While Kyle Larson nearly won Sunday’s (March 21) Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 28-year-old racer had other things on his mind this weekend.
Surely, Larson might’ve lamented about a possible win after dominating the sixth round of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. However, this weekend’s race came during a challenging time for the United States and Asian-Americans.
Last Tuesday (March 16), about 60 miles to the north of Hampton, Ga., six Asian women were killed in a shooting spree in the Atlanta area.
While Rodney Bryant, the acting chief of the Atlanta Police Department, had yet to classify the tragedy as a hate crime, as reported in a New York Times article from March 19, the tragedy served as another bleak reminder of the fear Asian-Americans face during these heightened times among races.
Jill Cowan of the The New York Times this week delved into the rise of racism against Asians during the pandemic, particularly with the tragic happenings in the Atlanta area.
“Law enforcement and society in general tends to really not understand how racism and hate and prejudice is directed toward Asian-Americans, and certainly not understand how it’s directed toward Asian-American women,” said Helen Zia, an author and activist. “So the instant reaction is generally to discount and dismiss it.”
As The Texas Tribune‘s Duncan Agnew wrote in his article on March 19, Asians around the country fear being attacked by their fellow Americans.
“I can’t even go out and help a fellow person in the community because I’m afraid that I might get attacked,” said Mike Nguyen, a San Antonio, Texas resident. “I’m not stepping out of this car right now.
“I think a lot of Asian-Americans are frustrated that you see these crimes happening, but nothing’s happening. There’s no stop to it, and people are trying to make it that it’s not a hate crime.”
Agnew pointed to a recent Pew Research Center study that found 58% of Asian-Americans observed how people have been more expressive with racist perspectives toward their group since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
As America endures during its second year grappling with this disease, NBC News‘ Kimmy Yam reported recently there have been about 3,800 incidents classified as Asian hate crimes in that span. In particular, women and the elderly have been attacked and victimized with rampant hate crimes committed across the country.
While covering and observing Sunday’s race at Atlanta for Frontstretch and The Podium Finish, I took time to reflect on the senseless violence committed against Asian-Americans. When I learned about the March 16 shootings, I was angered and disappointed. I wondered what would prompt someone to take someone else’s life, much less six.
Notably, U.S. News‘ Staff Writer Claire Hansen observed how former President Donald Trump describing COVID-19 as the “China Virus” only added more fuel to the fire with those who hold such prejudice and narrow-minded views of Asians and Asian-Americans.
“Before the pandemic, you don’t expect another adult to just come up to you and spit on you,” said Russell Jeung, an Asian-American Studies professor at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI (Asian-American and Pacific Islander) Hate, “That’s how angry and fearful people are. That’s how much they are othering Asians in America, seeing us as foreigners, as not belonging, seeing us, as, in the shootings, sexualized objects to be shot at.”
As a first generation American originally born in Boston, Ma., most of my life has been spent in the United States. The concepts of race and ethnicity were not on my mind as a child. Rather, I was raised to value one’s character and demeanor during my school years.
When I was seven years old, I experienced the first instance of racism when my family and I were walking back from the city square on a July evening. A group of teenagers drove past us, rolled down their windows, and told us, “Go back to your country, you trashy Asians!”
Despite being a child, I was upset and hurt by the derogatory remarks made toward my family. We were minding our business when a quiet evening became the first of many hurtful experiences as an Asian-American citizen.
Certainly, I love being an American and this country. It is a country in which one can have a dream and realize it through hard work, humility and grace.
However, there are times where I wish this country would evolve and grow up, getting past the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory actions against people of color. For the most part, I have ignored when a random individual utters the various slurs toward Asians which I do not care to repeat.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been harder to ignore these moments, especially when it becomes personal. When Americans needlessly approach me and Asians to tell us to “go home” and that COVID-19 came here because of “my people,” it hurts. It’s uncalled for and unfathomable.
It’s a time that I ask all of us to stop and learn how we can all do better, which ties up with Sunday’s runner-up finisher at Atlanta.
Larson, a Japanese-American racer who graduated from the Drive for Diversity program, remains NASCAR’s most prominent Asian-American driver.
In the past, Larson had shied away when asked about his Asian-American roots. Following his maiden Cup win at Michigan International Speedway in 2016, Larson was focused more about his racing efforts than being one of the faces of NASCAR’s diversity movement.
“I mean, I don’t think too much about that stuff,” Larson said in an interview with The Podium Finish. “I’m just going out there racing, but if I can make any impact on any getting any other young Asian-Americans to race or become race fans, that means I’ve helped the sport out a little bit. That part is cool and NASCAR does a lot to try to make the sport more diverse. They’ve done a good job with it and it seems to be growing.”
Larson did some growing up following last April’s Monza Madness iRacing event when he uttered a racial slur that was heard by his competitors and race fans watching the stream. Losing his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 team one day after the iRacing event, Larson recognized how he had a ways to go and had to learn from his mistake.
“I was just ignorant. And immature. I didn’t understand the negativity and hurt that comes with that word,” Larson said to Jenna Fryer of The Associated Press. “That’s not a word that I had ever used. I grew up in northern California, all I ever did was race and that’s all I was focused on. There’s probably a lot of real life experiences I didn’t get to have and I was just ignorant to how hurtful that word is.”
From the various charitable works away from the track to his newly established Drive for 5 charity, Larson has taken the steps toward compassion, understanding, and acceptance with Africans and African-Americans.
“I did do a lot of stuff last year,” Larson observed. “It’s definitely opened my eyes to how people are treated differently. That’s something I never really paid attention to before.
“It stinks that somebody can be treated differently because of their race or the color of their skin. That’s really what I learned a lot about last year. It definitely means more to me now than maybe it would have in the past after everything that I went through.”
Despite his steely-eyed focus on winning at Atlanta, Larson observed and processed last Tuesday’s unspeakable tragedy.
“Being Asian-American, I started noticing it more and more,” Larson said in Sunday’s post-race Zoom conference. “It definitely hits closer to me probably. Hopefully, things will get better in our world. It’s just a terrible, terrible time for Asians. I hope it gets better.”
Larson has been sincere in his efforts with bridging Americans of all walks of life together from his experiences last year. When asked about having a platform with being more expressive about effecting positive changes, Larson understood his role in the sports and racing world.
“I think us as athletes, for sure, we have powerful voices,” Larson observed. “We can try and lead a change. It’s definitely important.”
Ultimately, while we, as a society, evolve and learn from our experiences, perhaps we can take a lead from Kyle Larson.
Maybe we can be leaders, in our own way, of positive change so that everyone, including Asians and Asian-Americans, can live and realize their dreams in America or anywhere in our world.