Being a Student of Color (SOC) in the age of COVID-19

By David Van Engen

Dirty looks from strangers while out in public. Muttered, derogatory comments in passing. Being followed around stores by managers and staff. As a Korean American, I’ve lived with this kind of behavior from others for my entire life. Overt, covert microaggressions. Outright, racist b*******, if we’re being totally honest. This is during the best of times. The outbreak of COVID-19 has seen a significant increase in harassment and hate crimes directed against Asian Americans and immigrants. Discrimination directed against minorities in the U.S. during times of crisis is nothing new; in fact, it’s an American tradition.

In addition to the regular stressors faced by college students, being a person of color in the U.S. brings additional challenges. Whether that comes from feeling out of place in a largely heterogeneous campus or awkwardly painful classroom discussions on diversity, it’s a lot to hold. When COVID-19 was brought to the world’s attention in late 2019, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that if the virus came to America, it would be Asian’s turn to be the focus of misguided discrimination. As time passed and the contagion spread around the globe, I experienced a growing unease that my initial thought was coming true. This feeling stayed with me, in the pit of my stomach as the number of cases began to rise in Europe, on cruise ships, and eventually the U.S. After that I couldn’t stay off the news. I was continually scanning for stories of racial discrimination, hate crimes, and targeting by politicians. This took a hefty toll on my overall sense of well-being. I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling like this but I certainly felt isolated.

In March, I was on a walk with my wife and we encountered an older woman lying on the sidewalk who had fallen and [to my medically-trained eye] had clearly broken her collarbone. I offered assistance to help stabilize her for transport to the hospital but was flatly rejected by her partner. I told her I had emergency medical training. Her partner told me to leave them alone. She wouldn’t say why, she just glared at me. Eventually, the woman on the sidewalk who was in pain said “oh let him help me already.” So I did (despite being irate). We stabilized the shoulder in an improvised sling and sent her off to get medical treatment. As we walked away, my wife said “so that’s what you’ve been talking about, isn’t it?” This incident stayed with me, doing little to help my growing frustration. Later that week, I was at the grocery and received racist comments from people in the aisles.

So I decided to stay inside as much as possible. Screw it.

But that didn’t make things better. In fact, it got worse. My consumption of the news increased as did my preoccupation. This cycle continued for a couple of weeks. My wife noticed, as did my friends. Trying to break my funk, I attended an online meeting of my graduate program’s Student’s of Color, Multiracial and Indigenous peoples group (SOCMI). There, students talked about their COVID-19-related experiences, fears, and uncertainties. It was wonderful and for the first time in months, I didn’t feel alone as a SOC. I felt like myself again. Upon reflection it struck me how quickly one can turn inward and allow anxiety to influence behaviors.

So if you’re a SOC, this blog entry is for you. You are not alone. If you’re not an SOC, this is also for you. Be supportive. Advocate for yourself and for your fellows. Be mindful of safety. Talk to each other. Form support groups, attend digital happy hours and game nights. But most importantly, be cheerfully defiant. Otherwise the bigots win.

Screw them. We aren’t going anywhere.


The APA offers some insight into the psychology of bias-motivated actions and hate crimes as well as tips on fighting them here.

If you’ve been the victim of a hate crime or discriminatory acts, go here.

One thought on “Being a Student of Color (SOC) in the age of COVID-19

  1. David – Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughtful recommendations. The SOCMI group at your school sounds like a great resource.

    Like

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