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A call for solidarity in the time of COVID-19 racism

By Kathryn Sharpe

Youth are experiencing tremendous anxiety, fear, and loss as a result of COVID-19 and all the resulting changes. As they try to make sense of the new shape of their lives, some of them are discovering the satisfaction of giving back—through helping neighbors in need, sewing face masks or creating care packages for health care workers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has also brought an ugly spike in anti-Asian bias incidents and hate crimes, as social media and even political leaders have associated the virus with China and Asia in general.

Associating immigrants with disease is a nasty, recurring myth in US culture. Because of it, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth, their families, program volunteers and our colleagues may be afraid to go to the grocery store not only because of illness, but because of the threat of verbal and even physical attacks.


As youth workers, we cultivate deep relationships with young people and their families. We seek to help youth empower themselves to face challenges. In this moment, we must 1) stand in solidarity with our AAPI youth and other community members by speaking up against any bias we encounter and 2) help all youth find ways to confront bias they encounter in person or in online spaces.

As with all bias-based attacks, we must understand that the targeted group may be at greater risk in confronting bias, so AAPI youth might need to choose personal safety over confrontation, (though in Minnesota they can report the incident). This makes solidarity from allies critical.

Youth want to have an impact on something larger than themselves, and they often think about momentous times in history like the Civil Rights Movement and wonder how they would have acted in those situations. We can help them recognize that this is their time to find their voice and make a difference. Help them to see they are living through an important time in history - one they will look back on and want to be able to be proud of how they lived during it.

Teaching Tolerance has some wonderful resources to help youth confront anti-AAPI racism and xenophobia.

We should encourage youth to interrupt racism when they see it if they are safe to do so, whether in person or in their online spaces. It's also important that we model this behavior. During this time of social distancing when youth are largely confined at home, they may primarily encounter these messages online in spaces where we will not be with them. Teaching Tolerance has a fantastic short video, “Countering Online Hate Speech”, which offers young people (and everyone!) accessible and creative strategies for countering biased messages online. They also offer resources for educators to help us equip ourselves to deal with incidents of bias and to talk with youth about them.

What strategies have you found useful in helping young people confront bias and racism, whether in person or online?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator
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  1. I wish I had a great answer for youth confronting racism. Many times it comes from other youth in schools, sports, and other activities. From my family's experience, other youth pick up and repeat views from their parents without understanding the racist undertones or microaggression aspect of their language. Youth also do not practice filtering of language like adults. An adult may not directly state "all Mexicans are illegal" to a person of Mexican descent but children will and do.
    I often find curiosity to be a functional strategy for surprise moments. Asking the person, Why do you say that? What experience has led you to that opinion? Those responses are more easily achieved when the bigoted comment is not aimed at a group that coincides with my identity.

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    1. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful reply. Indeed, there can be significant differences in the level of filtering between youth and adults--often because youth do not understand the larger context of why a word can be so hurtful or offensive. I love your strategy of curiosity! This makes sense with our biology as well. Biased opinions often come from the System 1 (fast thinking but very biased), whereas even the simple act of asking questions encourages the other person to engage their System 2 thinking (slower, more complex, utilizing more critical thinking skills). I love the question, "What experience has led you to that opinion?" because there actually is a lot of empathy in the question, too. It makes total sense that it is easier to take that approach when you yourself are not under attack. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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  2. Great post, Kathryn, and thanks for sharing the video (very helpful). One thing that I've seen work is letting youth know that they're not alone--empathizing with the way they're feeling, either if they witnessed it, or if they were the victims themselves (hey, I've experienced that too, and it felt pretty awful) and then sharing with them what I did in that moment. Many times, I didn't react well at all. I've seen that it helps them to know that they're not alone in that either, because there's often a deep sense of guilt that comes with our bad reactions (I shoulda...I coulda...but I didn't). Then I share with them what I have done in the past that did work...and how it gets easier every time.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience with this, Jessica. Indeed, when we can bring some empathy to helping young people respond to a really hard situation, it can help them get out of that guilt and shame you talk about (which are really paralyzing feelings). It also can be helpful to let them know that we often can actually go back and say or do the thing we wish we had done in the first place. Those follow-up conversations or posts can often catch the person when they are in a different frame of mind and might even get a better reaction than in the heat of the original charged moment.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this. Now I am thinking about times I've witnessed or overheard youth expressing prejudiced views, making naive comments, etc. I can mostly think of times when views were expressed by the perpetrator, without the other side being present - racism/prejudice in the absence of the victim/oppressed. This has often been the case considering the situations I've witnessed, and has been shrugged off by peers or ignored as if that person doesn't "really" feel that way - or, they don't "really mean" what they are saying because they wouldn't "actually" say those things if the other side was present. Sometimes, the response is taken lightly, when the situation is calling for each of us to respond deeply. I have found it helpful to recognize these situations, call attention to them, and ground the situation (rather than allowing them/others to brush it off). I have done this by asking questions to encourage awareness, self-reflection and inner dialogue as well as external. It is not easy or comfortable, but I think that's what makes it meaningful.

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    1. "Zero-indifference" - as discussed in the last link (resources for educators)! Thank you for these resources.

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  4. Leigh, thank you so much for sharing your perspective. You are so right that it is very common for people to talk/act differently when the targeted person/people are not in the room. And that is exactly when it is critical to stand up as an ally. I appreciate what you say about recognizing, calling attention to, and grounding the situation by asking questions to encourage reflection. This is a fantastic strategy. The video also raises some creative strategies for doing this online which I found really helpful. What kinds of responses have you gotten to this kind of intervention?

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  5. Thanks, Kathryn, for such a thoughtful post. As a Korean American, I am lucky not to have experienced direct anti-Asian racism during this time of the pandemic, but I have definitely experienced it multiple times in my life. In my work as an anti-bias educator at AMAZEworks, we focus on helping adults have regular, intentional conversations with children, starting at a very young age, on identity, differences, and bias. Research shows that as few as five explicit conversations on race and other differences reduces bias levels in children. So how do we help adults not shy away from these hard conversations with youth and model for youth how to stay engaged in the conversation and move each other along to more empathy and understanding? Grateful for the work that you do with youth!

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    1. Rebecca, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and for the important work that you do on this issue. Indeed, I see it as our job as youth workers to both be the people who can facilitate those critical conversations about race and other kinds of difference, and also to train youth who are able in turn to spark those conversations with their peers, as well. One of the things I find helpful is just asking people to make a commitment that they will not let any incident of bias happen around them without responding, even if their response is awkward or imperfect. It takes all of us stepping in to make a difference in our society.

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