Op-Ed: Working in Solidarity to Address Anti-Asian Violence and Xenophobia

Christa Grant is the Assistant Dean of Intercultural Affairs/Chief Diversity Officer for Student Affairs at Union College. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Grant is a first generation Asian American college student, and a DEI scholar-practitioner for over 10 years. She is currently working on her EdD at Northeastern University. Gretchel L. Hathaway, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Franklin and Marshall College, is a first generation African American college student, and a DEI educator with 25+ years of experience. D Ekow King is the Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs for Intercultural Engagement, Equity and Inclusion at The University at Albany, SUNY. King is a first generation African American college student, a social justice advocate, and a DEI practitioner with 30+ years of experience.

On March 16, the occupants of three Asian-owned businesses were violently attacked. Among the eight people who were murdered, six were identified as Asian women. A perusal of the news cycle will tell you that this incident is not an anomaly. More than 3,795 hate crimes directed at Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have been reported since March 19, 2020, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate.

It is fair to ask ourselves and each other: Have we taken a strong enough stance in response to anti-Asian racism and xenophobia? Does the model minority myth play into our lack of understanding and reaction to hate crime incidents against Asian Americans?

This myth has driven a huge wedge between the AAPI community and other communities of color. It is a stereotype and has led to the mass misperception that AAPIs are the “well-behaved” citizens of marginalized populations; they work hard, keep their heads down, are submissive, stay in their lanes, and are successful. The model minority myth is dangerous to all Asian Americans and paints only a weak version of the AAPI story. It neglects the many diverse experiences and identities of the Asian diaspora. We must recognize the stereotypes that we may have about Asians from blockbuster movies like Crazy Rich Asians or reality TV shows like Bling Empire, which perpetuate the model minority myth. The limited representation of Asian Americans in the media neglects to represent the lives of all Asian people in the U.S. – those who came as refugees to escape violence in their homeland, those who are living in poverty, or those who are not highly educated. We need only apply concepts related to intersectionality to adequately debunk this myth.

If higher education institutions are truly interested in the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it is time for senior staff and DEI practitioners at all levels to shine a light on ourselves when it comes to our level of concern for anti-racism efforts in support of our Asian students, colleagues, and community members.

As leaders of the DEI mission for institutions of higher education, we need to take a more intentionally inclusive and intersectional approach to address identity-based hate crimes, marginalization, and oppression. We know that there are a wide variety of options, ranging from policies and procedures to courses and programs, that address anti-racism. We are now at an important moment in our work. Just as we needed to take a more inclusive approach to lean into the discussion of adding religious and interfaith dialogue and accessibility as part of diversity efforts, we need to reach out, embrace, and support AAPI communities as part of our social justice work ethos. We have the skills to be at the forefront of our communities when it comes to addressing the increase in xenophobia, including addressing how it affects our ability to advocate and support each other across identity groups.

To quote Audre Lorde: There is no hierarchy of oppressions. There is no benefit in comparing the various forms of racial oppression, except in cases where we are comparing our methods for combating similar forms of marginalization. As Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In the U.S., many groups are targets of White supremacy, including various groups of African heritage and AAPI heritage. Both Blacks and Asians have survived and thrived in the face of racism and other forms of oppression.

The increase of xenophobia and anti-Asian hate crimes can be a catalyst that reignites the racial tension between the Black and AAPI communities that has been part of American history. As many Black and Asian people are working in solidarity to support the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to recognize that this is similar to the “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” movement, in which Asian Americans supported the Black Panthers and the fight for civil rights. Today, however, many Asian folks may be wondering, Why is there no one coming to our rescue? Some may respond “They will be fine,” or “They are not for us, why should we help them?”

As senior leaders of colleges and universities and DEI practitioners striving to create an inclusive and equitable environment for AAPI colleagues and student scholars, we must, at a minimum, consider the following:

  • What level of effort have we put in to addressing anti-Asian rhetoric, both prior to and after the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How knowledgeable are we of Asian American history?
  • Have our responses to condemn anti-Asian racism and violence been adequate? Have they been consistent with our responses to the marginalization and oppression of other groups?
  • How are we supporting our AAPI students and colleagues? Are we having constructive conversations with them about their group’s exclusion from some areas of our work and academic missions?
  • How are we acknowledging the fears and validating the concerns that Asian folks are experiencing and expressing?
  • Are we creating anti-racism and anti-hate coalitions that allow for greater intercultural engagement with, deeper levels of empathy for, and understanding of each community’s history, challenges, successes, and values?

As senior staff and DEI practitioners, we are skilled at leading discussions around challenging issues, and we need to take the lead when it comes to difficult conversations about anti-Asian and anti-Black bias. As DEI educators, we should educate ourselves and those in our campus communities, including learning and raising awareness of the history of AAPI discrimination in our country.

We need to confront our own biases as well. We need to be bold enough, empathetic enough, and courageous enough to have these conversations with our Black colleagues and Asian colleagues.  We cannot expect to invite folks with Asian heritage to our campuses if we do not take the time to recognize and respect the long history of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. and AAPI experiences.

Senior campus and DEI leadership may turn to the following suggestions and ideas for improving AAPI inclusion and becoming more intentional in anti-racism efforts for this community:

  • Take an Intersectional Approach: Recognize the interconnected nature of social categories as they apply to individuals and groups, as well as the complex ways that the effects of discrimination combine and overlap to inform the experiences of both marginalized and privileged groups.
  • Lead by example: Provide adequate resources to build coalitions with colleagues and students and to raise increase awareness of racial violence, including anti-Asian violence. Begin by learning about the AAPI community on your campus and your department’s role in eliminating obstacles to their success.
  • Show vulnerability: We must show our scholars and colleagues that we are willing to lean into discomfort and discuss the painful history between the Asian and Black communities and other marginalized groups by designing and facilitating opportunities for greater support for one another.
  • Recognize your own biases: Regardless of your background, explore any potential biases you may have regarding other ethnic and racial groups and work towards eliminating those biases by learning more accurate information and taking a more empathetic disposition.
  • Facilitate community connectedness: Find new and different ways to provide opportunities for colleagues from historically marginalized backgrounds to feel a stronger connection to your department, institution, or community.
  • Work with other institutions: Form coalitions across institutions to address and assess various methods for confronting the need for more inclusive anti-racism efforts and similar problems. This article — written by three DEI professionals across three different institutions — is a perfect example.
  • Identify as a lifelong learner: Set aside some quality time, such as 30 minutes a day, to read articles and books or listen to podcasts about recent and historical issues that affect a wide range of historically marginalized populations.
  • Stay up-to-date: Subscribe to newsletters and follow social media accounts that advocate for marginalized populations, including AAPI communities.
  • Proactive Strategic Management: Work with your campus bias response team, Title IX coordinators, and chief diversity officers to create table-top exercises and other resources that will prepare your campus to effectively respond to xenophobic incidents.
  • Collaborate and build coalitions: Work with affinity groups, ethnic studies departments, and other stakeholders such as International Student and Scholars Services to ensure programs are inclusive of the populations they serve.
  • Implement specific campus climate assessments: Identify ways to assess the experiences of AAPI scholars on campus and with Asian colleagues. This will help you to identify their experiences as well as potential fears and challenges.

We must recognize that anti-Asian rhetoric in the U.S. has been around for centuries, as is evidenced by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese Internment Camps established by Franklin Roosevelt. As we’ve seen in countless examples over the course of the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has only shone a brighter light on this social justice issue, especially as more social media and major news outlets have started identifying AAPI hate crimes as legitimate stories. In many ways this has been spurred by Asian entertainers like Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, who began using their platforms to condemn anti-Asian racism and bring light to the cowardly attacks against Asian American elders that left at least one person dead. As DEI practitioners and leaders, let us begin to reaffirm our commitment to coalition building, advocacy, allyship, and universal social justice as the catalysts that are central to our success.