Disarming racism: Students, staff and faculty lead multiple efforts to combat anti-Asian hate

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 3:20pm

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Design by Francesca Duong

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary Rose, program manager in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Michigan, felt her uneasiness grow about her public perception as she took her son to their local urgent care clinic. 

“I remember purposely wearing my Michigan t-shirt underneath my big winter coat,” Rose said. “As soon as I got inside I unzipped it. I felt like I had to consciously make an effort to indicate that I was not a recent immigrant, that I did not just come here off a plane from anywhere — I am a part of this community.”

Rose noted her thoughts were fueled by social media and reports of Asian Americans being discriminated against and said sometimes she hesitates to go out by herself. 

“I weigh in my mind, ‘Is there a chance that I let my guard down and I go out and somebody might harass me, or do something, and I might not be with my family?’” Rose said.

Melissa Borja, assistant professor of American culture, said she sometimes gets nervous about going outside, not only because she does not want to be infected, but also because she is concerned about racial harassment. 

“It just struck me as this great irony that in March and in April, we were living in lockdown situations and we were told ‘get out’, ‘get some fresh air,’ ‘it’s good for your mental health, once a day just go for a walk,’” Borja said. “But, it’s a very stressful thing to ‘get out,’ ‘get fresh air,’ ‘go on a walk,’ as an Asian person, since Asian people were getting spit on, were having racist things yelled at them by drivers passing by.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, on Jan. 21, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the United States.

In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the 2019 novel coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” and President Donald Trump called COVID-19 the “China virus.” CDC Director Robert Redfield condemned the use of such language, saying it was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate.” 

As COVID-19 continued to spread, the Los Angeles Times reported a rise in hate crimes toward Asian Americans from February to April. The article echoed an FBI warning of the potential surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic. The warning detailed an incident in Midland, Texas, in which an Asian-American family was stabbed because the attacker “thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.”

Rose, Borja and many other University community members are taking action to combat the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and to raise awareness of racist and xenophobic acts. 

In this article, the acronyms AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), A/PIA (Asian/Pacific Islander American) and APID/A (Asian Pacific Islander Desi/Americans) will be frequently used. 

Documenting hate crimes across the U.S.

After being established on March 19, the STOP AAPI HATE Reporting Center recieved 673 reports of COVID-19-related discrimination in the United States within the first week of opening.

Borja leads a team of researchers to analyze media coverage of anti-Asian hate incidents to understand the scope of these events for STOP AAPI HATE. University alum Jacob Gibson and LSA sophomore Amelia Navins are assisting Borja with the project.  

“We are going through news databases and identifying all articles we can that are related to Asian-American discrimination in relation to COVID-19,” Gibson said. “And then we’re tracking what the news stories are about, whether it’s about politician statements regarding anti-Asian American racism or a statement that has been racist, or whether it’s been about individual incidents of harassment.”

According to Borja, the data the team has collected indicates a rise in media coverage of anti-Asian discrimination.

Borja also noted that before the creation of STOP AAPI HATE, there was not a national system for gathering information about anti-Asian hate incidents. 

Navins worked to clean data about self-reported incidents received through the reporting center before she joined Borja’s news project. She said seeing all the reports consolidated together has shown her AAPI hate is happening much more frequently and severely than what people see in day-to-day news. 

“The self-reported incidents are really unique as opposed to what’s seen in the news because they’re really raw and honest experiences of these people,” Navins said. “It just shows how harsh other people can be, and the level of discrimiantion a lot of Asian Americans are facing during this time.”

Launching a social media campaign

Inspired by Borja’s work on the national level, LSA senior Anna Dang, president of United Asian American Organizations; LSA senior Anooshka Gupta, vice president of UAAO; and Ross junior Manasi Sharma, vice president of UAAO, worked to create a reporting system for the University. Together, the three students launched U-M Against AAPI Hate for students, staff and faculty to share narratives regarding AAPI hate.

“The social media campaign is a two-fold project,” Gupta said. “One is to raise awareness that these hate incidents against AAPI folks are happening. And then second, use it as a documentation system because there was no official documentation system provided by the University and University officials for us to look at AAPI hate at U of M.”

Sharma said the University’s campus climate survey did not fit their needs and having a system more tailored to the AAPI community might make members feel more comfortable submitting.

Dang noted documentation of these incidents were extremely important for advocacy efforts and raising awareness. She encouraged all incidents to be reported, both large and small, noting how these narratives demonstrate the extent of the problem.

“You can have statistics on how many incidents are occuring, but people will remember the story about an incident that happened to somebody,” Dang said. “These stories are very close to home because they’re happening to people … who are associated with us.”

According to Dang, the campaign has received multiple submissions from within the University community. The group also had a filing by a nearby K-12 student regarding cyberbullying and Islamophobia.

“A boy in my class who sits at my table in fourth period made fun of me for ‘having coronavirus’ since I was Asian,” the post reads. “Because this happened, I reported it to the school's counselor. Later that week, multiple racist and mean posts were put up on Instagram, saying I was a snitch and they photoshopped my Muslim friend’s head onto a plane doing 9/11.” 

Developing a University-wide task force

In late April, a University task force against AAPI hate sent out a document of compiled resources and information to the community.

The document stated the creation of the task force is to “better document and track incidents of anti-AAPI hate, understand the impacts of these incidents on U-M’s AAPI community, as well as build community and offer support.”

Rose, Borja, Dang, Sharma and Gupta are members of the task force, among others. 

Borja said another reason the task force was created was to hold the University accountable and ensure the University was responsive to these issues.

“There was a desire to make sure the University was … responsive and attentive to the needs of students who are feeling vulnerable and also taking a stance on an issue that is important to Asian Americans,” Borja said. “This is deeply rooted in American history —  the fact that, when we talk about racism, it still continues to often be in a way that’s quite binary and overlooks the experiences of A/PIA people.”

According to Rose, there are three main organizations and voices involved. UAAO represents the student voice, INDIGO –– the LSA Asian and Asian American Faculty Alliance –– represents the faculty voice and the APID/A Staff Association represents the staff voice. The task force has been in contact with other organizations as well. 

“This task force was a way for us to connect and share what we’re doing, and find a way … to support each other’s efforts in an organized, strategic fashion,” Rose said.

After the University announced online classes for the remainder of the winter 2020 semester and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the Stay Home, Stay Safe order, the University community has spread out across the globe. Borja said reaching a scattered community is challenging, but the task force is working hard to provide support. 

“Now we’re all spread out, and it has a lot of different challenges associated with it,” Borja said. “It makes the particular challenge of addressing coronavirus-related racism even more difficult because we’re in different contact. People who are part of the U-M community are vulnerable, at the same time they don’t have the normal level of support that comes with being together on campus.”

Dang highlighted how the spread of the community has resulted in their awareness efforts reaching a larger audience outside of the University, pointing towards translation requests for UAAO’s COVID-19 and anti-Asian Bias poster. Currently, the poster has been translated into English, Vietnamese, Japanese, Telugu, Korean and traditional Chinese.

Supporting international students

Rackham students Yixuan Chen and Andrea Belgrade are both co-presidents of Graduate Rackham International and have been in contact with the task force to better support the international Asian community.

“It’s been on our radar for a while, since the beginning,” Belgrade said. “A huge number of international students are Chinese, specifically, and then people look at someone and are ignorant, and other people are lumped into that group and experience xenophobia and racism.”

GRIN had previously released a survey to its subscribers to document experiences with anti-Asian sentiment, according to Chen. They also released another survey to determine how COVID-19 has been affecting the international community. 

Chen noted from the survey results a few reported incidents were related to misinformation regarding the origins of COVID-19, thus producing harmful speech. 

“People don't really think about that or try to know if it’s true or false and just say it in front of other people,” Chen said. “It can be very damaging.”

Belgrade said international students can often be left out of the conversation when discussing AAPI hate and other issues. Since they do not have voting rights, lawmakers might be less inclined to advocate on their behalf, according to Belgrade. Due to fear of retaliation, she said international students are less likely to speak out because they are concerned that they might be sent back home.

Rackham student Kaidi Wu said checking social media and hearing reports of hate crimes can be draining. However, she has to look to stay up to date with the latest policy changes regarding work permits and visas. 

“I try to not look at them, but sometimes I do look if it’s impacting my OPT, my F-1 status,” Wu said. “What is the latest guideline? What is the latest change?”

As an Asian international, Wu said she often feels uncomfortable when she faces microaggressions because she is not a U.S. citizen. 

“What happens to the so called ‘foreigners?’” Wu said. “We are the aliens on the land that’s not welcoming. We’re kind of in this in-between category where if someone says, ‘You are the virus; go back to where you came from.’ How do you respond to that? Because, yeah, this is not my home country even though it feels like it because I’ve been here for 10 plus years. It feels like my homeland, but it (isn’t).”

Emphasizing why these efforts matter

Wu noted the perceived invisibility on anti-Asian hate. She said when she calls her parents and friends abroad to check-in during the pandemic, they ask whether or not the incidents are an exaggeration or “How bad can it be?”

“Sometimes I’m on the phone with them, checking in, wondering how they’re doing,” Wu said. “But at the same time, everybody is self-quarantining (so they ask) ‘Is it really true?’ I feel like they’re saying it’s an exaggeration, and it’s like ‘How bad could it be?’ And then I have to tell them what’s happening … and they’re like ‘Oh! I didn’t realize it was that bad.’”

In an email to The Daily, Rob Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, noted the University has not received an increase in discrimination reports.  

“While there has not been a significant increase in the formal reports of discrimination through our formal reporting processes, several members of our A/PIA community have reported that they and others have experienced several experiences of xenophobic racism,” Sellers said. “The presence of any incidence of racism is anathema to the type of culture that we are attempting to build at U-M.”

Rose pointed out there are many reasons why people are not reporting, which is why the administration might not see a significant rise. 

“Just because there aren’t any official reports, doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Rose said. “There’s so many reasons why we’re not seeing those kinds of reports. People don’t know whether or not to report, whether some experience they’ve had is severe enough or qualifies to be something important, or maybe people don’t want to have their name out there.”

During her interview with The Daily, Belgrade said she was neither an international nor an Asian student. However, she said she believes racism is a cause everyone should be fighting against and work towards disarming.

“You want to have people who are involved to be a part of the process, but I think people should see it as a responsibility that everyone should be involved in fixing and making things better in our community,” Belgrade said. “People should feel a need to be aware of international and other marginalized issues.”

Many people interviewed by The Daily clarified the discrimination against Asians is not new, and they have faced many microagressions throughout their lives. Wu said she believes the pandemic forced these agressions to surface. 

“I think the discrimination is always there, but the pandemic is just one way of (being) an outlet,” Wu said. “Now there’s something, now there’s a target. Now there’s a just cause to kind of direct this vitriol to these groups of people.”

Sharma noted Asian Americans are often stereotyped as the “model minority,” a generalization that characterizes Asian Americans as polite and successful due to innate characteristics. She said the awareness movement has served as a powerful method to discredit this myth.

“As unfortunate as it is that so many people are experiencing so much hate, it’s a good opportunity for us to bring to light and know that Asian Americans really do experience levels of racism and xenophobia,” Sharma said. “That’s what a huge driving point behind our campaign is to dispel these myths of ‘model minority’ and Asian Americans not speaking up and not being active in politics and not experiencing the struggles of being POC (people of color) in America.”

Summer Managing News Editor Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu.