We acknowledge that the University of Michigan sits on the ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg — the Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. By offering this acknowledgment, we want to affirm Indigenous sovereignty and advocate for the sovereignty of Michigan’s 12 federally-recognized Indian nations, for historic Indigenous communities in Michigan, for Indigenous individuals and communities who continue to live among us and for those who were forcibly removed from their Homelands. Honoring Indigenous communities, both past and present, as well as future generations, we would like to speak about the issue of anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States.
Dear University of Michigan leadership,
We, as Asians, Asian Americans and allies in the School of Information doctoral student community, are deeply saddened and enraged by the brutal shootings in Atlanta on March 16. Six victims were women of Asian descent (according to an announcement from Stop AAPI Hate, some families of the victims have asked for their names not to be shared). An interview with a surviving witness in a widely read Korean media outlet revealed that the suspect vowed to “kill all Asians (아시아인을 다 죽이겠다)” right before the shooting. Yet, in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion released a statement that did not directly regard the shooting as racially motivated, instead saying “the suspect has stated that race was not a motivating factor in their acts.”
The Office of the President’s statement emphasizes the University’s long-held ties with many students and colleagues of Asian descent, saying, “As a university community that welcomed our first Chinese students almost 130 years ago, we cherish the intellectual and social contributions of our students, faculty and staff of Asian descent.” However, highlighting how the University benefits from or contributes to Asian and Asian American communities does not directly address the root cause of anti-Asian racism: white supremacy. We expect the leadership to publicly denounce white supremacy — the key ideology that perpetuates racial injustice.
The same statement from the leadership also encouraged faculty, staff and students to seek out resources they have provided. However, a list of resources will not suffice for understanding the deep anti-Asian sentiments that have plagued the United States for centuries and surged over the past few years. While reminding Asians and Asian Americans of resources to address anti-Asian racism is a step forward, it can also be read as delegating the responsibility to communities of Asian descent to deal with systematic inequalities and anti-Asian racism.
More than 12% of students (which doesn’t include non-resident students) at the University of Michigan are from Asian countries or are Asian descendants. Despite this fact, we note that leadership and faculty members in several schools and departments have been late to acknowledge that the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes, including but not limited to the Atlanta shooting, is not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These acts are also deeply related to how Asians and Asian Americans have been historically subjected to exclusionary immigration, labor policies and episodic violence for more than a century.
This includes a litany of U.S. foreign policy episodes against Asian countries and against communities of Asian descent within the United States. In the People v. Hall case in 1854, the Supreme Court of California reversed the murder conviction of George W. Hall against Chinese immigrant Ling Sing because three prosecution witnesses were Chinese. This case allowed white Americans to avoid punishment for anti-Asian violence. The Page Act of 1875, thereafter, was the first restrictive immigration law in the U.S., which banned Chinese women from entering the U.S. by classifying them all as sex workers and “immoral.”
This was followed by the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone through the Immigration Act of 1917, which aimed to limit immigrants from Asian countries. Not long after, the government of the United States built internment camps to enclose communities of Japanese Americans who they believed were potentially spying against the nation-state during World War II, while the U.S. fought against Japan in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian migrants continued to experience border violence after U.S. occupation in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam since the late 19th century.
The calls to wage “war on terror” in Asia, the Middle East and Africa have led to the ongoing policing and surveillance of Brown populations from Central and South Asia, especially after 9/11. Islamophobia has dire consequences on other religious communities in the United States: A neo-Nazi killed six Sikh people during a Sunday service at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012, driven by what the Sikh community believed was anti-Muslim hate.
The University of Michigan itself is complicit in racism and colonialism against Asia and Asians. James Burrill Angell, the University’s longest-serving president, served as U.S. Minister to China from 1880 to 1881 and was the primary American negotiator of the Angell Treaty of 1880. The treaty permitted restrictions on Chinese immigration and laid the foundation for the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The University of Michigan also hosts a large collection of cultural artifacts from U.S. colonies and marginalized groups.
For instance, the U.S. has a long colonial history in the Philippines, including the occupation of the Philippines (1898-1946), the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) and the operation of U.S. bases in the islands (1899-1992). The opportunity to study and explore a newly acquired territory, combined with the paternalistic mission to civilize and democratize the islands and its peoples, prompted U-M faculty, students and alumni to go to the Philippines to teach, conduct field research, establish business ventures and occupy prominent colonial administrative posts. This makes the University one of the largest collectors of Philippine items in North America.
Anti-Asian racism, then, builds and extends from the key forms of racism in the United States: chattel slavery and anti-Black violence, settler colonialism and U.S. imperialism. Because of the specific historical experiences of Asians and Asian Americans and the recent surge in anti-Asian racism such as calling COVID-19 “China virus,” we find it crucial to develop our own voice in matters of anti-Asian racism. In academia, we are typically perceived as receiving an honorary white status, and American media and political discourse have portrayed Asians and Asian Americans as “model minorities.” Nonetheless, we are subjected to white supremacy and our voices are often silenced, neglected or misconstrued.
The University portrays itself as a safe haven for students of color. But being a student does not protect us from the risk and anxiety of being insulted, accused, harassed or assaulted in daily life as we pursue our educational goals. Even within universities, we have witnessed repeated incidents of sexual harassment, abuse, racial aggression and discrimination not being fully addressed, such as allegations of sexual misconduct by professors Jason Mars and Peter Chen, and racist fliers on campus targeting multiple communities of color. Simply saying that the University of Michigan has supported students through education is not enough to address anti-Asian racism.
Importantly, many of the people who have been harmed in anti-Asian hate crimes are sexual and gender minorities (e.g. women, genderqueer, femme-presenting people, non-binary, transgender, bisexual, lesbian). The research from the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center revealed that 68% of anti-Asian hate crimes targeted Asian women. We ask that the U-M leadership, faculty members and staff recognize that this is a crime at the intersection of anti-Asian racism, heteropatriarchy and misogynistic violence. Asian sexual and gender minorities experience various forms of violence, ranging from microaggressions such as name-calling to forced physical and sexual abuse — knowing and recognizing this is fundamental in showing solidarity to students of Asian descent.
We are inspired by the ongoing efforts developed by Black, Indigenous and persons of color activist groups in and outside of the University because we believe that solidarity relies on building ties and organizing for the voices of other communities of color. The core issue here is white supremacy. We continue to learn from these groups and speak out against these deadly issues alongside them.
We would like to end with some tangible action items for U-M leadership, faculty and staff.
- Offer to listen when checking in with Asian and Asian American students instead of waiting for them to reach out if you haven’t done so yet. We have heard from students around us about the lack of faculty members’ attention about anti-Asian hate crimes, which indicates the lack of understanding about racism that Asians and Asian Americans experience or perhaps, more importantly, their lack of effort to educate themselves about it. When you check in with Asian and Asian American students, don’t use vague language like “mass shooting” or “bad things happened.” Use precise words such as “anti-Asian” or “racism” to name the issue. The Atlanta shooting is an issue committed against some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. that intersect across class, race, gender, sexuality and ability. The complexity of the issue is not a sufficient excuse to resist naming the incident as such.
- There are a lot of white-Asian, supervisor-supervisee relationships due to the high percentage of white academics. If you are a white supervisor, recognize that Asian and Asian American students have been frequently subjected to microaggressions in such relationships. Create a culture against it.
- Educate yourself about anti-Asian racism and encourage other non-Asian people to do so. Do not ask Asians and Asian Americans you know to teach you about anti-Asian racism — especially not during these moments when we’re busy healing ourselves. Some pointers we suggest are:
- Learn to pronounce our names correctly and distinguish our faces. Research has shown that the mispronouncing of names in schools can negatively impact students’ self-perceptions and worldviews and can even lead students to shy away from their own cultures or families.
- Please consider donating to organizations that are committed to fighting against anti-Asian racism or directly donating to the people harmed by the hate crimes.
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in Georgia and the Southeast.
- Asian American Advocacy Fund is a grassroots organization dedicated to building a progressive Asian American base in Georgia.
- Red Canary Song is a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers.
- Jean Yang, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University, created a document with various GoFundMe campaigns aiming to cover medical expenses and recovery after racist attacks on Asian-Americans and Asian-owned businesses.
- Do not impose your views on what immigrants need to know or how to behave — for example, stop telling Asian students to “practice English” outside of work by giving up their primary language; stop telling Asian students to “fit in” or “find an English name.” Immigrants bring their own perspective that contributes and actively adds to U.S. culture, which should be acknowledged and celebrated.
The op-ed is adapted from an open letter initiated and co-written by Cindy Lin, Heeryung Choi, Jane Im and Yixin Zou, co-edited and signed by 69 other doctoral students, all from the University of Michigan’s School of Information. We thank Associate Professor Ricky Punzalan and Faculty-Staff Members of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi/American (APID/A) Staff Association for their valuable input and feedback on the early draft.