified existing stereotypes.”

Yang concurred.

“If our elected leaders are using language that is scapegoating, that perpetuates stereotypes, then it gives other people permission to engage in those same types of behavior and conduct and use that type of language,” Yang said.

Attending Friday’s event was one of many ways to support AAPI people. Additional ways include using clear, correct language to talk about the pandemic.

“Don’t refer to it in these racist terms such as ‘Chinese virus,’ which is wholly inaccurate,” Pha said.

Bystanders should also intervene if they witness an incident like Lor being called an ethnic slur.

“Calling people out for the hate that they have is crucial,” Lor said.

Other avenues include hosting community dialogues and financially supporting Asian American organizations and businesses.

On a wider scale, Pha said thorough investigations of potential hate crimes should occur, and there should also be an expansion of data collection regarding anti-Asian incidents.

Locally, the Eau Claire County Board will likely consider this month a resolution that “mandates that hate crime data be collected, retained, and made publicly available based on demographic statistics by the Attorney General of the State of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Justice.” The resolution, authored by Supervisor Zoe Roberts, also requests that “Wisconsin strengthen its hate crime statute to provide enhanced security to members of Wisconsin’s marginalized communities.”

Also, the Eau Claire City Council recently approved a resolution condemning acts of racism and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Yang said he is tired of feeling invisible and is encouraged by community members taking action in a variety of ways after a year of pain and loss.

“Eau Claire is well-poised to do a lot and to learn a lot and to be part of the solution,” Yang said. “I’m proud to be here because of those things, but the reality is that there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Speaking Friday to the assembled crowd that appeared willing to work, Yang felt more visible than ever.