Warning: This post includes references to and an image of racist phrases that might be hurtful to some of you.
Mitchell Buck says he didn’t mean to offend anyone when he wrote “Thanks, China” and referred to the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu” on his shop’s chalkboard. Buck is the owner of Dirty Fingers Bikes, a well-known Hood River bike shop that opened in 2007.
Reached at his shop this morning, Buck said, “We’re kind of free speech folks. I post things I agree with, I post things I don’t agree with. Sometimes they’re provocative, sometimes they’re not.” He said the phrases he used on the board just happened to be things he’d heard on the news that day, and he was surprised by the reaction. “I had almost completely forgotten about it.” he said.
Buck uploaded an image of the board — which posts upcoming events, trail condition notices, and other news of the day — to the shop’s Instagram account on Thursday. It was quickly criticized. On Sunday, BikePortland reader Howard Draper shared it with me.
“Dirty Fingers’ post is stoking xenophobia and uses inflammatory rhetoric that can help encourage violence against Asians during the pandemic,” he said. “As a biracial Asian, and one of the few Asians that I see at bike events, I would feel unsafe and uncomfortable walking into Dirty Fingers after their post.”
Buck maintains he intended “no ill will” and that his shop has customers, “from all different walks of life.” “I’m just completely sorry that folks were so offended,” he said.
“The most important part of free speech is the stuff you don’t agree with.”
— Mitchell Buck, Dirty Fingers Bikes
Asked if he felt what he wrote was racist, Buck said, “To be honest, on all the news stations at the time, it [the virus] was still referred to with its country of origin. I don’t agree with those things; but one of those phrases was in a press conference that same day.”
“I think we all need to stop sitting idly by while rhetoric like this becomes further normalized than it already is, especially in the bike industry.”
— Matt Danielson
“The most important part of free speech is the stuff you don’t agree with,” Buck said. “So sometimes I put that up. Then all hell broke loose.” Several people called and emailed Dirty Fingers sharing their concerns and threatening to boycott his business.
Buck ultimately took down the post, telling me, “Of course we took it down. We didn’t want people to be offended or upset.”
Duncan Hwang is associate director of Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), a nonprofit advocacy group. Reached today for comment, he said “Using language like this, even jokingly, normalizes xenophobia and discrimination against Asians; linking a global pandemic that impacts all of us to a single country and race continues a long tradition of scapegoating communities of color in times of crisis. We can do better.”
“As transportation justice advocates,” he continued, “we should not tolerate the kind of references shared in the post.” Hwang says as anti-Asian hate crimes increase with the spread of Covid-19 it’s important for our community to speak up and discuss with friends and family why actions like this are problematic.
Draper said even if the sign wasn’t overtly racist, “It normalizes blame and ridicule of China, and that can validate a need for retribution.”
As of today, Buck hasn’t posted on Instagram about the situation. “I’m going back and forth on that. I don’t quite know how to respond. I’m getting threats and I haven’t figured out how to deal with it. We’re just incredibly sorry.”
The offensive post was deleted on Sunday evening, but Portlander Matt Danielson took a screenshot of it and re-posted it to his Instagram account. Danielson urged his followers to boycott the store.
“I think we all need to stop sitting idly by while rhetoric like this becomes further normalized than it already is, especially in the bike industry,” Danielson shared in an email to BikePortland today. “I decided to use strong language to make it very clear that I felt their actions were unacceptable. I asked that people never set foot in the Dirty Fingers shop again. How could my Asian American friends possibly feel safe in that shop? Again, people are being beaten in the streets, and the exact language from the sign made by Dirty Fingers is being used to justify it.”
Danielson and many other were disturbed that the post was “liked” by Filmed by Bike.
Filmed by Bike is a popular film festival and its founder Ayleen Crotty quickly found herself in the crosshairs of the controversy. Dirty Fingers is a supporter of Filmed by Bike and the shop hosted a film screening last year.
In a statement posted on Filmed by Bike’s Instagram account Yesterday, Crotty said she made a “mistake” and has learned from it. “I wasn’t thinking. I wanted to reach out and give our friends a virtual squeeze on the shoulder by ‘liking’ the post. Their post had some nice words in it about community connection. The post also had an image of a statement that is racist. The person who wrote that statement probably wasn’t considering it as racist, but it was. In liking the post, I perpetuated the racism.”
Portland-based Sellwood Cycle Repair has organized an annual bike ride with Dirty Fingers for several years (I participated in 2017). “I’m struggling to reconcile Sellwood Cycle’s affiliation with Dirty Fingers,” Draper shared with me.
In a phone conversation this morning, Sellwood Cycle Repair owner Erik Tonkin said the post displayed “poor judgment”. “But I also think it doesn’t tell the entire story of the business and its owner.” Tonkin said the pandemic has put many people on edge. “I would say this is somebody not acting in the best possible way in a charged moment. I’m not excusing it, I’m trying to understand why these things happen.”
Is the post racist? “At face value? Sure. It is,” Tonkin replied, after a long pause. “It could easily be understood as that. If somebody were to tell me that’s a racist post, I wouldn’t argue with them about it.”
Dirty Fingers owner Buck assured me his shop isn’t racist. “We welcome everybody here,” he said. As for what he’s learned from the experience, Buck said, “I’ve learned to be more sensitive about what we put up… Especially at this time and we certainly are not trying to hurt our Asian-American friends.”
UPDATE 4/15: Mitchell Buck has posted a statement on Instagram.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.