Eastern Washington University sociology professor Pui-Yan Lam remains hopeful despite what she called “an alarming” increase in anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes across the world as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic.
In a Tuesday interview conducted for The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club, Lam said there have been no recent reports of anti-Asian hate crimes from the Spokane Police Department. But last week a reporting center co-founded by San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department said it has received more than 1,100 reports of coronavirus discrimination from Asian Americans across the country.
“What I have heard firsthand is friends of Asian descent telling me they’re worried to go out to the grocery store alone – that if they go out wearing a mask, they will attract negative attention,” Lam said. “That fear is here in Spokane communities, too.”
Lam emphasized the power of language as a weapon to spread either hate or compassion.
“I think it’s easy for well-meaning people to dismiss discrimination as ‘just words that will go away,’ ” she said. “I would like people in Spokane to not only denounce hate, but also to choose compassion when we speak.”
Lam said misplaced language creates an “us vs. them” dynamic that leads to the dehumanization of other groups – “especially linking our group to a disease,” she said, referencing the World Health Organization’s May 2015 “Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases” guidelines, which seek to “avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
Spokane is becoming more diverse, Lam said. “One thing people would say to me when I first got to EWU was ‘Spokane never changes’ – we will always be very homogenous,” she said. “But I’m sure people are noticing the increased diversity, and I know most folks embrace that.”
She is looking forward to seeing Spokane County’s 2020 census data, and said the many things that can happen as a result of increased diversity can “change Spokane for the better.”
And Lam believes the COVID-19 epidemic can be a defining moment for Spokane.
“When I take walks in my neighborhood, and people smile and wave at me – Spokanites do that – I appreciate it. At this moment, those simple gestures mean a whole lot more to me,” she said.
“With all the anxiety we all have to face right now, just seeing smiling, friendly faces makes me feel like I’m part of the community.”