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Disclaimer: The author and Michigan in Color as a whole do not condone involvement of the carceral state or any perpetuation of criminalization. The solutions covered in this event are not solutions the author is advocating for, but rather solutions offered at the event that Michigan in Color remain in search of alternatives to. Please see  resources the author has provided related to bystander intervention training at the end of this article for more possibilities. 

The Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission held a compelling town hall over Zoom Friday to combat the rise in anti-Asian hate and teach viewers how they can be allies to the Asian American community. The goal of the event was to take a look at the racism Asian Americans have faced in the past, policies created to discriminate against Asian Americans and the rise in race-motivated violence against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, when it came to offering Asian Americans resources to turn to, public officials only presented options involving law enforcement — which is a harmful perpetuation of oppressive systems. 

The list of speakers included Roland Hwang, lecturer in the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Department at the University of Michigan; Melissa May Borja, assistant professor at the University’s Department of American Culture; Sunita Doddamani, Michigan assistant attorney general and head of the hate crimes unit; Attorney General Dana Nessel and Anthony Lewis, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. 

The event started with a few words from Governor Gretchen Whitmer. She offered her condolences to the Asian community and condemned the recent acts of violence against them, particularly the mass shootings at several Asian-owned spas in Atlanta.

“I want to make our values very clear, hate has no home in Michigan,” Whitmer said. 

Then, Borja presented a powerful slideshow containing information on how racism against Asian Americans began in America and how this violence has spread due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This idea, this fear of Asian people, is known as the yellow peril,” Borja said. 

She then recalled historical events like the Chinese Exclusion Act and conveyed how Chinese, Korean and Japanese individuals were discriminated against at the American border in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century. 

Seeing Borja acknowledge America’s racist past was impressive because she reminded attendees of the discrimination Asians have always faced in America. When society does not acknowledge these past hardships, it perpetuates the model minority myth. The model minority myth is the stereotype that all Asian Americans are academically successful and come from prestigious families. Failure to reflect on America’s racist history excludes Asian Americans of lower socioeconomic statuses, along with those victim to unequal policy and those seeking refuge from America-initiated wars. Throughout American history, Asians have had to leave their country in order to come to America because of American military influence in their country. It does not bring awareness to the fact that the majority of Asians were blamed for bringing illnesses and diseases to America in the late 1800s when the transcontinental railroad was built. The model minority myth diminishes and invalidates the increase in violence rooted in racism that Asian Americans have been experiencing in America ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It enforces the idea that Asian Americans do not struggle. 

Borja also discussed how increasing anti-Asian violence can be tied to political rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, most notably by former President Donald Trump.

“Researchers based at Berkeley did a study and they found that in the 10 years leading up to 2020, there was actually a downward decline or downward trend in anti-Asian bias,” Borja said. “But that downward trend was reversed the first week of March when politicians and conservative media began to use terms like ‘China virus.’” 

According to Stop AAPI Hate, there have been a total of 3,792 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents from March 2020 to March 2021. Incident reports have come from all over the country, ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault directed towards Asian Americans in public, Borja said. 

Additionally, Borja attacked some myths that have been spreading on social media during her presentation. According to Borja, there is a common belief that the hate Asian Americans are experiencing is only targeted towards the elderly population. However, Borja stated that there has also been an increase in bullying reported by Asian American children. Children are more likely to experience verbal harassment, but elders are more likely to experience physical harassment, Borja said. 

In addition, she noted 68% of attacks have been against women, showing that they are specifically targeted because of America’s violent history against Asian women. 

I can list numerous examples from my own self-education: for example, a notable policy that discriminates against Asian women is the The Page Act of 1875. It was enacted because Chinese women were hypersexualized and feared to be engaging in prostitution in the United States. This notion is not true, as many women traveled to America to prosper economically and to be reunited with their spouses. During World War II, the Korean War and in Vietnam, there was an increase in demand for Asian sex workers because of America’s military influence. In today’s world Asian women recall street harassment, unsolicited sexual comments from coworkers and have been subjected to men projecting their fetishes onto them. With the recent shootings in Atlanta it is evident how men have gone to the extreme to project their sexual fantasies on Asian women when the suspect claims he had a “sexual addiction” and saw the spa as “a temptation he needed to eliminate.” Asian women have never been safe as a result of over 100 years of being subjected to sexual objectification. 

Towards the end of her presentation, Borja discussed ways non-Asian individuals can be allies to the Asian community at this time. The methods she discussed are summarized below:

  1. Reach out to your Asian American friends. However, do not reach out to your Asian friends just because they are Asian. Reach out to them because you see their hurt, not to relieve your guilt. 
  2. Discuss microaggressions and what they may look like in public, so you know when to intervene. 
  3. Refrain from using harmful expressions when talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  4. Encourage victims to report hatred to organizations like Stop AAPI Hate. 
  5. Take part in a Hollaback bystander intervention training to learn how to intervene when you see violence rooted in racism. 

Finally, Borja addressed the narrative of the divide between the Black and Asian communities. She said the increased levels of harassment experienced by the Asian community is rooted in white supremacy. 

“I really want to destabilize the common idea that is, unfortunately, spreading in social media, that this is an Asian (and) Black (community) problem, it is, in fact, a white supremacy problem,” Borja said. 

At the end of Borja’s presentation, I personally felt safe hearing her offer different resources offered to Asian Americans that did not involve the use of law enforcement. While it is important to tackle racially-motivated violence towards Asian Americans, we must do it in a way that does not criminalize and cause distress amongst Asians and other people of color. However, these non-legal interference strategies quickly diminished once government officials began to offer their solutions to the problems Asian Americans face. 

During the discussion, Nessel addressed how few incidents had been reported amongst the Asian community in Michigan. Doddamani defined a hate crime in the state of Michigan as an incident “where a person is targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, the national origin or disability.” 

Doddamani expressed the significance of reporting racist crimes because if racially-motivated crimes are not reported, she said there is no way to help victims. She told viewers to contact their local police department, the FBI and the Attorney General’s Office. 

Doddamani guided viewers on how to report physical, verbal and cyber racially-motivated attacks. 

According to Doddamani, victims should do the following if they experience:

  • Verbal Threats: Report to the police the exact statement and notify them of where the attacker has gone. 
  • Physical Harassment: Run and do not engage with the attacker.
  • Cyber Attacks: Take note of the harassment received and report the incident to authorities. 

But, I found these suggestions lacking: If an individual were to express their reluctance to engage with law enforcement, there seemed to be no solution provided. 

Law enforcement and the government’s failure to understand the lack of incident reports are mostly due to language barriers and the lack of trust between law enforcement officials and some Asian American communities. In Atlanta, we saw how the police officer who made excuses for the white shooter’s hate crime was later revealed to have promoted clothing featuring anti-Asian racist messages, another example of how many in law enforcement still perpetuate stereotypes amongst minority communities. The Michigan Asian American community and violence against Asian Americans were ignored by the criminal justice system following Vincent Chin’s death in 1982, making it extra difficult to rebuild trust between this community and the criminal justice system today. Two of the Atlanta spas where the mass shootings occurred had been targets of multiple police stings for years — we cannot tell people to turn to their oppressors for help when they are the ones that have pushed them down before. 

Despite one attendee who commented in the chat that he would be uncomfortable reaching out to law enforcement, the government-affiliated panelists emphasized the importance of contacting local law enforcement when a crime motivated by hate occurs. Personally, this dialogue of enforcing a police state made me feel uncomfortable due to the fact that law enforcement perpetuates incarcerations, primarily of people of color. As an attendee of the event, it was clear the only solutions offered involved criminalization, something I do not believe is the most effective way of pursuing justice.

The event ended with State Sen. Stephanie Chang stating that there is “much work to be done.” She encouraged the Asian American community to continue to build bridges with other minority groups. 

However, she also emphasized the significance of reporting racism and expressed her desire to expand the Attorney General’s Hate Crime Unit and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Chang reflected on the rise in violence rooted in hatred towards Asian Americans and pushed viewers to dismantle racism and white supremacy through speaking out and forming connections with other communities. 

Interestingly enough, though the expressed sentiment was to try and dismantle white supremacy, the suggestions the government-affiliated panelists offered all perpetuate the systems rooted in that white supremacy. 

Below are alternative solutions to combat anti-Asian racism that exclude law enforcement (unless otherwise specified, these are resources compiled only by the author and not discussed at the event):

Columnist Anchal Malh can be reached at anchalm@umich.edu.