UMass hosts community forum and dialogue following nationwide rise in anti-Asian violence and racism

In an hour and a half Zoom discussion, attendees shared personal experiences of racism, histories of anti-Asian hate and solidarity movements, and proposed wide ranging changes to the UMass campus community in curriculum, funding and atmosphere.  

UMass

UMass

UMass

By Claire Healy, Assistant News Editor

While virtual gatherings have struggled to replicate the same feeling of in-person community events, Monday night in a Zoom forum and dialogue, 270 UMass students, faculty and staff came together in an energetic, personal and interactive panel discussion denouncing rising anti-Asian hatred. The April 5 community forum and dialogue titled “Showing Up with Asian and Asian American Folks,” was prompted by the recent mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia of eight individuals, six of which were Asian-American women. The widely shared event description said that in light of the violence in Atlanta and a rise in racist verbal and physical attacks, “the need to understand the causes and history of this anti-Asian hate and to support the Asian and Asian American community is greater than ever.”

The event was organized by an ad hoc committee of people from across the University and it was co-sponsored by 45 UMass departments, centers, programs and colleges, ranging from the College of Education, to the Stonewall Center, to the UMass Campus Police Department. The Office of Diversity and Inclusive Community Development at the College of Information and Computer Sciences provided technical assistance. Limited to exclusively members of the UMass campus community, the event centered on students, and intentionally included time where students and attendees could voice their concerns and reflections.

The event started with a moment of silence for the eight people killed in Atlanta, Georgia, and all the people killed by racist violence. The victims of the shooting in Atlanta’s names were read out before the moment of silence by moderator Linda Ziegenbein, the interim director for the Office of Student Success and Diversity at the College of Natural Sciences. Ziegenbein outlined the event, which moved from a series of speakers, to a panel discussion, to breakout room sessions, and navigated attendees through the different sections.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy opened the event with remarks, followed by a series of speakers that aimed to provide context to the current moment. The chancellor focused on the rise in anti-Asian racism following the pandemic and emphasized different steps the University is taking to combat it. He directed the audience to a series of recorded discussions on the topic of anti-Asian hate and bias from September 23, 2020 titled “Perspectives on COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Bias and Xenophobia.” These videos include informational lectures from professors and faculty, such as one on “The Larger Context of Anti-Asian Racism” by C.N. Le and personal speeches and testimony, like that by Lily Tang, a rising Senior and founder of the UMass Asian American Film Festival.

“Otherness is all too familiar. While overt racism has generally been on the rise over the past five years, anti-Asian incidents have seen a dramatic increase since the start of the pandemic,” Chancellor Subbaswamy said.

“Together as a community, we must condemn this hate and actively work to defeat it. All our faculty, students, and staff have the right to pursue their educational and professional goals in an environment based on mutual respect, free of fear, intimidation or violence. As Chancellor, I assure you, the university is deeply committed to this goal. And we will use all our resources to achieve this goal.”

The Chancellor encouraged the attendees to reach out if they or anyone they know has been impacted by “anti-Asian or any type of bias violence or hate.” He cited the UMass police department and the Office of Equity and Inclusion as places students can report incidents, noting that the Office of Equity and Inclusion is holding office hours specifically for students, faculty and staff impacted by anti-Asian bias or violence. He also directed the audience to anti-racism resources located on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website.

“I ask each one of you to actively participate, just as you’re doing this evening. By engaging in this dialogue, you’re acknowledging the need to support and protect each member of our campus community. I thank you for your commitment. And I thank you for being here,” he said.

C.N. Le, faculty in Sociology and Director of Asian and Asian American Studies Certificate Program, followed the Chancellor with comments on the history of anti-Asian hate crimes. Le prefaced his comments by saying that they were adapted from statements collectively written by members of the Asian and Asian American Studies certificate program’s executive advisory board.

“Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Stop AAPIhate.org has reported over 3,800 incidents of harassment, bullying, verbal assault and violence against Asians and Asian Americans with many more going unreported. Data shows that hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased 149 percent from 2019 to 2020, while overall hate crimes declined by 7 percent,” Le said. “The killings of six Asian American women by a white man in Atlanta on March 16 tragically highlights how Asian American women have been and continue to be targeted by historical legacies of misogyny, sexualization, militarization and exclusion.”

 

“The current spike in anti-Asian hate is rooted in ongoing constructions of Asians and Asian Americans as the ‘yellow peril,’ or some form of political, economic, cultural, and or public health threat to U.S. society, and specifically to the white population. They’re fueled by myths and disinformation conspiracy theories, and rhetoric from political leaders and high-profile personalities, with such terms as, ‘China virus, Wuhan virus or Kung Flu.’”

 

Le discussed the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States, starting with ways that he said “mechanisms of white supremacy continually construct us as perpetual foreigners and regularly question our loyalty and our status of being American,” a phenomena that he traced to reactions to increased immigration to the U.S. from Asia in the mid-1800s. He said that these mechanisms range from “individual level micro aggressions to institutional policies of discrimination,” citing the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War as examples. He also referenced the murder of Vincent Chin, a 27 year old Chinese-American man who was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit Michigan in 1982. Le pointed to the Page Act of 1875 as evidence that “intersections of race, gender, sexuality and social class are inseparable,” during which Chinese women were prohibited from entering the U.S. based on “presumptions that they would engage in quote ‘lewd and immoral acts.’”

 

“These hateful acts have forced Asians and Asian Americans, particularly elderly Asians who are perceived as easy targets into a constant state of hyper awareness and vigilance when they are in public, taking a huge emotional toll,” Le said. “The situation is made even worse when bystanders who witness anti-Asian hate decide that we are undeserving of any sympathy and do nothing to intervene and even close the door to our suffering.”

 

On behalf of the Asian and Asian American Studies Certificate Program, Le urged political and institutional leaders to take “concrete meaningful actions to help those and vulnerable situations,” such as helping Asian American owned businesses and addressing “inequities related to economic insecurity, healthcare, unemployment, housing, and incarceration.” He also urged increased support for programs that educate students about the “multi-dimensional aspects of anti-Asian hate,” and support young people to “leverage their determination and energy to be valuable contributions to their community and our society and empower all members of Asian and Asian American and BIPOC communities.”

 

Miliann Kang, a faculty member in the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Department and Humanities and Fine Arts Director of Diversity Advancement, followed Le with remarks on the racialized sexualization of Asian and Asian American women. She went on to discuss how such sexualization heightens the vulnerability of Asian and Asian American women to harassment and violence, particularly in service work.

“When I first saw the photo of Young’s Asian Massage outside of Atlanta, my first reaction was, it looks exactly like the massage place I go to regularly with my daughter and mother-in-law in Little Saigon,” she said. “My next thought was the women whose lives were taken could have been among those who brought the soreness out of my neck or shared their stories with me for my research or attended my parents church. They could be members of my own family, or they could be me. I know many of my Asian American students have had similar reactions.”

She discussed the legacy of Asian massages, and how when she hears the words Asian massage what comes to her mind “are hardworking Asian immigrant women making a life for themselves and their families.” She said that while massage parlors and spas offer economic opportunities to many, it also subjects workers to stigmatization and harassment that has deep roots in a history of anti-Asian racism directed specifically at Asian and Asian American women that continues to have devastating repercussions.

“In fact, some states have advocated that distinctions be drawn between ‘licensed massage therapist,’ and Asian massage body workers,” she said. “This racialized sexualization of Asian women and service work as part of a much larger social and historical context. The U.S. military presence and wars in Asia have fueled the objectification of Asian women as spoils of war, whether for rest and relaxation or as military brides. Popular culture has portrayed Asian women as tragic Suzie Wong, Miss Saigon or Madame Butterfly figures, who need saving but instead are used and abandoned.”

As the final speaker, Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in Afro-American Studies, talked about the long history of Black and Asian solidarity in the United States. He covered the legacy of Frederick Douglass speaking out for the rights of Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and denouncing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Shabazz also talked about African American soldiers and Black American leaders opposing the Philippines American War, such as Henry McNeal Turner and Ida B. Wells. He spoke about Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad’s opposition to the draft of African American men in World War II, as well as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis’s opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Their deaths were not isolated incidents, when they died a part of us died,” Shabazz said, in reference to the people who lost their lives in the Atlanta shooting. “That is what Black and Asian American solidarity is all about. It is about an empathy that is at once, a radical call to action that we’ve had enough, and we can’t take anymore. That we are sick and tired of being sick and dying. This kind of radical empathy must continue to grow, but it did not start last year.”

Shabazz elaborated specifically on the relationship of activists Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X, who worked closely together in fighting anti-Asian and anti-Black racism—both of whom have centers named after them at UMass Amherst. He also talked about Grace Lee Boggs, an activist, author, and daughter of Chinese immigrants who was very involved in civil rights movements.

“The two became comrades and helped each other develop global perspectives on human rights. When assassins gunned Malcolm X down it was sister Yuri who cradled his head as he lay dying on the floor of the Audubon ballroom,” Shabazz said. “I was privileged to meet and work with Yuri in the 1980s. A beautiful woman, great woman, someone we called our first naturalized citizen of the republic of New Africa.”

“During the summer of 2020, many Asian Americans made deep commitment to stand up for Black lives,” Shabazz continued. “While some Asian Americans made it a point to support Black Lives Matter and protests in the streets, truly impactful work took place within their own families and communities. Letters for Black Lives provided multilingual resources to help Asian Americans talk about BLM within their families. Allied Asian and Asian American organizations united to produce a tool kit that includes ways to support the movement for Black lives, the Japan Black Studies Association stepped up and challenged media depictions of George Floyd as aggressive and dangerous. And now, Black folks are showing up with our support for our Asian and Asian American comrades.”

The speakers were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Leo Hwang, Assistant Dean, College of Natural Sciences. The panel included Pichliya Liang, a junior public health major and student advisory board member for the Asian American Studies certificate program, Malina Nguyen, a junior biology major, Erika Lala, a doctoral student in social justice education, Hong Nguyen, a junior chemical engineering student at UMass, Eunbi Lee, a PhD student in communication and Women Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Joy Jarme, executive assistant to the vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life.

Panelists described personal experiences of racism faced by them or their families, as well as hopes for change from the university and broader society.

“This feeling is indescribable, quite honestly. I don’t know how to feel, what to say or how to cope,” Liang said. “My family came here as refugees. They saw the United States as a place of safety from running, starving and constantly seeing death at every turn. But it seems to me that every day it is clearer that the place of refuge and safety is not what it appears to be. It simply doesn’t want my family or me, a second generation Cambodian American, to be here. Being American is part of my identity, but I’m not part of America’s identity … despite being raised to be educated, outspoken and brave, I’m only seen and fetishized as this one perception by some.”

Nguyen, who described herself as the second oldest daughter of her “six sisters in our Vietnamese family,” spoke after Liang, and said, “After the Atlanta shootings, my heart broke in so many ways.” She talked about the difficulty of urging her parents to be careful when they leave the house, and an incident where her boyfriend’s aunt, who is Chinese, was violently attacked by a white man.

“I wondered what makes us American if we’re denied the right to our own humanity,” she said. “To everyone here I implore you to be loud and to tell your story as I am. I implore you to please listen and educate yourself on this country’s dark history of anti-Asian rhetoric and policy, and it’s deep ties to the stereotypical misogynistic practices, which led the gunman to conclude that Asian women were temptation that he needed to eliminate.”

Lala, who is now completing her third degree at UMass, grew up in the Massachusetts public school system as a Chinese woman adopted by a Japanese father and a white mother in Boston.  She said that her senior thesis, graduate capstone and many other papers have focused on the experience of being adopted, and dialogues across race and ethnicity. She opened with gratitude for the support from supervisors, professors, peers and other community members, and said she offered to be on the panel “to reciprocate such support and solidarity” and help others navigating any “difficulties surrounding their own experience and understandings of the saliency of their Asian and Asian American identities.”

“I can still feel myself coming into this space unsure of how I show up and show up in Asian and Asian American spaces,” she shared at the end of her remarks. “To anyone here, across identities, who has felt unsure, or otherwise confused by how they navigate fit within or otherwise show up in these past few weeks or even on this Zoom call, I see you and appreciate you being here.”

Nguyen, who is an international student, reflected on the unique experience of international students in general and during the pandemic, and said “I always know that I’m different. I’m from a different country, different culture, different education.”

“It kind of poses a scare and a threat in the back of my mind about the people in my close community, and other Asian international students who their families are thousands of miles away, who are always considered the outsider,” Nguyen said. “Especially for the first few months into quarantine where there’s a global pandemic restriction and we can’t go back to our country.”

“I always try to comfort myself that it’s going to be okay, that I’m different, and things will pass by, but I realize that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s always the sad truth that we have to take a tragic event for things to change, especially what happened in Atlanta.”

Lee shared her experience teaching at UMass, and how it has been challenging to study and teach at a predominantly white university. She called on the university to establish an Asian and Asian immigrant Asian American study programs at the graduate level and provide better work conditions and care to workers in dining and residence halls.

“I finally got a chance to address how I, as a Korean migrant woman, who has been dealing with white supremacy sexism, homophobia and anti-immigrant terrorists in my life,” she said, reflecting on the aftermath of the shooting in Atlanta. “It has not been easy to study and teach at a predominantly white university, because of my race, gender, and accent. And also walk around the town due to hyper sexualized and exotic notions of Asian women. This is not just my experience, but what most Asian female and queer international students have been facing in everyday life.”

Jarme, reflected on her experience as a Filipinx immigrant, where she described her father bringing her family to the U.S. when she was nine. She said he wanted to move in search for a better life after the World War II colonization of the Philippines, during which she said “It was American bombs that hit the city where my family lived.”

“The first thing I lost was the accent. I didn’t want to call attention to my dark skin and the Pacific Island culture, so I invisible it. I learned not to see color, so I didn’t have to see myself. And in trying to be something I could never be I sacrifice my sense of power and agency,” she said. “My dream is to change that, so the next generation doesn’t have to question if they’re good enough, if they’ve done enough just to be here.”

After a brief facilitated discussion, where panelists reflected on what one another had said, Hwang gave brief remarks before switching to the closing breakout rooms. Ziegenbein followed his remarks by noting that students motivated the event and asked for a space to have this conversation.

“As you heard from a few of us today, the Asian diaspora is vast. We are adoptees, the descendants of immigrants, we are immigrants, our parents and relatives work in nail salons flower shops, dry cleaners, convenience stores and some are musicians, doctors, architects, researchers, academics, some of us speak with accents and some do not. We speak different languages, have different traditions, but we are above all human,” Hwang said.

“In this very human moment we are united with our bypass brothers and sisters in fear. How do we explain to our children that we live in a nation that normalizes and legitimizes violence against people of color? How do we protect our elders as they go to church, go grocery shopping or fish? How do we know when we are safe? These are questions. Many of us have asked our entire lives.”

Ziegenbein then broke the group out into pre-assigned breakout rooms, where some attendees who had requested to do so were placed in breakout rooms specifically for Asian American and Asian people. She asked each group to take notes in a collective document about what they talked about, and then come back and share with the larger group. The goal of these notes was to further activities and continue the conversation that was started in this forum. Due to technical difficulties, the 119 people who couldn’t be assigned to a breakout group were moderated in a discussion led by Dr. Shabazz. In this discussion, people volunteered to share thoughts and experiences, or he asked certain people he knew to comment, such as the UMass chief of police, Tyrone Parham, who was present.

By the end of the breakout discussion sessions, attendees had brought up a number of changes they want to see on campus, both in on-camera testimonies and through the Zoom chat. A number of people stressed the importance of amplifying the voices of Asian students, faculty and staff on campus. Many throughout the event asked for a curriculum at the university that built in education about Asian American history and present, such as through the creation of a graduate program certificate in Asian and Asian American studies, or an expansion of classes that fulfill Gen Ed requirements. Others called for more funding of cultural centers and programs at UMass.

In comments summarizing breakout room notes, Ziegenbein said many were guided by the question: “how do we make this university at a university in a place where everybody doesn’t just feel like they’re welcome, but that they actually have a sense of ownership for the university and feel empowered to make a statement, and to really get in there and to try to work to change the university to be as spaces even more equitable?”

Ziegenbein concluded by thanking attendees for their time and participation, saying that “as an Asian woman who has been very troubled by this and whose mother was harassed … I want to personally thank you.”

“We had 270 people who were all exhausted from sitting in front of Zoom all day, who took an hour and a half out of their time to do this to talk about this and to have this hard conversation and I think that we should all be heartened by this,” she said. “And certainly, if we are able and willing to do this for this event, we can come together and we can build a more just and equitable society.”

An email will be sent to participants in the upcoming days with follow-up resources and related programs for the audience to look into – such as free bystander intervention online workshops offered by iHollaback. The recording of the event will also be made public for those who could not attend to view.

Claire Healy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @clurhealy.