Asian, Asian American students say rise in anti-Asian violence underscores deeper issues

In more normal times, the week of Lunar New Year brings festivities for many at Duke. 

During the last week of January or the second week of February, hundreds of students line up to enter Page Auditorium for an evening of dazzling dances, skits and other cultural performances. Across campus, cultural affinity groups bond over traditional food and colorful arts and crafts.

But by the time the Year of the Ox arrived this February, a spike in violent attacks targeting Asian Americans from California to New York was sparking hard conversations and calls for solidarity and support among Asian and Asian American students.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, discrimination and violence against Asians and Asian Americans in the United States have increased, fueled by rhetoric like “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” that taps into centuries-long tropes of Asians as disease carriers and invaders. 

Stop AAPI Hate, a website set up by Asian community organizations for people to self-report anti-Asian discrimination, recorded more than 2,800 incidents across 47 states from March 2020 to the end of the year. Many reports were verbal harassment, but roughly 9% were physical attacks.

This year, the violence has continued, from the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man from San Francisco, in late January to a slew of attacks in early February targeting elders in Oakland, California.

Durham can seem far away from Los Angeles, the Bay Area or New York City, where the attacks are concentrated, and some Duke students said they didn’t personally feel at risk while at Duke. But others who call those places home shared concerns about the safety of parents and family, and many students reflected on the ways that stereotypes about Asians have affected their experiences as Blue Devils.

Reflections on identity

Dianne Kim, a sophomore, said she first learned about a rise in anti-Asian violence on social media, including through the popular Facebook meme group “subtle asian traits.”

“It was in the air when the coronavirus started in China,” she said, referring to concerns about Asian people being targeted. “It was definitely a concern back then, but it was pretty distant back then.”

Although violence against Asian Americans has become more visible in the news, Kim said she didn’t feel unsafe in the Bull City. 

“I grew up in Durham my entire life, so I trust my community,” she said.“It’s definitely scary now that anyone could be affected.”

Dominic Jeong, a sophomore from Orange County, California, wrote in a message to The Chronicle that he is concerned about the safety of family back home. 

“My mom works in a mostly Asian community, Little Saigon, and the fact that Asian businesses are being targeted right now is making me worried, especially since I’ve seen reports of attacks in my area,” he wrote. “It’s more emotionally taxing when I see my mother in a spot that’s more vulnerable than most, and especially since I can’t do much at Duke.”

Several students said that at Duke, their identities and experiences are disregarded by narratives of Asians or Asian Americans as uniformly wealthy or privileged.

“I grew up in a town where Asians were 0.2% of the population. In my graduating class of 400, there were maybe 8 of us, all from very diverse social circles and economic classes,” wrote Jerry Wang, a senior from Vienna, West Virginia, in a message to The Chronicle. “When someone sees me on campus, I suspect they develop a number of assumptions about my personality, my work ethic, or my interests that are probably inaccurate and based simply upon what they've gathered from other Asians they meet here.”

Jeong wrote that he also feels the effects of dismissive generalizations. “I, and a few others that I know personally, come from low-income families, so it can be disheartening when people try to push Asians under an umbrella statement and say that we’re all affluent to invalidate the way we feel,” he wrote.

Sophomore Angela Chung mentioned that she felt personal challenges go unrecognized due to pervasive “model minority” stereotypes.

“I think lots of Duke students view Asian students as a monolith of wealthier, privileged, East Asians and do not consider us as part of the ‘oppressed,’” Chung wrote in a message to The Chronicle. “But at the same time I witness people making disgusting comments about Asian people as if it is no big deal.”

Duke Confessions, a student-run Facebook page that broadcasts anonymous submissions, uploaded over a dozen posts in the past week mentioning Asians or Asian Americans. 

Some posts called attention to anti-Asian violence, but several others cited statistics about Asian American median income to claim that they are the most successful racial group or denied that Asian Americans can experience frequent prejudice. Some posts also accused students talking about the violent attacks of ignoring or perpetuating racism against other communities of color.

“Seeing those comments on the Duke Confessions to me is just a final confirmation that the discomfort I had felt in various campus interactions were NOT just part of my imagination, and that I am not overreacting, because clearly there are people who do hold those viewpoints that minimize [Asian American] struggles,” wrote Chung, who posted comments criticizing two of the posts. 

“I think anti-Blackness is a true and sticky issue. We cannot deny that it occurs, and there is anti-Asian sentiment from other [communities of color] as well,” Chung added. “We have to find ways to overcome prejudices we have about each other.”

Senior Elizabeth Lee, the president of Duke’s Asian Students Association, which aims to advocate for and build relationships between students from all Asian communities, emailed The Chronicle a joint statement by the group’s executive board about the increase in anti-Asian violence.

“The model minority myth negatively affects Asian communities and is often used to minimize violence against Asian communities,” the statement read. “It’s important to have these critical conversations both inside and outside of Duke, and it’s important that ASA, as well as other Asian student organizations, provides programming and spaces to help students verbalize these dynamics and process a lot of the hurt from the increase in violence against Asian communities.”

Student groups and Duke respond, within pandemic restrictions

Some campus groups representing Asian and Asian American students have supported their broader communities. In February, the Asian Students Association matched $200 in student donations for a national fundraiser benefiting organizations that serve communities affected by anti-Asian violence in California and New York.

“Many of us wanted to help but didn’t know how, so boosting and contributing to the fund helped many of us feel agency despite feeling helpless,” the executive board explained in its joint statement. “We saw a huge wave of support for the donations, illuminating that there's an obvious need and want for more support for Asian students at Duke, especially for queer, first-generation, low income, mixed, and international Asian students.”

Other groups are focusing primarily on responding to the social and cultural needs of Asian and Asian American Duke students. Junior Siyun Lee, president of the Korean Undergraduate Students Association, said that anti-Asian discrimination and the pandemic have increased the importance of providing a sense of home to students on campus and elsewhere, including in South Korea. 

Siyun said being in the “Duke bubble” helped students feel less at risk of physical attacks, but he emphasized that many of the group’s members are struggling to feel connected. “Isolation and loneliness are directly affecting us now,” he said.

As many Asian and Asian American students grapple with deeper issues of identity, discrimination and community, some student organizations said the pandemic has made it even more challenging to provide spaces that respond to the many needs of students.

Kim serves as a publicity chair for KUSA. She said the organization tries to walk a line between social bonding and discussing societal issues relevant to Korean Americans.

“It’s a sensitive topic, and it’s hard to bring it up in events,” Kim said, referring to anti-Asian discrimination and violence. Cultural affinity groups, she said, “can be a very supportive aspect during times like these where the outside world is harsh and dangerous.”

With groups unable to hold large in-person gatherings, and with limited access to physical spaces on campus for Asian and Asian American students such as AAPI BASE in the Bryan Center, organizations have resorted to holding a variety of virtual social, cultural and political events, including upcoming discussions over Zoom about anti-Asian violence hosted by the Asian American Alliance and the Asian Students Association.

Li-Chen Chin, assistant vice president of intercultural programs at the Center for Multicultural Affairs, which oversees BASE and other cultural affinity spaces, wrote in a statement that she was committed to supporting students and student groups. 

“Mary Pat McMahon and I share concern about the rising anti-Asian hate incidents around the country, and I am working this week with identity and cultural center leaders to develop a more in-depth opportunity sometime soon to show Student Affairs' support for impacted students,” Chin wrote.

Still, the lack of physical gatherings remains difficult for Asian and Asian American student groups, whose largest events, like those celebrating Lunar New Year, often involved sharing traditional food, art and performances.

“All of my favorite memories are about food, and on top of the food, our community,” Siyun said.


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