Grace Chan McKibben

Grace Chan McKibben in Hyde Park, March 22

The rise in xenophobia and racism against people of Asian descent reached a new low earlier this month, when a gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, at spas and massage parlors in Atlanta and its suburbs.

The misogynistic violence has prompted reflections and calls to action in Hyde Park’s Asian community.

In posts to social media written in response to the murders, Aiko Kojima Hibino, a member of Bret Harte's Local School Council, emphasized that they were not just crimes against Asians, but Asian women in particular.

"As an Asian woman myself, I refuse any nonsense that the perpetrator and his enablers are disseminating," she wrote. "I pray for victims of this unforgivable tragedy."

Over email, Hibino said that, while May is officially Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, she hopes people will consider simply using "Asians."

"There are many Asians living in this country, especially in Hyde Park, who are not naturalized in the U.S.," she said. "Most of Asian countries, as well as the U.S., do not recognize dual citizenships, therefore, unless you acquired your U.S. citizenship by nature, becoming an American citizen involves extremely tough decisions for Asian immigrants.

"As students or as legal or undocumented aliens, Asians are members of this society. I really hope to push this conversation from about nationalism to about humanism."

Jenny Lee, who has owned Rainbow Cleaners, 1648 E. 53rd St., for six years as well as Chicago's Discount Cleaners, 1333 W. Fullerton Ave., in Lincoln Park, has never closed during the pandemic, even during the shelter-in-place a year ago. She is an essential worker, but she acknowledged that business is not good right now.

But Lee said the atmosphere is comfortable in Hyde Park. "People aren't that much changed," she said. "They just worry. They're not too bad to me. I'm open all the time. I never closed, because I worry that somebody will need clothes. That's why I never closed."

"I don't know why it's happening," she said, when asked about the Atlanta shooting, and its suspect, "He misunderstands."

"Here, I'm OK," she said. "I never feel bad over here. People are always nice to me. My customers are very nice. Still, I'm OK, I feel fine."

In February, when the uptick in hate crimes against Asian people in the United States first began to receive media attention, Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community and a Hyde Park resident, told the Herald there had been no reported increase in anti-Asian incidents in Chicago.

At that time, she said she had not personally experienced any prejudice related to the coronavirus pandemic, though she noted that, with all the time spent socially distancing at home, she was not out enough to have much interaction in public.

In the aftermath of the murders in Georgia, Chan McKibben is glad that Asian voices are being heard, that elected officials are coming to meetings to show support and that friends and professional colleagues are checking in and asking how they can help. She hopes that continues beyond the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

McKibben does not feel unsafe, but she is feeling more alert as the uptick in racial incidents against Asians began.

"I continue to feel that these incidents — racism against Blacks, Asians, LGBT, Latinx, indigenous people, poor people, homeless — didn't just start. I think COVID uncovered the fact that organizations and institutions are not sufficient to help and uncovered deep divisions and deep hurt in this country," she said. "I just think this part is really sad."

She said Asian people are seen forever as foreigners and that women of color in general have different stereotypes applied to them that are not true.

Chan McKibben's husband is Black. "It's an unfair burden on African Americans to be seen as criminals when people encounter them, and another burden that may be as bad for Asian women is for people to assume that they're sex workers. It's a double burden for our family," she said.

"My husband walks down the street, and people think that he's going to rob them. I walk down the street, and people think I'm a prostitute. I don't want to imagine what people think when both of us walk down the street together."

Chan McKibben remembers being 16 and giving a tour in high school, at Milton Academy in Massachusetts; a parent commented that he had a great time with women in her native Hong Kong after service in Vietnam. "People making comments about the way you look or the way you dress on the street, catcalls, stuff like that — things that any woman constantly has to navigate, but I think it has a different characteristic with Asian women."

At this point, there is public discourse about the problem. Asian-American leaders and business-owners are vocal about the problem; WGN interviewed Chan McKibben on this topic, and she insisted that a Chinatown spa-owner be included in the segment as well: "It was still important, I think, to hear her voice and know that these are real people with real jobs and real business, not just some picture that you may have in your head."

"Folks should highlight the stories of the victims, the people who were killed. These are hard-working women. They're wives, they're mothers, they're friends. Their stories need to be shared."

A rally against anti-Asian hate crimes is scheduled for Saturday, March 27, by Chinatown Square at 2 p.m.

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