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June 15, 2021

Asian American, Pacific Islander community discusses racism during pandemic

Veterinarians, veterinary students share their encounters of hate crimes, discrimination
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As a veterinarian, Dr. Eunice Yuh has experienced occasional racism from clients in the form of ignorant comments and blatantly offensive jokes. During the pandemic, she and other Asian American and Pacific Islander people have faced even more.

From March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, there have been a reported 3,795 hate incidents against AAPI people, according to data from Stop AAPI Hate, a national reporting center that tracks hate incidents against AAPI people. Over 10% of reported incidents were physical assaults, according to a national report released in March. Businesses and public places, including streets and parks, were the primary sites of incidents.

Collage of Asian American and Pacific Islander veterinarians and vet students
(From top, left to right) Dr. Hilvy Cheung, Dr. Byron Lee, Dr. Stephanie Kuo, Dr. Mery Wang, Kaitlin Leung, Dr. Kelly Hicks, Hira Basit, and Dr. Rachel Mar (Photos courtesy of Dr. Cheung)

The AAPI community has been falsely blamed for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, because some evidence suggests the virus originated in Wuhan, China. JAVMA News spoke with several AAPI veterinarians and veterinary students about their experiences of racism and bigotry.

About 5.5% of the student population at U.S. veterinary colleges identify as Asian, according to 2020 data reports from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.

Asian Americans have faced a rise in hate crimes during this pandemic as we have continued to receive blame—not only blame but an attitude that we are more contagious or dangerous than the general public.

Dr. Eunice Yuh, practitioner in Sacramento, California

“Even in the diverse neighborhood in California that I live in, I have faced racism,” said Dr. Yuh, who practices in Sacramento, California. “In the beginning of the pandemic, I walked by a mother while grocery shopping as she pulled her child close, whispering to her, ‘Try to stay away from them.’”

Dr. Yuh’s parents were from South Korea, but she was born in Washington, D.C., before her family moved to Atlanta.

On March 16, mass shootings occurred at three spas and massage parlors in Atlanta. Eight people were killed, and six were identified as Asian women.

Recently, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to address the rise in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The AVMA issued a statement against the recent hate crimes. According to the statement: “The recent surge in incidents of violence against AAPI people is profoundly disturbing, and the AVMA joins colleagues across the country in condemning this appalling violence.

“We condemn language and actions that contribute to a climate of fear, bigotry, and hate, and especially that which targets communities that have historically been victims of discrimination.”

Dr. Yuh said the rise in hate crimes has caused many of her AAPI friends to be afraid for themselves and their parents.

“Asian Americans have faced a rise in hate crimes during this pandemic as we have continued to receive blame—not only blame but an attitude that we are more contagious or dangerous than the general public,” she said.

In school

Chloe Pham, who is Vietnamese American, knew when she applied to veterinary school that there was a lack of racial and ethnic diversity within the profession.

“I don’t think I knew what it would feel like or look like,” Pham said. “I have had experiences being a minority my whole life, so I didn’t think it would be much different.”

Pham, who is going into her second year as a student at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, is starting a student chapter of the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals, an association with a mission to inspire and support Asian veterinary professionals.

Pham said she thought of the lack of diversity in a hopeful way and as something that would be exciting to see change, especially as diversity becomes more valued across professions.

“I have seen significant and new pushes for diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Pham said. “I hope things keep going in that direction.”

But when news reports were first released about the virus’s origins, Pham knew where the conversations and rhetoric were headed.

“I had never really experienced harassment from a stranger until COVID,” said Pham, who before moving to Ithaca, New York, for school lived in New York City. “Suddenly, ‘China Virus’ was spray painted on my block, on the walls. I was yelled at on the subway, the bus, and at the grocery store.”

Pham and her boyfriend, who is Chinese American, were shopping at Whole Foods and were yelled at by a person who said they were standing too close, even though that wasn’t true. The altercation continued until they were paying.

“In a packed Whole Foods, and everyone was watching, but no one said anything. … It is a perfect example of feeling unwanted, to feel like you don’t belong or aren’t worthy of defending. It was so hurtful.”

Pham hopes more people are aware of what is happening to AAPI people now and will speak up against discrimination and racism.

Dr. Cheung with a canine patient
Dr. Hilvy Cheung graduated this spring from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Hilvy Cheung, who is from Hong Kong and graduated this year from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said not having many people who look like her didn’t impact her much until fourth-year clinics, when she was working with residents and faculty members.

“There was no one I could look up to. It is always nice to have someone you can talk to about problems and concerns. I never found that. It would have been nice if I had found someone with a similar cultural background who understood the problems I face,” Dr. Cheung said. “The pressure society puts on us as a model minority—I had to figure that out on my own.”

The myth of the model minority is the perception that all Asian Americans are successful and wealthy.

In the world

In practice, Dr. Yuh said her colleagues and the veterinary community have been accepting.

“Despite facing so much racism throughout my life, I have rarely felt unsafe, unwelcome, or discriminated against by co-workers in veterinary workplaces,” Dr. Yuh said. “I have had co-workers stand up for me against racist clients with impassioned fury and strength when I did not have the courage to do so myself.”

Dr. Heather Groundwater, a veterinary practitioner in Iowa, said she hopes people in the AAPI community keep connecting and finding support.

“Find a supportive group, and don’t be afraid to keep looking for the right job. If you don’t feel it is right, there are more opportunities,” Dr. Groundwater said. “We are not alone.”

Dr. Groundwater is Korean, but she was adopted, and her parents are white. She said growing up was difficult because there was little diversity in her community, and she felt isolated. But there is also some tension with her parents these days.

“My parents are pretty racist, critically racist,” Dr. Groundwater said.

Dr. Groundwater has not experienced direct racism at work, but her parents have used horribly racist phrases about the COVID-19 virus, she said.

“It hurts my soul,” she said.

Representation

Associations such as the AAVMP are creating mentorship programs to promote Asian American representation within the veterinary community.

Dr. Cheung said raising awareness and having a role model to relate to are critically important. She started an Instagram page, @LifeOfAVet, so she could be a role model for preveterinary students and other veterinary students.

“I have had a lot of Asian preveterinary students reach out and say that I am one of the first veterinarians they’ve seen that looks like them and that they appreciate my honesty,” Dr. Cheung said. “I am trying really hard to make an impact in all of this.”

Dr. Grace Bransford, a practice owner for 17 years and a Japanese American, said Asian American people are finding their voices, associations such as the AAVMP are encouraging, and veterinary leadership is increasingly more diverse. She hopes these trends continue.

“There has never been an Asian American president,” of the AVMA, said Dr. Bransford, who is running to be the 2022-23 AVMA president. “We have seen a lot of white men, but we need everyone. Everyone that wants to be involved in leadership should have a place at the table, all ethnicities and gender expressions. We are all better and richer for that diversity.”

Pham believes the keys to building a more diverse profession and being anti-racist are exposure and education.

“Anyone, white or not, if you are only ever exposed to the people that are the same as you, it will be hard,” Pham said. “Your world will be small. It’s not static. Expose yourself to new ideas, new cultures, and be willing to recognize and see what else is out there. See it with an open mind and empathy.”

Visit the AAVMP online.