As hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen, Rabecca (Hee Kyung) Shin has spent the last few months helping members of her community mourn.
One morning, Shin received a call from a worried mother in South Korea looking for her 29-year-old daughter living in Nashville. The mother reported that her daughter had sold all her possessions and she was worried about what her daughter would do next.
“Please find my daughter,” begged the mother.
As president of the Korean Association of Greater Nashville, Shin knew the family because the daughter had worked as a Korean-to-English translator, and proceeded to try and contact the young woman. Her messages were in vain, but she eventually received word that the woman had been found alive because someone had intervened as she attempted to jump off the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, known locally as “suicide bridge.”
Shin raced to the hospital where the woman was being held and stayed there for hours, talking to her about the issues that the Asian community had faced over the past year, issues that reached a peak when a gunman killed eight Asian spa workers on March 16 in Atlanta.
Nationwide, Asian Americans are being brutally beaten in unprovoked attacks that are seemingly motivated by Sinophobia and the unproven belief that COVID-19 originated in China. CBS news reported that nationwide, more than 2,100 anti-Asian American hate incidents were reported across the country over a three-month time span between March and June of 2020.
In Nashville, Asian advocates hosted a vigil to mourn the deaths of the Atlanta victims and to denounce “the growing anti-Asian sentiment running rampant through our government and society,” stated a press release.
“We don’t feel safe,” said Shin.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans decreased from five in 2018 to two in 2020, but Asian advocates say a lot is going unreported.
As defined by the Hate Crime Provision Act of 1969, federal punishment is permitted for bias-motivated crimes based on religion, race and national origin. Hate crimes can be anything from intimidation and vandalism to aggravated assault and murder. In Tennessee, about 48% of reports were anti-Black, while 0.8% were anti-Asian.
But according to Asian advocates, numerous barriers are preventing members of Asian communities from reporting incidents.
Joseph Gutierrez, director of the Asian Pacific Islanders organization of Middle Tennessee, said racial discrimination doesn’t always escalate to violence, making people believe that the incident was not worthy of calling the police. Along with this, language barriers and general cultural distrust of authorities means Asian Americans are reluctant to call 911.
Metro Nashville police acknowledged this issue earlier this year, and Chief John Drake introduced the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships in January in order to improve communication with communities of color. Police officer Jeff P. Ha, who was tasked to reach out to Asian communities, said many Asian businesses were being run by the elderly, who are often reluctant to call the police.
“A lot of older Asian people were taught by their parents to work hard and keep their heads down,” said Ha.
Invisible Anti-Asian Hate Crimes
Asian Americans generally feel invisible, said Gutierrez. Despite their diversity— Koreans, Chinese, Filipino and Taiwanese, among others—Asian Americans are often lumped together or included in white demographics. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, police were hesitant to call the incident a hate crime and stated that the suspect was having a “bad day,” that allegedly led to a murderous rampage across three Atlanta-area spas.
“There’s a consumption of Asian culture without recognizing Asians,” said Gutierrez, who believes Asians are often missing from discussions of race despite being 3.5% of Davidson County’s population.
Asian advocates blame conservative and far-right figures for fanning the flames of Sinophobia, with former President Donald Trump calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” or “China Virus.” This sentiment is backed by Pew Research, which stated that 40% of adults now believe “it has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asians since the pandemic began.”
Bias against Chinese people was brought up by U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, when in May 2020 she introduced the Secure Campus Act, a legislation that would prohibit Chinese nationals from receiving visas to the U.S. for fear that they would participate in espionage for the Chinese Communist Party.
For Asian American women, the fear of violence is more pronounced. Racism and sexism is invariably intertwined due to false perceptions of meek vulnerability.
For Shin, the racism became personal when she was brutally attacked six years ago by a tenant at her business, where she hosts homeless people.
Shin has since recovered from the bruises but still remembers the racial slurs. Racism in Tennessee has always existed, said Shin, but “it has not been heard or seen for a long time because we are docile and have a language barrier.”
Preventing Hate Crimes
Local Asian advocates are now doing everything they can make sure racism doesn’t escalate to violence.
Shin worries that people in her community are starting to crack under the constant threat of violence. Members of the community now fear leaving their homes for simple errands.
“So many people are depressed. They are not seen. They are not heard,” she said.
For Terry Vo, an Asian civil-rights advocate, prevention tactics start by educating the community about reporting incidents and “ by giving their leaders in their communities a platform to speak.”
For Gutierrez, it’s encouraging community members to speak about their experiences and aiding their mental health.
For Shin, it’s volunteering to help community members struggling with language barriers and technological barriers.
The young woman she aided is now back in South Korea with family, and while she recovers, Shin hopes future generations will no longer be afraid to show their heritage.
“I am actually afraid and concerned that future generations, my own children and grandchildren, will have to suffer this same kind of humiliation and inhumanness unless I do something about it” she said.
(Rebecca Shin, far left, in traditional Korean dress, at a March 21 vigil in Nashville for victims killed in an Atlanta attack that targeted Asian women. Photo: Submitted)