Back in elementary school in the 1980s, when I first arrived here from the refugee camps, I remember being bullied and called “chink” and “gook” on a regular basis. Out of their fear of the unknown, other kids would tell me to go back to my country. Sometimes, I even got beat up for being different. I would never wish this experience upon anyone. Luckily, through a strong family foundation and support, these experiences have made me a stronger person and a prouder American, especially when I reflect on how far we have come from those days. Today, I have forgiven those racist bullies who wronged me and my family as we made our transition into American life. I continue to pray for them as I hope they have come to understand that their deep-seated hatred for me was more a reflection of what they saw in themselves.
Lately, though, I feel that my faith in America’s great promise is being called into question again by the recent hate and animosity in our political climate. I respect the difference of political opinions and ideologies and policies that various candidates are putting forth to better our country. At my core, I believe diversity is our strength. I do my best to practice this in every area of my life. I have also dedicated my life to being an advocate against violence in all its forms, whether it is violence on women, or children, or toward a particular religious, ethnic, gender or racial group. My definition of violence also includes bullying, racism, sexism, gender-based violence, etc.
Recently, I’ve been hearing about firsthand accounts of random acts of violence, harassment and bullying that trouble me.
March 1: During Minnesota’s caucus night, a friend of mine, Kong Her of St. Paul, was assisting a group of elderly Hmong voters find their rooms for precinct voting. As an elderly white man and his wife walked past Kong, the man said (with the addition of an expletive): “What is this? Hanoi?”
To which Kong replied: “No, it’s St. Paul, Minnesota. Welcome to the new face of America.”
March 4: A Hmong sister, Manda Vang, wrote that “the most racist and hurtful thing” had happened to her. While she was walking in Wal-Mart, a white person looked at her and said, “When Trump becomes president, you and your family are going back to wherever you Chinese came from.” To which she responded: “I’m sorry, lady, but I am an American citizen. I was born in the United States with legal documents. Before you start going off at other races, please know that all Asians are not Chinese. I am not offended by your words but hurt.”
March 6: A white Milwaukee resident, Daniel Popp, shot and killed three neighbors in his apartment complex: Jesus Manso-Perez from Puerto Rico, and a Hmong-American couple in their 30s — Phia Vue and Mai Vue.
As reported by Milwaukee’s WISN-TV, the criminal complaint said Manso-Perez’s son told police that he and his father were going downstairs to the laundry area when Popp came out of his apartment and asked where they were from. Manso-Perez said, “Puerto Rico.” Popp replied, “Oh, that’s why you don’t speak English. You’re Puerto Rican.” As the father and son were walking back upstairs to their apartment, Popp came out of his apartment again, this time with a gun, and said, “You guys got to go.”
Popp then shot and killed Jesus. He fired another shot that missed the son.
Popp then broke down the door into the Vue residence, shot Phia, then dragged Phia’s wife, Mai, back to his apartment and shot her as well. Popp is in custody and the case is pending.
Manso-Perez is survived by an 18-year-old son who barely escaped the bullet that was meant for him. The Vue couple leaves behind four children, ages 16, 14, 9 and 4, who were able to escape along with a relative. Mai had just graduated from college.
March 9: At a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C., while being escorted out by police, a black protester, Rakeem Jones, 26, was sucker-punched by 78-year-old John McGraw. McGraw said that Jones “was not acting like an American.” He bragged about his actions in a television interview saying, “Yes, he deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
In February at a Trump rally in Nevada, Trump said to thousands of his supporters, regarding one protester, that he’d “like to punch him in the face,” and that “in the good old days, guys like that would be carried out on a stretcher.” He also said to his crowd, “Try not to hurt him, but if you do, I’ll defend you in court.” These are just a few examples of the inciting language from Trump.
Which leads me to ask this: Do these events have a connection? Did Trump’s rhetoric instigate these recent acts of violence? Or did this deep-seated hatred and these violent tendencies already exist, and Trump’s popularity only serves as a window for them to resurface? Or do the two feed off each other?
As a proud Minnesota and American who has experienced racism firsthand, I am going to call this for what it is. I have never felt so fearful of the hate, bigotry, xenophobia, racism and the tribalism mentality that is being spewed, perpetuated and exacerbated at recent Trump rallies. At a time when Americans should feel excited and hopeful of our right to choose the leader of our great nation, I am feeling a bit defeated and gloomy.
I pray for America. I pray for those groups that have been targeted by Trump’s rhetoric. And just as I have prayed for those elementary- and middle-school racist bullies who once misunderstood me as “the other,” more than ever I pray for Trump and his supporters.
Tou Ger Bennett Xiong, of St. Paul, is a diversity advocate.