With anti-Asian sentiment on the rise as the coronavirus pandemic reaches a peak in the United States, President Biddy Martin condemned racist incidents against Asian Americans as “abhorrent” in an email to the college community on April 7. Even as different corners of campus have begun extending their support, ranging from academic departments to counseling services, many Asian students continue to carry the burdens of xenophobia in their day-to-day lives, advocating for greater administrative action to reach deeper than the surface the coronavirus scratches.
A study from the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council found that between March 19 to 25, nearly 650 cases of coronavirus discrimination were reported, amounting to nearly 100 reports per day. Along with hate crimes conducted in person — last month one Texas man stabbed three members of an Asian American family believing they were spreading the virus — many have taken to social media to spew hateful sentiment against Asians and Asian Americans. Racist language surrounding Asians have also been propagated by the Trump Administration, which has repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Wuhan Virus” and the “Chinese Virus” against orders by the World Health Organization, which cautioned against naming infectious diseases by geographic location out of concern for “stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.”
“The current outbreak traffics in age-old prejudices about Asian cultures and habits as a way of blaming China and, by extension, Asian and Asian-American individuals and communities for a pandemic, the origins of which scientists do not yet know, and which no one who understands the science of how viruses emerge and spread would ever blame on a particular race or ethnicity,” Martin wrote in her email. “In the attacks on Asian and Asian-American individuals and communities, we are seeing the worst of what happens when fear and bigotry combine.”
Martin also wrote that two students currently housed on campus have been targeted with verbal assaults in the town of Amherst, with others having “heard racist banter in the dorms.”
“In addition to living with the extreme difficulty that everyone faces in this pandemic, these students, as well as faculty and staff, also live with the fear of prejudice and aggression,” Martin added.
For Sarah Wang ’20, who is Chinese American, the weight of fear of racist attacks against Asian Americans has seeped into her everyday life with the virus’ growth.
“It’s been almost impossible to focus on schoolwork or anything else due to the constant amount of racism that I’m seeing on the news,” she said. “It’s a terrifying time to even go outside, even if it’s just to walk your dog. While this is undoubtedly affecting Asians and Asian Americans alike, Chinese Americans are experiencing some of the worst effects.”
“People are directing their anger and frustration towards us, from questioning our Americanness and our right to belong here, to our cleanliness, calling us bat-eaters and telling us to ‘go back to China,’” Wang added.
Greene Ko ’20, co-president of the Asian Student Association, noted that though these sentiments are amplified because of the coronavirus, they are not new.
“I don’t think anti-Asian sentiment is something that was gone completely [before the coronavirus]. It was always there. But I think this pandemic just makes it easier for people who harbor those thoughts to say it without feeling that there will be repercussions for that,” Ko said.
Associate Professor of American Studies Robert Hayashi echoed similar concerns, adding that he had “been waiting for a moment like this” since the pandemic began to ’s rapidly accelerateion.
“As for the anti-Asian incidents that are, like wildfire, spreading across the country, they might have come as a surprise to a lot of people. But some of us including myself, who is a scholar of Asian American history and a third generation Japanese American whose family was incarcerated by my government, this is sadly not a surprise to me,” he said.
The American studies department released a statement of solidarity in response to the growth of anti-Asian racism in the recent months, which acknowledged the long history of xenophobic acts against Asian Americans in the U.S., described the links between the current wave of anti-Asian sentiment and other forms of oppression and called on others in the community to also demonstrate solidarity by reprimanding such racist incidents.
According to Professor of American Studies Pawan Dhingra, who helped draft the statement, the impetus to publish a statement was born out of a necessity to better show support for students in the department, some of whom are heavily involved with Asian American studies.
“[Assistant Professor of American Studies Kiara] Vigil brought it up as an idea for the department as a response to the fact that we know that Asian- American students on campus and off campus and Asian Americans in general are experiencing this more than normal, so that they know that we as a department are thinking about them and are very conscious of the challenges going on,” Dhingra said. “Related to that is that American studies is one of the major hubs for Asian- American studies. And so it’s all the more felt, relevant and important for us to demonstrate vocally that we are connected and committed to thinking through and trying to address these issues.”
Part and parcel with the current moment of anti-Asian racism across the country, the campus faces particularly acute attention towards anti-Blackness, the statement of solidarity notes, and it bridges the larger nationwide trend towards attacks against Asians with the college’s recent scandal involving the men’s lacrosse team. Last month, three white men’s lacrosse players shouted the n-word at their Black teammate and another Black student outside of their room.
Dhingra emphasized that putting the two in conversation with each other is necessary to understand the attitudes at the heart of American society.
“The same kind of thinking that makes it okay to attack someone, an Asian American, walking down the street stems from this notion that this country belongs to a certain kind of people, and that other people, based on the color of their skin, are inherently foreign regardless of where they grew up, whether they live or anything about them,” he said. “That leads people to treat other minorities in ways that affirm their own well being and superiority and belonging. And so in some ways you have to connect the current anti-Asian racism that’s going on in the town and around the country with the lacrosse incident of anti-Black racism, because to think about one and not the other doesn’t recognize how they have similar, at the macro level, purposes in mind.”
The bridges between anti-Asian and anti-Black racism do not only exist on campus. “It’s not just the Asian communities that are taking it harder. A lot of Black communities and under-resourced communities are hit much harder from the pandemic,” Ko said. Recent studies have demonstrated that Black Americans are more likely to die from coronavirus than other populations.
The American studies department is not the only department on campus extending its support for Asian students. Martin noted in her email that the Counseling Center would begin organizing a support group for Asian and Asian American students, led by Staff Counselor Alex Kim.
Though the group was formed out of the needs presented by the coronavirus, Kim highlighted that there were already conversations about support groups for Asian students specifically, similar to La Platica for Latinx Students and Release, a larger group directed at all students of color. A support group, however, “kind of felt more urgent given the situation now,” Kim said.
“These are not new wants and new needs that have just suddenly emerged, and there have been ongoing work and activism and desire among the Asian student community too,” he said.
The group will meet through Zoom, with students able to attend as frequently as they want, and the conversations will depend on the specific issues students want to present. The hope, Kim said, is to better facilitate the conversations that may have otherwise occurred organically on-campus, especially as students remain separate from their peers as a result of the college’s move to remote learning.
“I think with everyone scattered around the country in the world right now, I think that there is a responsibility, we have a staff and then college to make sure that those spaces are held,” Kim said.
While there are currently multiple avenues of support for Asian students, from academic departments to the counseling center, more opportunities still exist to address students’ concerns. Though Ko and his friends thought Martin’s email was a “pleasant surprise” and appreciated the administration’s public denouncement of anti-Asian racism, he cautioned against complacency and expressed concern over the distribution of labor in supporting students.
“A lot of Asian administrators like [Chief Student Affairs Officer] Karu Kozuma or [Director of the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership] Tenzin Kunor have been really active trying to support Asian students, but at the same time, I feel like too much pressure is put on them. I wish that more faculty or administrators who were not Asian would feel comfortable reaching out to us. And I’m just a little bit worried that too much burden might be put on Asian professors or Asian faculty for doing this job, when in fact, I think the burden should be equally shared by everyone,” Ko said.
For Wang, the anti-Asian racism brought about by the coronavirus only illuminates the need for an Asian American studies major on campus.
“One email from the administration is a band-aid on a much longer problem that the college refuses to address,” she said. “What could actually be of benefit would be to create Asian American studies at Amherst, classes that would teach about the long histories of the ‘anti-Asian racism and scapegoating’ that [Martin] references in her email,” she said.
While the college currently does not have an Asian American studies program, Hayashi highlighted the impact courses about Asian Americans have for all students regardless of their background.
“I think this underscores that these projects are not to serve those populations themselves, though that is a critical aspect of it,” Hayashi said. “But I hope that in this moment, students who have taken these kinds of courses, particularly those of Asian descent, can understand that part of that history is actually advocating, mobilizing to contest [racist sentiment], to operat[e] from a communal perspective across lines of ethnicity. Because we’re racialized, we see ourselves as having each other’s back.”
“This speaks to the need to hire more [professors] in Asian American Studies, and make sure that the skills of knowledge are given due attention, not just in terms of serving Asian American students, but in terms of illuminating how race and nationalism and empire work more generally speaking,” Dhingra added.