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Community gathers for teach-in on anti-Asian violence

Speakers shared the history of anti-Asian violence in the United States and issued calls to action to combat anti-Asian sentiments in our communities

Students and faculty gathered for a teach-in on anti-Asian violence at the Rotunda steps Friday in wake of the deadly shootings in Atlanta, Ga. March 16 in which eight Asian-Americans were killed and in response to the recent uptick in anti-Asian violence this past year. 

The event was organized by Sylvia Chong, associate professor of English and the only professor in the Asian Pacific American Studies program. Approximately 60 people attended and the event was open to students, faculty and members of the community. 

“I come to you today with a heavy heart, one that has been hurting since the pandemic has announced an open season on harrassing, injuring and killing Asians in the U.S. and one that has been rubbed raw with the murder of eight people in Atlanta,” Chong said, visibily emotional in her opening remarks. 

The attacks in Atlanta, Chong said, were not an “anomaly” or the act of a person who had “just a bad day” — in contrast, these acts of violence against racial minorities “[remind] the racially marginalized that [they] are expendable, that [they] better not step out of line.”

Other professors who attended the event represented a variety of departments — including English, American Studies, History and Global Studies — and they spoke about race, U.S. imperialism and perceiving anti-Asian violence through the lens of intersectionality.

The professors testified about the historical events that paved the way for discrimination and violence against Asian Americans in the U.S. — specifically underlining the precedent set by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which provided an 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration, and the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. 

Penny von Eschen, American Studies and History professor, gave a talk about the long arc of U.S. militarism, noting that anti-Asian violence is not just the result of something that happened in the past but that it’s “being recreated every day.” 

Bringing to light these historical realities and present-day repercussions illuminated the struggles of the Asian-American community for students in attendance. 

“I learned that Asian Americans have been overlooked when it comes to people seeing them as a group that has also been impacted by racism,” first-year College student Patrick Cloud said. 

Fourth-year College student Jasmine Mao attended the event and was “deeply moved” by the words and messages of those who spoke. 

“They didn't simply reiterate the same narratives because there is no single narrative that could possibly encompass the profusion of positionalities and power dynamics among Asian diasporic peoples,” Mao said. 

English professor Susan Fraiman said she was participating in the teach-in an effort to protest the long history and recent surge of violence against Asian Americans as well as the deeply-ingrained culture of violence against women. Fraiman articulated the phenomenon of the “white male gaze,” which designates Asian women as “exploitable, expendable and hyper-sexualized,” and invoked the ideas of Kimberlé Crenshaw — who coined the term “intersectionality,” or the way overlapping social and political identities lead to further discrimination — when describing the plight of Asian American women.

This theme of intersectionality struck many students in attendance at the teach-in as most prescient. 

First-year College student Isabella Sheridan said that she learned more about how the concept of whiteness divides non-white groups in order to maintain a status quo.

“As a Latinx individual, one of my biggest takeaways from the teach-in was how similar the struggles of my community are to those of the Asian-American community, which really re-emphasized the importance of solidarity for me,” Sheridan said. 

Professor Gaines, professor of history and African and African American studies, spoke specifically about the connections between anti-Asianness and anti-Blackness, both of which “have roots in white supremacy,” according to Gaines. 

Gaines maintained that the relationship between anti-Blackness and anti-Asianness “didn’t just fall out of the sky” but that it entailed “a lot of effort expended by politicians, writers, journalists and cartoonists to produce narratives … of anti-Blackness to construct anti-Asianness.”

Gaines drew a lot of his commentary from author Ronald Takaki’s book “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America,” which discusses the phenomenon of Black people and Asian people being pitted against each other in the service of white supremicist ideologies. 

In his speech, Gaines asked the audience to consider an important question about intersectionality and identity — “Is it okay for us to live our lives within the context of a single community?”

Graduate student Tracey Wang spoke about the plight of working-class Asian Americans in her childhood in Flushing, Queens.

Wang told the stories of her mother and aunt, who work “in a society that denigrates their work and devalues the poor” and shared the ways in which she witnessed the vulnerability of working-class Asian Americans, who are subject to the “everyday violence of bosses, rent increases, gentrification and the struggles of being undocumented.”

“My family’s experiences are not unique,” Wang said. “We must realize that everyday realities are just as violent as shocking clips of racist hate and are slowly killing us too.” 

Global Studies professor Helena Zeweri urged attendees to reconsider the concepts of justice and equity and challenge the tendency to look to the criminal justice system for redress. Zeweri also highlighted three things to consider once individuals acknowledge that the American criminal justice institutions are limited in the forms of freedom and justice that they offer. 

“The criminal justice system poses barriers to care and additional levels of anxiety upon victims,” Zeweri said. “Law enforcement serves as a gateway to other institutions that detain and deport immigrants, and that the criminal justice system does not address historical forces that make particular communities vulnerable to particular kinds of violence.”

Community members Ibby Han and Donna Gasapo were the event’s closing speakers and provided reflections on anti-racist organizing in Charlottesville.

Before they spoke, Professor Chong reminded audience members that not all community members who speak against anti-Asian violence are speaking on behalf of the entire community.

Han spoke briefly about the hundreds of white supremacists who marched on Grounds on Aug. 11, 2017, the counterprotest that University students led and the deadly “Unite the Right” rally that followed Aug. 12. Han called attention to the fact that, while there are plenty of pictures of neo-Nazis storming the University campus, there are “no pictures of the small group of people who were there counterprotesting 300 neo-nazis.” 

Han also urged everyone to remember the “Black, Asian, Latinx, Jewish, Queer and trans people in this community who showed up against white supremcists on this Lawn,” and asked attendees to consider what they were going to do to challenge the white supremacist institutions and systems.

Gasapo — a long-time organizer, Montessori teacher and parent who works with the Defund CPD movement — uplifted the work of Pacific Islanders and Asian American women who have also worked to dismantle anti-Blackness.

Gasapo spoke about the need to “maintain and sustain” this work because the University has tentacles that run through Charlottesville — sometimes, Gasapo said, the work that is most necessary is that which “makes us the most uncomfortable.” 

The resounding message of all the speakers was that we are all obligated to act.

"You can #StopAsianHate all you want, but the message you are sending with your inaction is loud and clear,” Chong said.