• Anti-Asian hate crimes surged by 169% across 15 major US cities between 2020-2021.
  • Author Bincheng Mao recalls his own experience as the victim of a racist attack and the youth-led awareness campaign he launched which reached over 1 million people.
  • Standing in solidarity with Asian minorities to create change requires us all to examine our actions as individuals and as organizations.

In March 2020 I was patiently waiting at the checkout of a crowded grocery store in the Bronx, New York City. Suddenly, a middle-aged person approached me, pointed his finger and yelled: “you virus, get out!” Meanwhile, he splashed his half-drunk bottle of water in my face. The man then turned around as if he was looking for something else to use as a weapon. Fearing for my life, I dropped everything in my hand and ran out, while people around me stood there and watched. I was the only Asian in that grocery store at the time.

What happened to me was not an isolated incident, but part of a global pattern of rising racism and hate crimes against Asian minorities during this ongoing pandemic. In America for example, from 2020 to 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes surged by 169% across 15 major cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. And behind every data point in these statistics, there is an actual person, such as a young child or a pregnant woman, being targeted simply because of the colour of their skin. As members of civil societies, we urgently need to step up and combat this injustice.

Behind every data point in these statistics, there is an actual person, such as a young child or a pregnant woman, being targeted simply because of the colour of their skin.

—Bincheng Mao.

How do we most effectively combat such anti-Asian bigotry? Drawing from my personal experience as a nonprofit founder, recognized by US President Clinton’s foundation for serving marginalized minorities, the answer to this critical question lies in two layers – the individual and the organization.

1. Empower individuals to take action

As individuals, overcoming the bystander effect is one of the most direct and most powerful approaches to combating anti-Asian racism. The bystander effect is when people resort to inaction when seeing ongoing abuse, such as the blatant attack on a pregnant Asian-American mother and her young daughter on a busy street in Philadelphia. Why don’t we step up to help, then?

The core reason is the perceived diffusion of responsibility, which occurs when you suppose that someone else, perhaps someone more prepared, should stand up to help. But the problem is if we all hold the same mindset of waiting for other people to act, all of us will stay silent in the face of injustice. On the other hand, if you take action immediately, other people around you will likely back you up, as you break the silence and become an example for others to follow.

Psychologist Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association, once indicated, “the opposite of a hero isn’t a villain, it’s a bystander.” If you see an Asian person being verbally or physically abused, or anything else that just doesn’t appear right, remember that you can make a difference and protect the innocent without waiting for others. To ensure safety, you can recruit a person near you and request their assistance in intervening together. You can keep a distance and call 911, or the relevant emergency telephone number, to report the incident.

Often, public safety authorities do not address a particular issue when there is a lack of reporting. The key to overcoming this bystander effect is to understand that our mental tendency of choosing inaction over action may not be particularly rational. In fact, once we make the decision to help, there are many ways for us to act effectively and safely.

2. Work within the system to create awareness

In addition to fighting anti-Asian racism as individuals, we can also make a lasting impact on our society through what I call “coalition-building for good”, which is to mobilize our fellow citizens by raising public awareness and motivating collective efforts to fight racism. In the days after I was attacked in that grocery store, I kept reflecting on one question: how do I make myself useful in ensuring other people would not have to suffer from the same bigotry? The conclusion I reached can be summarized in one word – awareness.

Our societies have to realize the nature of a problem, which in this case is the long-standing systemic racism against Asians and other minorities, in order to have a chance in correcting the injustice. I began mobilizing volunteers from New York, Connecticut, and five other states to launch an awareness initiative devoted to informing the public about both the ongoing crisis and the long-standing racism against Asian people.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

Early in the pandemic, when certain public figures used phrases such as “kong flu” and “Chinese virus,” we held a series of virtual awareness events with the help of volunteers from 15 universities in America, highlighting the lessons from the painful history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment Camps. We must coalesce together to add to our societal discourse and recognize that anti-Asian rhetoric has been around for centuries.

“Coalition-building” becomes even more effective when we connect people across age groups, geographical boundaries, and cultural differences. Earlier this year, after reading from Reuters that “one in five Chinese Australians report attacks or threats” during the COVID-19 pandemic, I led our initiative to recruit volunteers and connect with existing anti-racism programmes in Australia, strengthening our coalition by bringing more people into the fight.

To demonstrate solidarity, I also represented my Global Shapers hub and all our volunteers to interview former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd on fighting against racism. From people at the highest level of governments to young activists on the grassroots level, we are building an inclusive coalition to amplify our voices and address bigotry in any form.

Anti-Asian racism, violence, and xenophobia are antithetical to fundamental principles of human decency in our civil societies. From Fred Korematsu to Rosa Parks, people from across the world have demonstrated that action is the key to ending injustice. By overcoming the bystander effect and building coalitions for good, we as members of societies can not only step up during this time of crisis but also do so with effectiveness.