Students say AU’s response to anti-Asian violence is not enough
Following Atlanta-area shootings, the AU community reflects on rising anti-Asian hate and bias amid the pandemic
American University administrators recently recognized the trauma that Asian American students have experienced following the Atlanta-area shootings that left six Asian women dead, but some students say that the University hasn’t done enough this past year, as anti-Asian hate crimes and violence have been exponentially rising since the beginning of the pandemic.
On March 16, eight people were killed at Atlanta-area spas. Six out of the eight people were women of Asian descent. According to a report by The New York Times, four of the eight were ethnic Koreans. This sparked outrage across the U.S., with people gathering in major cities to protest and march against Asian hate.
The Atlanta shooting being the spark for protests against anti-Asian hate and bias is frustrating for many, including Mei Tomko, a sophomore in the School of International Service who is the advocacy co-chair for AU’s Asian American Student Union.
“I think for me, personally, it has been really frustrating when trying to tell people and get them to understand. It took people getting killed for people to start paying attention and that’s what is really frustrating to me,” Tomko said. “In general, I feel like non-AAPI people are treating it like it is something new when this has been happening for so many years and for so long, and it has always been silenced and hasn’t been covered on the news.”
A report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that, while crime in 16 major U.S. cities decreased by 7 percent in 2020, those targeting Asian people rose by 149 percent. Many scholars attribute the increase to the hateful and racist rhetoric surrounding the origin of the coronavirus, such as when President Donald Trump repeatedly called it the “China virus” and the “kung flu.”
Professor Hye Young Shin, the director of AU’s Asian Studies program, said Americans often pinpoint those of Chinese descent as foreigners, even if they were born in the U.S. She also said that oftentimes, Americans don’t care to learn about the wide breadth of Asian ethnicities.
SIS Dean Christine BN Chin, who is Asian American, said that for many members of the AAPI community, even if they are citizens and have legal status, they still feel like outsiders.
“There is a sense that you don’t belong, that what we call the nation, and it is a multicultural and multiracial nation, and we still don’t belong,” Chin said. “It has a true effect on people emotionally. The younger generation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have made it very clear when you look at the mobilization and the movement that is going on, that’s challenging decades of not belonging.”
Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, sent out an email to the AU community on March 26, 2020 — in the days after most of the country imposed lockdown restrictions — acknowledging that there had been a sharp rise in xenophobia and racism against people of Asian descent.
Maddy Park, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and the AASU family program director, said that she saw the direct impact pandemic-era racism had on her family in its early stages. She said her mom experienced racism in her workplace while interacting with her clients and colleagues. She said it was devastating to see someone she looked up to experience this.
“It took prying of my family to find out how they were doing,” Park said.
The University didn’t send out any other emails regarding the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence until March 17, a day after the Atlanta-area mass shooting. This was not surprising to Clarissa Cheung, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the co-president of AASU.
“I don’t really pay attention to AU’s responses anymore because that isn’t where we seek our responses from because it doesn’t benefit them as an institution to actually support us as students so no, AU is not doing enough,” Cheung said. “It takes a lot of pushing from student organizing and faculty partnerships and student organizing across coalitions to be able to push for more spaces that are actually for us at this institution because to change the entire institution isn’t really a possibility and goes against what AU wants and ever will really stand for. That’s not where I seek my solace at all, and it’s not where I seek solutions.”
Park said unlike her upperclassmen peers in AASU, she has had a more inclusive and supportive experience while trying to heal from the rising hate and violence. She said the first-year advising program held spaces and discussions following the March 16 shooting to reflect on what has been happening. But she wondered who has been supporting the rest of the student body.
Even after Aw sent out the email to the whole AU community, stating that “there will be opportunities forthcoming for students, faculty and staff to process current events together,” Tomko said Friday that Aw never reached out to AASU.
“Wouldn’t you want to at least involve the students who were affected by it or at least ask for their input?” Tomko asked.
Cheung said events that catch the attention of the mainstream media, like mass shootings, are often perceived as the catalyst of anti-racist work and community building. She said it is frustrating that many people think that the work of affinity groups, like AASU, only begins after these tragedies.
“I feel like a lot of times with hate crimes and racialized tragedies the work that is done by affinity orgs afterward is seen as just a response to the event and all of the work that is done before that and all of the labor and energy and community building before that can be erased and so I want to be really careful and mindful of that because we have been creating a community forever and that is the job of AASU so that work goes hand in hand with the reflection and response to this event that is getting more attention,” Cheung said.
Malini Ranganathan, the interim faculty director of AU’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, said that expanding the curriculum on Asian studies and hiring diverse faculty are key action steps toward combating anti-Asian hate and bias. AU’s Asian studies interdisciplinary program combines a variety of programs in the College of Arts and Sciences and other schools. SIS has East Asia and Pacific and South and Central Asia thematic regions. According to data from the 2019-2020 Academic Data Reference Book, 8.5 percent of faculty and staff self-identify as Asian American, and none self-reported as Pacific Islander.
Ranganathan also said that professors should never turn to students of color to educate other students on issues that personally affect them. Chin agreed and said that it is the role of non-AAPI students to educate themselves on the history of immigration and different ethnic groups in the U.S.
“The problem is bigger than us, bigger than me, it is a societal-wide problem,” Chin said. “For those of us who are citizens, what do you do with the notion of citizenship? What are the kind of obligations that come with it? What can you do in this era?”
Aw encouraged students who are not of Asian descent to educate themselves and recognize their own biases. She said students should ask themselves how they can provide solutions and how they are also a part of the problem, and how to stop being a part of the problem.
“Any of us being sorry is no longer enough. We have to, for those of us who are not directly subjected to it, we cannot be silent to these things,” Aw said. “We can no longer afford to be bystanders to it. We have to ask ourselves what should I do to educate myself and learn more, how do I reach out to someone who may need support, but most importantly, how do I really understand the full measure and impact of this.”
Cheung, however, said the University often turns to student affinity organizations to provide resources and education to the community in the wake of racist tragedies since they don’t do the work themselves.
“It shouldn’t be that way that we have to do this work, that we have to respond at all, and that we can’t take this time to process and grieve something, that we have to produce something,” she said.