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  • James Akinaka

Being a Brave Bystander

James Akinaka, member of Nu‘uanu Congregational Church

I didn’t truly understand racism until I moved away from Hawai’i. As a person of Chinese and Japanese descent, I never saw myself as a minority while growing up on Oahu. But since I moved to New York City, racism has become impossible for me to ignore.


Vilma Kari, a 65-year-old Filipina American immigrant, was walking to church just before noon on March 29, 2021 when a man kicked her to the ground. “You don’t belong here,” he shouted at her while kicking her in the head several times.


This happened in front of an apartment building in New York, where two doormen watched from inside the lobby. Camera footage shows that instead of helping Vilma Kari, the doormen did nothing. One of them even closed the door on her. Thankfully, she survived, and her assailant was arrested, while both doormen have since been fired. But she should have been able to walk to church in peace without becoming the victim of a hate crime.


The attack terrified me. It happened just 13 blocks from my office in Manhattan, on an otherwise normal Monday morning. Were it not for the pandemic, I could have been walking to lunch nearby when Vilma Kari was attacked. If I had been there, I hope that I would be brave enough to help her.


When I’ve spoken with other Asian friends from Hawai’i who (like me) have since moved to the mainland, all of us have similar feelings of fear and rage about the rise in racism against our community. However, my Hawai’i friends and I are fortunate that our families still live in the islands, where—compared to the mainland—they are at lower risk of being targets of anti-Asian hate crimes.


And yet, we live in a country where racism is not just a possibility, but an inevitability. When left unchecked, it spreads like a pandemic. As a young and able-bodied person, I’ve realized it is my responsibility to help protect our elders. If I expect others to protect my parents and our kūpuna back home in Hawai’i, then I need to be willing to help protect anyone from racism, regardless of whether I have a personal connection with them.


When Vilma Kari was attacked, there was another witness who, unlike the doormen, stepped in to help. This person, who according to Vilma’s daughter has chosen to remain anonymous, was standing across the street and screamed to draw Vilma’s assailant away from her. That person did the right thing to help save Vilma’s life, and we should all be brave enough to do what they did: Be an active bystander.


Hollaback, a grassroots organization that combats public harassment, has launched a free online training series on bystander intervention. I am attending an upcoming session in May, and I encourage you to do the same by registering for a session at www.ihollaback.org. The training is free and only 60 minutes long, and it can help you learn how to stop someone from being harassed without putting yourself in harm’s way. We all have a responsibility to protect our kūpuna and those around us.


Racism is a pandemic. If we want to live in a country without it someday, then we must fight it with attentiveness and courage today. Being a brave bystander is the first step in saving lives.

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