Arriving hand-in-hand with the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 in the United States early last year were concerns about accompanying racism and xenophobia, stemming from the origin of the virus in Wuhan, China.
According to data released by the Pew Research Center in June 2020, about three in 10 Asian adults reported being subject to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity since the emergence of COVID-19, compared with 21 percent of Black adults, 15 percent of Hispanic adults and 8 percent of white adults.
Many have expressed concerns that these incidents could be increasing now that restrictions are loosening and people are coming out of isolation. The group Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition launched in March 2020 to address anti-Asian racism across the United States, released a report on May 6 indicating that more than 6,600 hate incidents were reported to the group since April of last year, with verbal harassment accounting for the majority of the complaints.
Milwaukee’s Asian Catholic community is now hoping for a response from the Church on this issue.
Chang Lor, president of Hmong American National Catholic Association (HANCA) and a parishioner at St. Michael Parish in Milwaukee, said that while he has not personally experienced any COVID-related racism, “it’s a concern — it’s scary. I definitely am scared and don’t want to advertise the Hmong Mass (at St. Michael’s). It’s that scary.”
He said he feels that, since last spring, he has been dealing with “two pandemics.”
“You deal with COVID-19 and you also deal with (racism),” he said. “You talk about over 6,000 cases in the nation, and I’m pretty sure that a couple thousand cases were never reported.”
He said he has been disappointed that these issues have not been addressed from the pulpit or from the Church hierarchy and encourages priests and lay ministers to consider doing so. “Maybe when you do your homily, touch on little things about this — let them know about the Asian community in our church, so they know that something like this happens. I think the more we talk about it, the more people understand it.”
Fessahaye Mebrahtu, Director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has written about the issue of COVID-related racism in the pages of the Catholic Herald, and said that Catholics have a particular obligation to oppose racism in all its forms.
“Catholics, first and foremost have to understand every person is created in the image and likeness of God. Racism and discrimination are sin, an affront to the image and likeness of God reflected in our fellow human being,” he said. “Racism violates human dignity, setting us on the slippery slope of dehumanizing our fellow person. Once we dehumanize our brother or sister, it is easy to negate his/her life.”
The issue of increasing anti-Asian racism was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of Wisconsin on Thursday, May 6. Featuring a panel of clinical psychologists and other mental healthcare professionals from the greater Milwaukee area, the webinar explored the impact these incidences of racism can have on the mental health of Asian Americans.
It isn’t that experiences of anti-Asian racism are necessarily new, explained Gaochi Vang, who organized the webinar — it is that the pandemic has made them more socially acceptable. “We know that these experiences have been here for a long time … so many of us have had to really endure the hate silently, we’ve really had to deal with the micro-aggressions by ourselves and a lot of the hurting has been done internally,” she said.
Theresa Liu, a parishioner at Holy Family Parish in Whitefish Bay, has been involved in the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community in the archdiocese since 1993. Additionally, she and her husband spent almost a decade as lay missionaries in China, where they personally witnessed the prejudice Chinese Catholics are subject to because of their religion.
“You have no idea what practicing the Catholic faith in China is like. It is very difficult. You play a cat-and-mouse kind of game. You are the mouse and the government is the cat,” she said. But despite all this, Chinese Catholics “are very devoted,” she explained. It is the same with the Asian Catholic population here in Milwaukee, to whom she ministers as they acclimate to their new home.
“They are so devoted. They depend on God. They are so generous with church donations,” she said. “They are very pious — more so than I am.”
But in her 50 years of living in the United States, Liu said she feels that, even in church settings, Asian-Americans and the issues impacting them have a tendency to be “ignored.”
“I wouldn’t call it racism, because I don’t think I experience racism. Racism is institutional,” she said. “Racial prejudice has to do with individuals. It’s mostly ignore, ignore, ignore. Like you are there, they see you, and they pretend you are not there. That’s the type of thing I have experienced.”
Several Catholic groups, including HANCA, recently released a joint statement addressing discrimination and racism against Asian-Americans. “We call on communities to engage in peaceful dialogue at the local and national levels to address prejudice and anti-Asian bias,” read the statement. “We stand for the peaceful co-existence of all peoples, we pray for compassion and love, and work towards healing and unity.”
“We just want to throw our voice out there and let people know we’re concerned about our people,” said Lor. “We just want to be safe.”