Over the past year, amid the backdrop of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has seen harrowing reminders of its troubled relationship with race.
And while much attention has rightfully been given to the many inequities experienced by Black people in America, more recently, unsettling narratives regarding the role of Asian people in the proliferation of the coronavirus have made Asians and Asian Americans the targets of brutal and unprovoked attacks.
Just two nights ago, a gunman went on a shooting spree at several Atlanta-area spas, leaving eight people dead. Six of the victims were Asian. Although local authorities have indicated that it’s too early to determine whether the events can be deemed hate crimes, the tragedy has sparked renewed fears over anti-Asian violence. Frustrations — including among those in the fashion and footwear industries — are reaching a fever pitch.
According to a new report from nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, the number of Asian hate incidents hit 3,795 between March 19, 2020 — just days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic — and Feb. 28, 2021. (More than 500 of those incidents were recorded this year.)
The data showed that verbal harassment and shunning made up a respective 68.1% and 20.5% of total incidents, while physical assaults comprised 11.1%. Civil rights violations, such as workplace discrimination and refusal of service, accounted for 8.5%, and online harassment represented 6.8% of total incidents.
“The number of hate incidents reported to our center represent only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur,” the group said in a statement, “but it does show how vulnerable Asian Americans are to discrimination and the types of discrimination they face.”
But America has had a long history of Sinophobia: The late 19th century saw the emergence of the “Yellow Peril” concept, which perpetuated fears that Asians, particularly the Chinese, were a danger to Western civilization.
Then the Second World War made pervasive the stereotype of the “model minority” — predicated on the myth that Asian Americans represented the ideal immigrants of color to the U.S. because they were dutiful, had a strong work ethic and excelled in education.
And last year, after SARS-CoV-2 — first discovered in Wuhan, China — made its way into the U.S., former President Donald Trump used xenophobic phrases such as “China virus” and “Kung Flu” to describe the coronavirus. (One week after Trump used “China virus” in a tweet on March 16, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate logged more than 650 incidents of racial discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.)
“While COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue to a new level, violence against the Asian American community is not something new,” said Bella Belle founders Veronyca Kwan and Erina Ardianto, who are Chinese and were born in Indonesia. “This plight of the Asian community has been more challenging and less covered by mainstream media because of the ‘model minority’ label. We’ve been expected to stay silent so the injustice remains invisible. For those of us that have the privilege to speak up, we need to use our voice to defend the voiceless.”
In response to, among other concerning events, the murder of Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco, the slashing of Filipino American Noel Quintana in New York and other disturbing assaults and tragic deaths, high-profile figures like Instagram head of fashion partnerships Eva Chen; designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung; influencers Chriselle Lim and Susie Lau; and Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee have all advocated to #StopAsianHate.
“Fashion is the front lines of raising awareness; it’s the first thing others see when forming their impressions,” said Jessica and Emily Leung, who are Chinese American twin sisters and the founders of Hey Lady. Jessica said that she had her own encounter with hateful rhetoric at the start of the pandemic, when a man swung punches in the air and muttered obscenities at her as she was holding her baby niece on a street in Oakland, Calif. “If the same thing happened now and if I wasn’t holding a baby, I might stop and ask him why he thinks that,” she added. “We have to have the patience to keep correcting.”
Across the country, several public officials, including law enforcement as well as community leaders, have spoken up and taken action against the brutality: Following the spike in attacks since mid-March, the New York Police Department formed an anti-Asian hate crime unit — the first task force committed to investigating crimes that target a single race. Within a week of taking office, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum condemning xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. And just last month in California, state legislators approved $1.4 million to help combat anti-Asian violence through Stop AAPI Hate.
The fashion industry also has a critical role to play in fighting racism and hate of all kinds, but it could be especially true for certain minorities such as Black and Asian people who have long been key muses and consumers for fashion firms. Like many people of color, Asians and Asian Americans are largely influential consumers and have tremendous purchasing power in apparel and footwear. According to McKinsey & Co., China overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest fashion market two years ago, while Bain & Co. reported that Chinese shoppers will make nearly half of luxury goods purchases in 2025 — out-buying American and European, as well as Southeast Asian and Japanese spending combined. Beyond maintaining that consumer base, it’s just as important for brands to advocate for and protect their customers in a time of crisis.
“Fashion brands tend to have a larger platform and reach than most individuals,” explained AVRE founder Julie Kuo, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan when she was a year old. “Brands can bring attention to some who are not aware of the issues of racism, [and they] can help educate and initiate the hard conversations of change that need to happen in order to bring together all communities of people.”
Right now, Asian American lawmakers as well as prominent scholars and supporters, including actor Daniel Dae Kim, are testifying about the surge in hate crimes before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Phillip Lim also hosted at noon a virtual panel discussion called “Doing Something About It,” inviting stylist Karla Welch, designer Jerry Lorenzo and social entrepreneur Amanda Nguyen to speak about fashion’s involvement in combating Asian hate.
As Asians and Asian Americans continue to be the subject of violence in the country and the conversation around their vulnerability is amplified, the people are watching closer than ever. And brands can — and will — be judged on whether they stay silent or express solidarity in the fight for social justice.
“We must fight anti-Asian hate crimes and speak up every day,” Chen said in a statement shared with FN. “You don’t have to be Asian to share or raise awareness. We need every voice to be anti-racist and condemn these terrible crimes.”