“You sweaty pig! Put a mask on!” I heard those words during a Tuesday morning run in my neighborhood in Altadena, California. With my mask already on, I moved farther away from a white woman walking a dog.
Yet she did not stop. “You’re disgusting! Get the f--- out of my street!”
I was already on the other side of the street, with a full mask on, while two other white women walked by without masks.
I stopped my watch and asked her why she was still yelling when I had my mask on. It only exacerbated her outbursts.
“You sweaty pig! Get your ugly face out of my f-----g street!” she said.
The incident left me shaken. Altadena has always been known as an eclectic community of artists, writers, scientists, and misfits who can’t get enough of the San Gabriel mountains. What happened to my diverse and always-welcoming community?
It also damaged my sense of running as a safe space. I usually feel my best during my runs. I’m at ease with my body, outside, at one with nature, and usually with friends. But on this day, I felt perturbed, out of balance, exposed, and vulnerable.
This encounter is just one example of the anti-Asian discrimination on the rise in this country, thanks to hateful language the Trump administration stoked around the coronavirus, like “China-virus” or “kung flu.”
Between March 2020 and February 2021, Stop AAPI Hate received 3,795 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents. Anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities increased 149 percent in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, even while there has been a 7 percent decrease overall in hate crimes nationwide.
Beyond those statistics, many hateful incidents go unreported or are not classified as hate crimes.
Just when Asian American activists were demanding more attention and policy change on hate crime, on March 16th, a gunman shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American women, at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
These incidents have left the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community with a painful realization: Nothing—not our education, not our Boston Qualifiers, not the neighborhood we live in—can protect us from racism.
Anti-Asian hate in this country is not new. The Chinese Exclusion Act, legislation that limited the number of immigrants from China, stayed in effect from 1882 to 1943. We live amongst an older generation of Japanese Americans who went through internment camps during World War II. What Asian American people are going through today seems like a scary replay of history.
That history often weighs heavily on those of us who are determined to steer clear of it. When that weight, and the responsibility for educating other communities on the racism Asian Americans face, feels too much, I turn to my coping mechanism—running. But thanks to that same racism, running now feels fraught.
I came to this country from China as an immigrant, became a citizen, and now work in corporate America. I’ve experienced racism before, but never so blatantly. I categorize most of my experiences as micro-aggressions.
“So where are you from?”
“Your English is so good!”
“Do you guys really eat dogs?”
My husband, a Black man, has always been the vigilant one, worrying about my running safety. I never carried the pepper spray he bought for me and I used to see his reminder to “call me right away if something happens” as over the top. Now I not only bring my phone and share my location with him, but also tell him my route and when to expect me home.
Many runners are experiencing escalated tension and fear. Myles Matsuno, a half-Japanese, half-Mexican runner and filmmaker in Los Angeles, shared a recent experience he had while running. A woman who was not wearing a mask demanded that he put his mask on. After he complied, she continued to yell at him and tried to strike him. Fortunately, Myles is a 2:37 marathoner and not someone you can keep up with easily. The woman missed him. Yet the incident left Myles angry and disturbed. “I can always outrun a malicious person. But what if you can’t?”
Sandy Namgung, a Korean American runner in Seattle, was training for the Boston Marathon last March. After reading about and seeing the violence against Asian Americans, she was seized by fear. “I was too scared to even go outside of the house…I stopped running for 3 months,” Namgung says.
For a long time, this country’s racial discourse has focused largely on the oppression of Black and Brown people—and rightfully so. But that means that Asian Americans, who make up less than 6 percent of the population, are often left out of the conversation. Worse, we are held up as the model minority, a dangerous stereotype that separates us from our BIPOC brothers and sisters.
Yet we can no longer afford to leave the AAPI community out of anti-racist conversations and efforts. Instead, AAPI runners need to ask ourselves, how do we build alliances and fight the same fight?
Runners from other communities: How are you showing up and practicing allyship for your AAPI running friends? How are you creating an inclusive running space for all? It’s time to demand systemic change. Otherwise the violence against AAPI will be a contagion that threatens us all.
How the Running Community Can Help
- Speak up. Condemn hateful language and micro-aggressions, such as
not learning how to properly pronounce Asian names.
- Report incidents. Report racially motivated hate speech and behaviors to Stop AAPI Hate, a credible tracker of hate crimes.
- Educate yourself. Read about the experiences of Asian Americans in this country: The Making of Asian America, by Erika Lee; Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong; Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha. Join an anti-racist group such as Running Industry Diversity Coalition, which offers free educational resources.
- Practice self-care. If you are an Asian American runner, prioritize your mental health and well-being. Don’t let hate stop you from doing what you love. Be cautious, but take up your rightful running space.