Students at the University of Michigan are calling for greater actions to support Asian American communities, particularly after recent violence against Asian Americans in Atlanta, Ga.
On Tuesday, March 16, a gunman entered three different Asian-owned spas in Atlanta and opened fire. Eight people were killed, and six of the victims were Asian women — four of Korean descent and two of Chinese descent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated instances of racism and xenophobia against Asian American communities after multiple uses of anti-China rhetoric expressed by many conservative leaders in relation to the ongoing pandemic, including former President Donald Trump. The Stop AAPI Hate coalition recorded nearly 3,800 hate incidents from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to February 2021.
According to research conducted by the University’s Virulent Hate project — which has worked to analyze and document hate incidents against Asian Americans since the pandemic started — 68% of attacks on Asian Americans in the last year specifically targeted Asian American women.
Experts say this figure is almost certainly an undercount, as many Asian Americans may be hesitant to report anti-Asian hate to authorities out of distrust and fear or because of language barriers.
Anti-Asian racism has a long history tying back to Western imperialism and colonial perceptions of East Asia, which has also led to the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women. Specifically, the concept of “white sexual imperialism” — which describes the historical domination of white men over women from poorer nations — has often been tied to anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.
During periods of turmoil, Asian Americans have historically been the scapegoat. To note a few examples among many, in 1871, more than 17 Chinese men and boys were lynched by a 500-person riot in a small Los Angeles Chinese community. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the 1880s, effectively banning Chinese immigration for 20 years. In addition, thousands of Japanese immigrants were placed in Japanese internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for perceived inability to be loyal to the United States.
In the wake of tragedy, students on campus have come together to grieve and spread awareness of the violence against Asian American communities. The United Asian American Organizations, a coalition of Asian American student groups on campus, is organizing a Friday night vigil for victims of anti-Asian violence.
LSA freshman Phoebe Yi, who plans on attending the vigil, said she was shocked by the violence and said that it was at first hard to comprehend.
“So when I first heard about (the shooting), it was just like ‘There’s no way such a horrific thing could happen to someone like me,’” Yi said. “And these women are just very, very similar to me … but when it dawned upon me, I just remember just being physically sick, like I couldn’t eat.”
Yi said she believes supporting the event will strengthen the Asian American community on campus. She said she wants people to focus on the lives of the eight victims of the violence instead of the perpetrator.
“It’s always their deaths (that) make them significant, and they’re significant besides their deaths,” Yi said. “And I feel like in a way, we have to commemorate that, because they lived very colorful and beautiful lives, and we cannot just let it fade into this horrible event.”
Many are also taking to social media to voice their support for the community, but Yi said she views these conversations with caution. To foster meaningful change, Yi said people must help to amplify minority communities rather than simply acting performative on social media.
“Because it’s on social media, it doesn’t force people to be in uncomfortable situations, to acknowledge their privilege or acknowledge other people’s oppression,” Yi said. “It’s very easy to be performative. The only way that we can actually progress is that we amplify minority voices and we allow them to talk, and we just need people to shut up and listen and be in those uncomfortable situations that they need to be in.”
Social media can also be a place where anti-Asian violence frequently occurs, according to LSA sophomore Amelia Navins, who has been working with the Stop AAPI Hate team since last March. Navins said she encourages allies to call out anti-Asian rhetoric when they see it online.
But on campus, Navins said she has seen little engagement or support from her white peers towards Asian students.
“I think that white students are turning kind of a blind eye because they’re not scared for their safety as they’re walking down the street or doing their day-to-day tasks in public,” Navins said.
Ever since April 2020, UAAO has run a social media campaign called U-M Against AAPI Hate, which calls on U-M faculty, staff and students to submit personal narratives about their experiences with hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The social media account has amassed over 30 posts on Instagram, including narratives detailing experiences with racist microaggression, property damage, and racial slurs, among others.
Other student groups on campus, like the Asian American Business Association, are also providing spaces for people to share their thoughts towards AAPI hate. Last Friday, the organization hosted a support group and listening session where members could share experiences and provide each other with emotional support.
Business graduate student Peter Park, president of the Asian American Business Association, said virtual organizing can make it harder for a community to feel heard by the University’s administration at large, but hosting a space for students to come together and grieve was important for students to feel heard.
“In a virtual environment where we’re not seeing each other as frequently or engaging with administrators from University of Michigan as frequently as we’d like to, it’s easy for our voices to not feel like they’re being heard,” Park said. “It’s easy to think that these sorts of national global issues specific to the AAPI community aren’t being recognized and aren’t being acted upon. So we as a student club felt, first and foremost, a need to bring our student community together and have a moment to grieve and have a moment to put our energy to more productive means.”
University President Mark Schlissel expressed his sympathies for the victims on behalf of the Board of Regents and U-M executive leadership in a Mar. 17 statement.
“This tragedy is one more terrifying reminder of hatred and violence in our nation directed at people because of their identity—race, ethnicity, gender identity, or religion for example,” Schlissel wrote. “During a time when we must work together to solve the challenges of a global pandemic, we are seeing increasing numbers of xenophobic incidents and hateful attacks that target Asians and Asian Americans, along with attempts to exclude the members of these communities from our nation’s universities.”
Schlissel added that the University community cherishes the contributions of students, faculty and staff of Asian descent.
“The University of Michigan would not be the diverse and excellent place it is today without generations of Asians and Asian Americans who have enhanced our community for more than a century,” Schlissel wrote. “We must stand together in rejecting the hate, violence and xenophobia that target our neighbors, colleagues, friends and loved ones of Asian descent.”
Park and Business graduate student Chuck Zhou, the incoming co-president of the Asian American Business Association, also placed an emphasis on the need for emotional support and empathy during this time. The club has also hosted informative events about the history of anti-Asian racism and how students can be allies to the AAPI community. According to Zhou, these events have seen engagement from students both a part and outside of the AAPI community.
“As far as who comes to these events, it’s not just people that identify as AAPI,” Zhou said. “It’s people that genuinely care within the Ross community or at University of Michigan, or people that are curious on how to be a better ally, how to support the AAPI community, and you see a very good mix different races, different backgrounds, people that are very generally empathetic and really want to learn how to what they can do to help combat anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.”
Though Park said he values the support Asian American students are providing each other on campus, he expressed disappointment with what he described as inaction of the University to provide resources to support AAPI students. Park said he wants University leaders to acknowledge and recognize the struggles of AAPI students as well as move quickly to create a formal plan that targets injustices.
Park noted he was discouraged by the lack of resources provided by the University, which he believes relies too much on student-led activism instead of training faculty and student DEI advocates to embed DEI into the daily life at the University.
“Today the leaders, whether that be the dean or president or professor, are ill equipped or perhaps not comfortable engaging with the students in a way that students feel protected and heard,
Park said. “We need to change that. The onus is on them to find ways to creatively and effectively pulse in with students. Students clearly have a demand and appetite for this relationship/partnership.”
Daily Staff Reporter Safura Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.