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Woman wearing mask says she was told to ‘go back to Asia’ while pushing son in stroller in University Village

The man who approached her Wednesday morning also shouted “white power” before thrusting his fist in the air, resident Emily Choi recalled.

A University Village resident took this photo of a man (seen far in distance) who she says used racist remarks against her Wednesday.
Provided/Emily Choi

Emily Choi says she’s generally felt safe while living in University Village, but that changed after a man went on a racist tirade against her for wearing a mask while pushing her son on a stroller Wednesday morning.

“I was just shocked,” said Choi, 34. “It’s like, wow, this happened to me and it’s in my own neighborhood and, you know, my son has to witness that which is terrible.”

Choi, of Chinese descent, was taking her 20-month-old son to day care about 7:40 a.m. near the University of Illinois at Chicago athletic fields when she crossed paths with a white man who looked at her and said “‘take off your f- - - - - - mask, a- - - - - - -,’” she recalled.

“I had an option to not say anything and just keep walking, but I just wasn’t OK with it,” said Choi. “I felt like if I just said nothing and turned away, it’s like kind of accepting what he did.”

Choi works as a pharmacist and said that as a health care worker, she has seen the impact and toll of COVID-19, and she chooses to wear a mask to protect the immunocompromised.

While she tried to explain to the man that not everyone is vaccinated yet, the man ignored her and told her “‘you need to go back to Asia’” before walking off, saying “‘white power’” and thrusting his fist in the air, she said.

Choi said the man was wearing a Cubs shirt, sandals, a baseball cap and had a white dog with him.

After overcoming her shock, Choi dropped her son off at day care but then saw the man again in the field area with his dog while on her way home. She walked over to UIC staff nearby and reported the incident. Staff told her they would contact campus police, but when she checked in with police later she was told they couldn’t locate him.

Chicago police confirmed a woman reported being harassed by a white man about wearing a mask Wednesday morning in the 900 block of West 14th Street. No one was in custody.

The incident is the latest in a wave of hate incidents against Asians and Asian Americans across the country. Between March 2020 and this past March, more than 6,600 anti-Asian hate incidents have been documented by Stop AAPI Hate.

President Joe Biden last week signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. The legislation will put a Justice Department official in charge of a review of anti-Asian hate crimes. Illinois lawmakers also recently sent a bill to Gov. J.B. Pritzker mandating Asian American history be taught in public schools.

Choi said she’s endured “periods and pieces” of racism throughout her life, but nothing like what happened to her Wednesday. She said finding the root cause of the recent increase in attacks across the country is difficult, but former President Donald Trump was a catalyst in helping to embolden people with prejudice in their hearts.

“It’s just so weird that people think it’s OK now and I’m not sure what shifted in our community to make that OK,” Choi said. “Part of me is always like you know, this was just always there, it’s just a bad mirror, Trump just showed a bad mirror of society and at the end of the day, the reality is that it’s in people’s hearts, it’s OK to them, this racism.”

Looking back on the incident, Choi said she probably shouldn’t have engaged the man after he insulted her for wearing a mask, but she wanted to set a good example for her son.

“I don’t want my son to think these kinds of things are OK. I want him to live in a world where people are called out for what they’re doing wrong.”