The tension at the Main Street post office in Los Altos was palpable on the afternoon of July 23. A white woman, upset over a trivial matter, was berating an Asian postal clerk.
The verbal assault was bad enough for at least two bystanders to act. Tyler Brumfield began recording on his phone. Next to him, Susan Stone dialed the nonemergency number for the Los Altos Police Department. As the clerk walked away from the counter, the irate woman – wearing a mask and carrying a dark blue duffel bag – stared ahead, watching.
There was silence for approximately 20 seconds. Brumfield kept recording.
Then, the woman – under her breath – muttered: “C**nk.”
After a split-second pause, Brumfield and Stone simultaneously realized what just happened.
“W-Whoa! Whoa!” Brumfield exclaimed. “That is not acceptable.”
“Hey, not appropriate! Absolutely not,” Stone chimed in, while still on the phone with the police operator. “We need help at the Los Altos post office on Main Street. There’s a woman totally out of control here. She’s screaming loudly. She’s yelling racist things. We need help.”
The immediate condemnation of the racial slur uttered toward the clerk was swift, and the reaction from the greater Silicon Valley community in the following days was just as explicit. During a time fraught with discussions about race, when many so-called “Karen incidents” have gone viral, this episode affirmed that Los Altos is not immune from racism. And in light of a rise in anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, the woman’s words served as a disturbing verbal attack on the approximately 9,000 Asians who call Los Altos home.
Lynette Lee Eng, the lone Asian American member of the Los Altos City Council, said in an email that she has highlighted xenophobia as a problem and brought it to the attention of the council and County Supervisor Joe Simitian.
“I will continue to push for racial equality,” Lee Eng said.
Brumfield, 29, is a Palo Alto resident and a history and journalism double major at San Francisco State University. He also works full time at California Closets on State Street. He was at the post office June 23 to ship some packages to clients when he encountered the confrontation.
Brumfield is a 6-foot-tall Black man with dreadlocks. In the year and a half he has worked in downtown Los Altos, he has received stares, and people have crossed the street upon encountering him – out of fear, he believes. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 0.4% of the Los Altos population is Black or African American.
“I don’t see anybody that looks like me there,” Brumfield said. “Unfortunately, I am an anomaly in the middle of downtown Los Altos.”
This was not lost on Brumfield when he decided to share the incident on social media. Once the woman used a racial slur, he felt an obligation to expose it.
“Let me shed some light, especially in Los Altos, California, to let people know this is happening everywhere,” Brumfield said.
Stone said that when Brumfield told her he was going to post the incident on social media, she agreed with him. Stone, who has lived in Mountain View for six years and spent the previous 30 years in Cupertino, also wanted people to recognize that despite the Bay Area’s liberal demographic, racism still happens here.
Stone works as a family coach and used to be a host mom for minor league baseball players on the San Jose Giants. She remembered taking Pablo Sandoval and his family shopping in San Francisco’s Union Square – when the current Giants fan-favorite was just starting his career – and watching the employees in a store monitor the Latino family carefully as they walked from room to room.
“Racism is a viral thing,” Stone said. “It does happen even in our neighborhoods we think it doesn’t happen in. All of us need to be allies, and to stand up and speak out when we see something wrong.”
According to an Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council representative, nearly 1,000 incidents of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander hate have been reported in California alone to the organization’s “Stop AAPI Hate” tracker since the beginning of the
Novey Chou, a 45-year-old Taiwanese Los Altos resident, said she was not surprised by the incident.
“For a lot of people, it would not be an issue for them to say (racial slurs) under their breath if they are agitated or annoyed,” Chou said.
In late June, Chou helped organize a community event at Heritage Oaks Park after a neighbor posted about an incident on Nextdoor, alleging that a white woman called the police on her children’s Black nanny while they were taking a walk. The post included photos of the white woman standing next to her car.
The children’s East Indian family – which declined an interview – was heartened by the gathering of nearly 80 people, according to Chou. Instead of keeping the incident to themselves, they made it public on Nextdoor, which resulted in support but also negative comments doubting the account.
Chou worries some residents will think the post office altercation was an isolated incident, and that it’s important for such events to be documented and exposed.
“They’ll say, ‘This lady: It’s just her, it’s not all of us,’” Chou said. “They will deny it until the cows come home. I don’t think it makes a difference to the people who really believe there’s no systemic racism.”
A spike in hate
Asians are the second-largest racial group behind white people in Los Altos, making up nearly 30% of the population, according to the U.S. Census. However, a large population doesn’t insulate Asians from racism, said Manjula Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council.
Kulkarni pointed to Torrance, a Southern California city that is also approximately 30% Asian and has had multiple viral incidents of racism toward the Asian community.
“Unfortunately, having more people doesn’t insulate us from hate,” Kulkarni said. “It’s just under the surface.”
Asian American advocates believe the spike in anti-Asian hate stems from President Donald Trump’s rhetoric when referring to the coronavirus with derogatory language such as “China virus” or “Kung-Flu.” Such language emboldens people to wrongly generalize Asians as responsible for the virus and spew hatred toward them, according to advocates.
“Everybody has issues with the post office. Who hasn’t?” said Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, which has served the Asian Pacific Islander community in Silicon Valley since 1977. “But you don’t have to start resorting to that language and that kind of racist behavior.”
The majority of self-reported incidents, Kulkarni said, are similar in nature to the post office incident – as she describes it, “low-level racist activity” that doesn’t rise to the level of police involvement but still must be addressed. She was, however, glad to see the trend of bystanders intervening continue.
“While we are seeing racism, we are seeing resistance,” Kulkarni said. “That makes me happy that people now feel equipped, they feel heartened, they know that each and every one of us needs to stand up for our fellow citizens and community members.”
Show of support
The U.S. Postal Service declined an interview request for the postal clerk. Bystanders said the clerk acted respectfully, asking the woman to calm down and to stop yelling at her.
In a statement, the USPS said, in part: “No employee should have to suffer any abuse by a customer, and we have every right to refuse service to anyone who is abusive.”
Customers have left flowers and notes of support for the employee who was harassed.
“Thank you for all that you do,” one card reads.
The police did not respond to the incident, a Los Altos Police Department spokesperson said. After the woman left, the dispatcher told Stone to call back if she returned.
“Very little in life is worth getting this upset about,” Stone said. “The clerk was not causing the problem. She was the one causing the problem.”
The remaining people in the post office checked on the clerk, who brushed off the altercation and got right back to work. Brumfield said exposing the woman’s actions has already vilified her enough, but he would like to have her identified (she has not been publicly identified as of the Town Crier’s print deadline).
Asked if he had a message for the woman, Brumfield said: “Treat people better. Be a better human. Be a better person. Using racial slurs is just ignorance, and there’s no need for it.”