Why didn’t I help when I saw an attack?


Heavy, warm air blew across the subway platform as I waited for the train to take me into town to meet my family for dinner in May. Five hours earlier, I had graduated from college and was still wearing the white dress I wore to graduation that morning. I saw a man jump the turnstiles but didn’t give it much thought as it happened quite frequently in West Philadelphia.

I heard his footsteps intensify and looked up just in time to see him grab the man standing next to me, push him against the wall and throw him to the ground. Nobody intervened. He then targeted another man several meters away, pushed him to the ground and punched him. In that moment of horror, I realized two things: the two victims were Asian and I was the only other Asian on the platform.

I turned my back on the attacks and left quickly. I thought to myself, “Just keep your head down and focus on yourself,” something my mom has been telling me since I was little and what some call the Asian “keep your head down” mentality.

Why did I act as if the attacks had never happened?

No one would expect a 100-pound girl to step in and save two men from an attack, but after the adrenaline of graduation subsided, questions started racing through my mind: Why did I leave without doing anything? Why didn’t I report the incident? Why did I act as if the attacks had never happened?

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I felt selfish that I chose to ignore the attacks and not tell my family or friends what happened for fear of ruining a day that was supposed to be full of smiles and hugs. I felt disappointed in myself for letting fear override any rational thought to call the police. Above all, I felt guilty for being quick to condemn anti-Asian crimes like the The Atlanta Spa Shootings but without doing anything against the attack which I had witnessed before my eyes.

After allowing myself to work through these emotions, I decided to speak with community experts to better understand my reaction and what I could have done differently, especially as an Asian spectator at the venues. an anti-Asian crime.

“There’s a whole range of emotions (when witnessing harassment or an attack) and it happens in a split second and sometimes we freeze up, and that’s okay,” said Dax Valdes, who leads spectator intervention training to right to be in collaboration with Asian Americans for the Advancement of Justice (AAJC). “But you have to know yourself at that time and what is available to you.” Evaluate and look for other opportunities to help you.

The myth of the model minority is not just a myth for some

The Center for the Study of Hatred and Extremism reported a 339% increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans in 2021 versus 2020, prompting organizations like Right to Be and ACCA to keep bystander intervention training for members of the Asian American community and their allies.

Asian Americans are among the minority groups least likely to say they are ‘very comfortable’ reporting a hate crime, according to a AAPI Data Survey 2021: 45% of Black Americans and 42% of Latinos said they were “very comfortable” reporting a hate crime, while only 30% of Asian Americans and 36% of Pacific Islanders responded in the same way.

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The part of the model minority myth that all Asians keep their heads down, work hard and shut up is not just a myth to some, especially immigrants facing economic hardship and racial discrimination. Over 90% of the Asian American community are immigrants or children of immigrants, many of whom face barriers when reporting an incident, noted Marita Etcubañez, ACCA’s senior director of strategic initiatives and bystander intervention trainer.

“Especially for our first generation immigrants, they don’t know the system here. They may come from countries where you don’t trust the government to do anything to protect you. There are language barriers,” she said. “Or unfortunately, I think a lot of people tend to think that their experiences aren’t important enough to be worth reporting.”

Although I have never seen myself as silent, passive or someone who closed my eyes to an issue, especially as a journalist, I have seen value in the “keep your head down” mentality that I saw my mother follow as a first generation immigrant. I avoided being the center of attention and inserting myself into situations that increased my risk of getting into trouble. Comfort and safety are highly valued in Asian cultures and have been preached the same way in my home.

Even when the pandemic started and news of increased anti-Asian hate crimes flooded my social media, I never seriously thought that I would need to equip myself with the proper knowledge or game plan to be able to be a target or a spectator. I thought these incidents I read about on the news were still relatively rare, as I hadn’t heard of my Asian American friends or family members being harassed in the normal way. Sure, people called me “that Chinese girl” or greeted me in Chinese when I’m actually not Chinese (I’m Korean), but all of these encounters were avoidable if I kept my head down and the didn’t know.

This can’t be the new normal for Asian Americans

Now I regret my ignorance thinking the world had to change but I didn’t.

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If we are to prevent more attacks on the Asian American community, the culture around “don’t wave” and “keep your head down” must change, Valdes said.

“We are not conditioned to express an emotion or a need,” he said. “We pretend everything is fine on the surface, but if we don’t raise awareness of all these things that are happening, how can we prevent it from happening to other people?”

2021 Asian Hate Crime Rally in Chicago.

I was one of those people who pretended everything was fine on the surface. But I realize now that it’s not right that I have to make sure no one stands behind me while I wait for the subway for fear of being pushed onto the tracks. It’s not right that I have to wear pepper spray for fear of being harassed, not only as a woman but as an Asian American woman. And it’s not good that this is the new normal for Asian Americans.

Change starts with me

The “keep your head down” mentality no longer works in this time of rising anti-Asian hate crimes. Staying silent and invisible will actively go against our fight for equality and will continue to allow more attacks on our community. Trainings such as those organized by Right to Be and ACCA have helped me and can certainly help others to learn how to react in these situations and raise awareness.

It’s normal to worry that the attacker will turn on you if you intervene directly, Valdes told me, especially in this case where you share the same identity as the person being attacked. But we can still do something about it.

“In these incidents, we can ask for help. Delegate,” he said. “This is where we document, so take a photo or video of what’s going on and you stay safe, at least 6ft away.”

If you don’t feel comfortable documenting or delegating, Etcubañez added, you can always ask the person who was harassed or attacked if they are okay after the incident. Anti-Asian harassment and attacks can be very traumatic for people and just asking them if they are okay or offering to accompany them to their next destination can make a difference.

Valdes believes that the next generations of Asian Americans are gradually moving away from the “keep your head down” mentality through bystander intervention trainings and platforms for speaking out on social media.

I realize now that this movement needs all the young voices it can muster, including my own.

That last day in Philadelphia on the subway platform was a critical wake-up call for my transition into life after college: ignoring, avoiding, and getting by is not enough. Not by far.

If I want the world to change around me, I have to change with it.

Ashley Ahn is an Opinion Intern for USA TODAY. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN’s Health and Medical Unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers for CNN’s Atlanta press office. Follow her on Twitter: @ashleyahn88


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