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Asian American athletes speak out against coronavirus racism

Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi and NFL safety Taylor Rapp are tackling the issue


In late February, a 68-year-old Asian man was collecting recyclables in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco to help support his family when he was attacked and harassed by a group of mostly black men in an apartment complex parking lot. One man stole the elderly man’s grocery cart full of bags of cans, and when the Asian man attempted to get the cart back, he was attacked with what looked like a broom as more than a dozen others jeered and laughed.

The man recording the video, a 20-year-old from San Francisco, could be heard saying “I hate Asians” as he and others filmed the man being teased and assaulted, ultimately leading to the man crying for help.

When Los Angeles Rams safety Taylor Rapp saw the video, he was disgusted, not just because of the contents of the filmed assault, but because it hit him close to home as an Asian American.

“That really stood out to me and kind of broke my heart because that could be my grandpa,” Rapp, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is white, told The Undefeated last week.

The assault in San Francisco is one of many examples of the racism and racial violence targeted at Asians in the United States since the arrival of the coronavirus in late January. With the rise of these incidents, Rapp and former All-American UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi have joined Athletes for Impact, a global athlete activism organization, and more than 100 social change organizations across the world for a digital campaign to bring attention to instances like those in San Francisco and to root out racist and xenophobic violence against Asians during the current pandemic.

“That’s where it all starts, it’s not [just] Asians all fighting for themselves because we’re not going to get very far,” Ohashi said of the Global Call for Racial Solidarity Under Covid-19 Pandemic. “But when you see every type of background coming together, that’s where you can start spreading positivity.”

Katelyn Ohashi of the UCLA Bruins performs a floor routine during the Division I women’s gymnastics championship held at the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena on April 20, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas.

imothy Nwachukwu/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Since the coronavirus began to take root in America, Asian Americans of all backgrounds have been subject to racist language, harassment, stalking and physical attacks. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, an advocacy group for disadvantaged Asians and Pacific Islanders, said it received nearly 700 complaints of coronavirus-related assaults and harassment from March 19 to March 26. San Francisco State University researchers saw a 50% increase in news stories related to discrimination against Asians from Feb. 9 to March 7. Asian Americans from Los Angeles to suburban Washington have been spit on, called racial slurs and physically run out of stores.

Ohashi, a six-time All-American gymnast who rose to internet fame in early 2019 for a Michael Jackson-inspired floor routine, is all too familiar with what Asians have been facing since the coronavirus became an issue in this country. A woman whom Ohashi knows has a family member who was chased out of a store for wearing a protective mask while shopping for her sick husband; the woman has cancer. A friend of Ohashi’s from China said he would cough in his workplace and get stares from his co-workers, knowing that it was because of how he looked. “It’s just something that’s heartbreaking,” said Ohashi, whose father is Japanese and whose mother is German. “You can’t even go outside without getting weird stares.”

UCLA women’s basketball player Natalie Chou recently told ESPN that “For weeks, I have been scared to go outside by myself. I am always alert and tense because I do not know how people will respond to me. People who look like me have been put in danger and have become targets. We are being attacked during a time where unity and togetherness are vital.”

These incidents of hate toward Asian Americans have been compounded by politicians referring to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” due to the possible origin of the virus in Wuhan, China. Some U.S. representatives and senators have used the language on social media and on the floor of the U.S. Capitol, while President Donald Trump continually used “Chinese virus” for days even after being told it was offensive to Asian Americans.

Rep. Judy Chu of California told The New York Times last week that Republicans were using divisive language “because they have certain political motives and they are not taking into account the effect of their actions on other huge groups of people, including Asian Americans.” The World Health Organization recommends against naming new infectious diseases by geographic location.

“It’s really important that throughout this time we try to stay away from calling it the Chinese virus, because it’s extremely divisive,” Ohashi said.

Rapp concurs. “These higher-ups need to call it the correct name, because when you call it the ‘Chinese virus’ and the ‘Wuhan virus,’ they’re just fueling the fire for Asians and especially Chinese people to get harassed and picked on and more of this rage against them.

“A virus doesn’t have a nationality or race.”

Ohashi said she hasn’t faced as much blatant racism in her life as some Asian Americans have both before and after the coronavirus pandemic. “Luckily I have been fortunate enough to not fully experience everything that maybe full Asians go through on a day-to-day basis.” That being said, she was fully aware that she wasn’t like everyone else around her. “When I was growing up, I just looked different than everyone else, and I couldn’t understand why my eyes were slanted.”

Los Angeles Rams safety Taylor Rapp (24) looks on from the sideline prior to an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Los Angeles.

Ryan Kang via AP

Like Ohashi, people don’t always view Rapp as Asian either when they see him on the street, but he’s noticed recently that when he walks outdoors he gets some stares. “I can see that I get these different looks just because of what I look like.” It reminds him of the sort of microaggressions he faced as a high school football player.

Rapp had no one to relate to growing up watching and playing football (Ed Wang, the first Chinese American to be drafted into the NFL, was selected by the Buffalo Bills in 2010 when Rapp was 13), and throughout his collegiate recruiting journey he was constantly overlooked. “I would go to these camps and I would just get looked right passed by the coaches and the scouts and the evaluators just because I didn’t look like a typical football player.”

Both Rapp and Ohashi joined Athletes for Impact’s solidarity call because they believe their heightened platforms as athletes could bring attention to an issue that affects their community. The organization is using recorded videos and social media assets from its headliners and other allies to both call out hatred toward Asian Americans and promote racial solidarity as the world grapples with the coronavirus.

It’s early, but the campaign appears to be paying dividends. Ohashi has received positive feedback from close friends about building a racial coalition. Rapp was surprised to see so many strangers, including Rams fans, reach out in support.

For Rapp, when he sees all the disturbing videos of harassment and racism directed at Asian Americans, all he recognizes is that people are scared. Not the victims. The assailants.

“It breaks my heart to see all that,” he said, “because I think people are acting out of fear and uncertainty and not really thinking straight.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"