Yang: On racism against Asians and Asian Americans in Evanston

Jennifer Yang, Op-Ed Contributor

Last Saturday, a UPS Store employee in downtown Evanston told me he would call the police unless I left their premises. This incident, combined with the non-reactions of the bystanders, caused me to reflect on how Asians are often left out of the conversations around racial justice — how we are simultaneously not seen as “people of color” but also reminded, through general indifference to our maltreatment, that we are not White.  

The indifference I speak of has been demonstrated through the steady rise of anti-Asian violence during COVID-19, with hate crimes against Asians jumping from 174 in 2018 to 335 in 2020 per FBI’s Crime Data Reporter. Even though 8 in 10 Asian Americans say that violence against them is increasing, only 32% of Asians said they felt support for their race or ethnicity since the start of the pandemic , as compared to 49% of Black adults. When we feel unsafe, we are often made to feel that racism is not the obvious cause, as expressed by Atlanta’s Police Chief after the shooting at three Asian spas in March 2021.

My personal ordeal began when I went to the store to print my U.S. passport renewal application. The self-printing kiosk was broken, and an employee instructed me to email my application to an in-store Gmail account. After the printing was completed, the employee deleted my email at my request, but declined my second request to ensure its full deletion from Gmail Trash.

What ensued felt like a nightmare. The employee exited the counter, approached me and threatened to shred my printed documents. He also told me it was my fault for sharing my personal information with their system, and that I was not welcome back at the store. When I asked him to contact the store manager, he picked up the phone, told me I was making a scene and threatened to call the police.

After UPS Corporate Customer Service reviewed the in-store camera footage, they acknowledged that at no point had I escalated the situation by behaving inappropriately. I wore my mask, kept physical distance, maintained civility and even let other customers approach the counter. They also said the employee deleted my email of his own accord after I left the store, which meant he understood my request.

Poor customer service and data privacy issues aside, what alarmed me the most was the employee’s blasé, almost casual attitude, when he threatened to call the police. It was as though the racial justice movements of the last year and a half had not occurred, and it was fine to escalate the potential harm in the situation by bringing in lethal force. What could have been amicably resolved in less than five minutes became a fearful encounter for me that should have never happened.

A new study by medical journal, The Lancet, shows fatal police violence has been on the rise, with an increase of 38.4% since the 1980s. Analysis shows police mortality against Black people is 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic White people, while Hispanic people face police mortality rates 1.8 times higher than non-Hispanic White people. Comparatively, non-Hispanic people of other races (excluding non-Hispanic Indigenous people), face police mortality rates 0.11 times lower than non-Hispanic White people.

Does this mean it is ok to call the police on Asians, since we are less likely to die from police violence than other minority groups? I pondered this as I reflected on the behavior of the two middle-aged, white customers who witnessed the encounter. The woman gave me a look of sympathy but remained silent. The man told me not to appeal to him, and that I was making the employee uncomfortable. When I most needed allyship was when I felt most abandoned, and the experience reminded me that even in the “liberal” city of Evanston, dominant voices marginalize the voices of non-dominant groups and tell us we are not welcome — that we should shut up and leave.

In a way, this attitude doesn’t surprise me. As a female immigrant of East Asian descent, I’ve spent most of my life trying to blend in and “play nice.” It’s been drilled into me by my own culture to not make trouble, and perhaps this plays into the dominant unconscious stereotype that researchers have found to describe Asian people — that we are “submissive” and seen as “lacking in social skills.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the employee would have treated me differently had I been a different gender or race. However, when I raised this issue on LinkedIn, one commentator responded that I was “jumping to conclusion[s]” when I suggested race as the reason for my treatment.

In my discussions with UPS Corporate, I reiterated that I did not want the employee from this encounter to be terminated. I shared that I would like the company to step up and do better. I suggested they clearly establish procedures for handling customer concerns, and that they educate their employees on police violence. I also requested improved training for customer data disposal. At present, UPS Corporate is unable to disclose what steps will be taken. 

It is my hope that no one has to go through what I went through in the future. Even though Asians may not be centered in the conversation around racial justice, we too experience racism, which we are often denied from naming and claiming. By sharing my experience, I also hope Evanston residents can understand the unconscious biases against Asians and truly engage in allyship behaviors for all marginalized groups.

Jennifer Yang is a graduate student at the School of Social Policy and Education at Northwestern University. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.