The University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity and the Steve Fund, an organization working to advance positive mental health for young people of color, were forced to abruptly end a virtual Anti-Asian hate panel discussion Tuesday afternoon after an anonymous Zoom bomber began shouting obscenities and racial slurs. The panel, entitled “Anti-Asian Hate and Mental Health on College Campuses,” was set to feature expert speakers in the fields of Asian-American studies; mental health studies; and diversity, equity and inclusion. In particular, the event was intended to discuss strategies for increasing racial equity on college campuses in order to support AAPI-identifying members of academic communities.
In the session’s opening remarks — which successfully finished prior to the Zoom-bombing — Dr. Marcia Liu, the event moderator and Mental Health Coordinator for Hunter College AANAPISI Project in New York City, said Tuesday’s event would help build community and facilitate support systems for AAPI-identifying students.
“We hope today’s presentation discussion helps to build community, clarify information, generate some creative advocacy strategies and interventions that you can use for supporting AAPI students,” Liu said.
Kevin Nadal, the keynote speaker and a professor of psychology at City University of New York and at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, began his address by emphasizing the importance of recognizing the diverse identities and ethnicities within the Asian-American community and the different lived experiences of each individual. As an individual who identifies as Asian American himself, Nadal said microaggressions, implicit biases and white supremacy can all contribute to making Asian Americans feel stereotyped and unsafe on college campuses.
“In order for us to really ensure that people feel safe … we have to target notions of white supremacy and the ways in which many people of color are targeted,” Nadal said about 14 minutes after the panel discussion had begun. “Within minority stress is the idea of microaggression—”
After Nadal said “microaggression,” he was interrupted by an indeterminate, high-pitched screaming noise, emitted by an unknown, unmuted participant. Nadal acknowledged the noise momentarily, saying that it “scared him,” and then continued on with his keynote address.
About 30 seconds later, another, completely different short noise interrupted Nadal again, and then a longer, non-verbal groaning sound cut him off after another 30 seconds. After this third disruption, Nadal joked about how getting “Zoom-bombed” was breaking his year-long record of not being interrupted while lecturing over Zoom. Every time a noise was made, it was unclear who was disrupting the meeting, as there were almost 150 people in attendance and Nadal was consistently the highlighted speaker.
As Nadal attempted once again to continue with his address, the sporadic interruptions became increasingly more frequent. Participants began to comment on the Zoom-bombing in the meeting chat.
“I think we may be (being Zoom bombed),” one wrote. “Just a sign we’re doing good work.”
Nadal spoke over the noises about the importance of destigmatizing mental health care for Asian American-identifying individuals and encouraging professional counseling within Asian American communities when needed.
“What we really need to do is destigmatize mental health for everyone, while also being mindful of those specific ways that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders may face difficulties in seeking mental health treatment,” Nadal said. “I think we need to (encourage mental health conversations) at all levels: within our own families, within our friendship circles and within our communities and even within workplaces and organizations talking about mental health.”
Right after this, the Zoom bomber once again repeated their loud and disruptive behavior, playing another groan-like sound effect. At this point, Liu apologized to Nadal for the disruptions. After a moment of silence, Nadal attempted to finish his initial presentation when the Zoom bomber screamed “Fuck you, bitch” in a computer-generated voice.
Liu quickly apologized again, acknowledging the incident and negative effect the interruption might be having on the attendees. Liu said people were working “on the other side” to try to identify and silence the Zoom-bomber, but she did not want an outburst at an event raising awareness about anti-Asian hate to go ignored.
“This is a lot. We can honor this moment of some Asian trauma happening right now,” Liu said. “I don’t want to let this kind of thing happen and not acknowledge it. This is exactly it. I’m noticing my heart race, you know, I’m noticing, feeling nervous.”
A representative from The Steve Fund, who was operating the Zoom meeting, then told the attendees the organization was working to end the disruptions as quickly as possible.
Nadal encouraged the participants to try to be resilient and to stick together through the interruptions so the panel could continue.
“This is part of it, right? We are resilient, we’ll make it through,” Nadal said. “As people of various ethnic backgrounds and cultural backgrounds, of various histories, we need to be resilient. And so all of the folks here trying to bring us down, we will survive and we will also thrive.”
Immediately after Nadal finished his sentence and began thanking the panel for inviting him to speak, the Zoom-bomber dramatically increased the duration and volume of attacks. In an explosion of overlayed, automated voices and screaming sounds, the Zoom-bomber loudly said “shut the f-ck up,” “get bombed” and “this is so f-cking stupid.”
The Zoom-bomber changed their screen name several times to various random configurations of letters and kept their camera off to avoid detection. They also began to simultaneously spam the chat with obscenities. The Zoom bomber then started screaming racial and ethnic slurs, and spamming the chat with the same slurs.
As this occurred, some attendees began sharing their appalled reactions in the chat.
“It’s not okay… very messed up,” one wrote.
“Illustrates the very points being made (about the proliferation of anti-Asian hate in colleges),” another commented.
Liu then suggested that the Zoom meeting should be ended to protect panelists from being further insulted and participants from hearing more hate speech.
“We should end the meeting, it’s too violent,” Liu said.
Just approximately 20 minutes after it began, the meeting then suddenly ended for all participants.
In an interview after the incident with The Michigan Daily, History and American Culture professor Ian Shin — who was on the Zoom and was supposed to present at the meeting as one of the panelists — said the Zoom bombing’s racist verbal attack was especially harmful because the event was supposed to be a safe space for AAPI-identifying students.
“To some degree I think we all came into it feeling like it was a very safe space, a space where people from the AAPI community and folks who support them could have well-intentioned conversations about mental health issues,” Shin said. “And one of the reasons why perhaps it was as traumatic as it was … is (panelists and attendees) weren’t expecting (it). Not that anybody ever expects to be Zoom bombed, but especially in an environment that’s created to be comfortable, and to recognize the experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islanders was disruptive.”
U-M’s NCID shared an email statement from NCID director Dr. Tabbye Chavous with The Daily Wednesday morning. In the statement, Chavous explained the event’s original, educational purpose and acknowledged the racist profanity that resulted in the panel’s untimely end.
“As scholars and practitioners, we know that this is what racial trauma looks like,” Chavous wrote in the statement. “This act of violence underscores the necessity of addressing systemic racism, and reinforces our commitment to understanding and supporting Asian American/Pacific Islander students. Racial justice work on our campuses and nationally continues to be critical and of the utmost urgency.”
Chavous also announced the University would be rescheduling the virtual “Anti-Asian Hate & the Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses” panel in the near future.
This is a developing story. Please continue to check back at michigandaily.com for the most recent information.
Daily Staff Reporter Justin O’Beirne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org