Courtesy of Anna Fifelski

Content Warning: mentions of racially motivated crimes and violence

The University of Michigan kicked off its celebration of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month Monday evening with keynote speaker Dr. Sy Stokes, former Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the U-M National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID), who discussed his research on campus racial climate, equity and student activism.

Though Asian American & Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month is federally recognized during the month of May, the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) and the United Asian American Student Organizations (UAAO) celebrate these communities from mid-March to mid-April. 

The event opened with LSA sophomore Aarushi Ganguly, a member of the Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month Planning Committee, who introduced the theme of this year’s celebration: “Are You Listening? Oral Histories and Storytelling from AA&PI Communities.”

“AA&PI populations have long been characterized as silent, which is a result of being washed over by imperialism, monolithic stereotypes and white supremacy,” Ganguly said. “This Heritage Month, we hope to call attention to the vast diversity within these communities. We will create space for individuals both in and outside of the AA&PI community to learn, reflect and grow.”

Ganguly asked the audience to engage with a Google Jamboard — an interactive, digital whiteboard that allowed attendees to answer the question: “What’s an Asian American and or Pacific Islander-related story or tale that matters to you?” Some notes recounted traditional fables about perseverance, unity and selflessness. Other notes highlighted family experiences and stories. 

In response to the prompt, Public Health junior Gina Liu shared a story about a time her parents, who recently immigrated to the U.S. at the time, had come close to getting scammed into almost buying a timeshare — a vacation ownership with a commitment to paying for annual trips to the same location — due to their identities as first-generation immigrants. 

“(My parents) were new immigrants so they had no idea what a timeshare was and there were multiple sales people try(ing) to come up to them and try(ing) to get them a timeshare, but they didn’t get one,” Liu said. “Apparently it was like $100 for a weekend trip to Disneyland so I respect it.”

To start his presentation, Stokes presented a timeline of historical events that have discriminated against the Asian American & Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities. He began by explaining three national pieces of legislation — People v. Hall (1854), Page Law (1875), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) — that targeted Chinese immigrants on the basis of their race.

Stokes then explained the American-backed coup d’etat of Hawai’i in 1893, in which a group of American sugar planters planned to illegally overthrow Queen Lili’uokalani, who risked her life to preserve Hawai’i. She ultimately signed it to America to protect her citizens, who were threatened with hanging, Stokes said. 

“Over a century later, Native Hawaiians continue to fight for the land that is rightfully theirs, while the violent and unforgivable system of white supremacy mocks them into oblivion with skyscraping hotels, tourist attractions and increased property values that have displaced families who have been living there for longer than the American Empire even knew they existed,” Stokes said.

Stokes also talked about the San Francisco Plague in 1900, in which many people wrongly believed the disease only infected those of Asian descent. During World War II, the United States sanctioned Japanese internment camps, resulting in mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, Stokes said. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, Stokes then explained, which consents to indefinite detention without trial of immigrants.

“After the Patriot Act was passed, people share these stories about how students wearing a hijab were attacked, mothers and fathers have their lives taken by white supremacist vigilantes and families were separated by this racist legislation,” Stokes said. 

The last event on Stokes’ timeline was the 2017 Muslim Ban — a series of discriminatory executive orders and proclamations issued by the Trump administration that prohibited travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

“Once again, history repeated itself in 2017, which was when the Muslim Ban carried an almost identical recycling of these xenophobic tropes and horrific consequences for Asian Muslims,” Stokes said. 

Stokes said explaining this historical context is crucial in understanding the continued discrimmination and hate crimes committed against Asian American communities today.

“I’ve started pretty much every (AA&PI) keynote the same exact way for the last two years,” Stokes said. “Because it is so important to emphasize that what we are experiencing in our communities today is no historical anomaly to any extent, but rather it’s a byproduct of this long standing history of anti-Asian violence and the United States and beyond.”

Stokes also explained a six-step process of how legislation or “firm steps” are taken against racial minorities, which he called The Signification Spiral. According to Stokes, these steps include the identification of specific issue of concern, the identification of subversive minority, the linking of the issue to the subversive minority, the notion of thresholds that result in an escalating threat, the prophecy of more troubling times and finally, the call for “firm steps” or legislation towards the racial minority. Stokes used Donald Trump’s description of COVID-19 as “the Chinese Virus” as an example. 

“It is not just the state who inflicts this violence and this racist legislation, because we are witnessing the Atlanta shootings, the attacks against our elders and Chinatowns across the country, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 to the murder of Christina Yuna Lee in 2022 and countless other instances of anti-Asian violence that we witness recently,” Stokes said. “It is primarily the racist vigilantes who take matters into their own hands.”

Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit during a night out after they suspected him of being Japanese — one of the men had recently lost his job in automotive manufacturing and blamed his employment on the rapid growth of the Japanese automotive industry during the 1970s and 1980s. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes was spurred by popularized rhetoric used to describe the pandemic, including former U.S. President Donald Trump’s labeling of the pandemic as the “Chinese Virus.” Since March 2020, over 10,000 hate instances targeting Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, according to Stop AAPI Hate. 

In March 2021, a 21-year old white man entered an Asian-owned massage parlor in Atlanta and opened fire, killing eight people — six of whom were women of Asian descent. As Stokes mentioned, Lee was found killed with over 40 stab wounds after being followed home to her New York City apartment in February 2022.

For the second portion of the keynote, Stokes discussed present Asian American & Pacific Islander activism and shared his own history of the topic, including his awareness of the racism that has resulted from movements.  

“I’m conflicted because I know the other side where anti-Blackness peaks from beneath the shadows and is spoon fed to us at dinner tables and family gatherings,” Stokes said. “I know the other side where the model minority myth is advertised and internalized.”

Stokes said the process to ending racism against marginalized groups is to recognize white supremacy as the common enemy. Stokes also advised the audience to prioritize forming coalitions with other marginalized groups and to learn from them.

“It is a privilege to be Asian and radical in America,” Stokes said. “It is a privilege to learn from the Black and Brown folks who did it before us… and it is a privilege to be an activist, fighting for our survival.”

In the third part of the keynote, Stokes shared his family’s history and his grandmother’s immigration story, saying that she immigrated to America from Shanghai in 1948. 

“(Our elders) share … similar stories, stories that serve as a reminder of our roots just as much as they serve as a reminder of our privilege,” Stokes said. “But when we hear stories about our elders being attacked during racist hate crimes, some that have occurred in the last few days, I can’t help but think that they sacrifice everything to come to America, only to have their lives sacrificed in the name of America. People who hold on to this distorted vision of this country and will stop at nothing to inflict pain upon our loved ones who have done nothing but have the audacity to want a better life.”

Stokes ended the keynote by sharing a six-word memoir that he wrote for his grandmother, inspired by the novel “Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong. The memoir is inspired by his grandmother’s experiences as an immigrant and the historical instances of racism that his grandmother, along with countless other Asian Americans, experienced, Stokes explained. The six-word memoir is “My grandmother went to Chinatown today.”

“Now as we read this, I want you to remember what’s been going on across the world to your loved ones, the fear that they have, the fear that they carry with you,” Stokes said. “It’s a fear I carry with myself every single day. I want us to sit with this as an end to this keynote, six words, filled with uncertainty and tragic implications. I want you to ask yourself: ‘Who do you fight for?’”

Daily Staff Reporter Anna Fifelski can be reached at