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We Have Seen This Before: Asian Americans share reflections on pandemic-fueled racism

By Jessica Sinn

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Turn back the pages of time and you’ll see some commonalities between the “Yellow Peril,” the “Gay Virus” and, most recently, the “Chinese Virus.” All are race-based political terms attached to diseases and outbreaks that have been used to rationalize bigotry and xenophobia. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many people of Asian descent around the world have reported acts of racial aggression—from shunning to belligerent rants to physical assaults. It has become clear that one major side effect of this global health crisis is prejudice.

We caught up with several members of the university community to learn how they are grappling with these troubling times—and how they are working to bring more visibility and equality to the many different groups within the monolithic “Asian American” umbrella.


DANGEROUS TERMS

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Eric Tang, associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies and director of the Center for Asian American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts

Soon after President Trump first uttered the phrase “Chinese Virus,” Eric Tang, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and director of the Center for Asian American Studies (CAAS), knew he had to take urgent steps to reach out to the Asian American community.

“There was an immediate sense among us that Asian Americans would be scapegoated as a perpetual foreign influence that brought the virus to the United States,” Tang says. “This association between Asian Americans and diseases has to do with a long history of anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic violence in the U.S.”

Concerned about the escalating anti-Asian bigotry, Tang participated in a virtual town hall meeting with the City of Austin and various local Asian American organizations.

“We wanted to inform the public about these dangerous terms used by our nation’s leaders, which gives license to some to act violently against Asian Americans,” Tang says. “It’s important for us to say loudly and clearly that these terms are inappropriate and unfair and should be confronted.”

To better understand what’s happening in the Austin community, Tang helped create the Central Texas COVID-19 Related Racial Bias Reporting System to track cases of pandemic-induced racial harassment and violence. The reporting system is a group effort involving the City of Austin and several local Asian American organizations.

“We are working together to gather more information about any kind of racism that emerges as a result of this unique moment we’re in,” says Tang. “My hope is that sharing a survey like this, and the discourse around being wary of racism at this moment, will be a mitigating activity. Just sharing this form tells the public there is a consensus among the population that racial discrimination and harassment is wrong and won’t be tolerated.”

Tang often thinks about his two Asian American brothers who are serving on the frontlines in a New York City hospital. One of his brothers recently recovered from a battle with the virus, which he contracted while saving lives at an overcrowded emergency room.

“Here they are fighting this disease while worrying about being racially targeted for it,” Tang says. “That’s a unique psychological position to be in, to say the least.

On one hand, they’re celebrated for heroics, but on the other, they are vulnerable to unambiguous racism.”

If Tang could provide any message of comfort during this troubling time, it would be to look toward the gains made throughout history.

“Asian American students and the community at large should know that they’re not alone—even if we’re socially distant,” Tang says. “And as much as history is repeating itself now, it’s good to be aware of the movements that came before us that gave us organizational forums that respond to racism such as CAAS and the DDCE.”


COMFORT IN CONNECTIONS

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Tony Vo, assistant director of the Center for Asian American Studies

During his undergraduate years at UT Austin, Tony Vo spent much of his free time on the “Yellow Brick Road,” an unofficial gathering space for Asian American students just outside Gregory Gym.

Now as the assistant director of CAAS—the largest ethnic studies program in the Southwest—he proudly runs a dedicated space that offers weekly meetups, workshops, book clubs and more for Asian American students.

In today’s new virtual reality, Vo is finding creative ways to reach out to students to provide a sense of togetherness. In addition to webinars and workshops, he also coordinates the CAAS Collective Digest, an e-newsletter that celebrates the many cultures within the “Asian American” umbrella, offering a wealth of resources such as student stories, ethnic recipes and information on virtual educational events.

“As the pandemic continues, there’s a potential it’s going to stay racialized, which will have negative effects on our international students,” Vo says. “Now more than ever, we need to connect students with all the resources the university has to counteract the stigma of this virus, which I fear will stick around in more nuanced ways we haven’t seen yet.”

Vo and his colleagues often tap into the university’s many offices, centers and campus safety initiatives to make sure students connect with the resources they need. Campus partners include the Office for Inclusion and Equity, the Multicultural Engagement Center, BeVocal, the Counseling and Mental Health Center and many others.

“We are working across different units at UT to paint this picture for people that xenophobia and anti-Asian racism may seem new, but it’s actually a systemic problem deeply embedded in our society,” Vo says. “These reactions to the coronavirus speak to a larger historic national narrative about keeping Asian Americans from migrating to the U.S.”

Although it’s not clear when campus will return to normal, Vo is already thinking ahead to make sure students feel welcome and supported upon arrival.

“When our students come back in the fall—or later—I would like to have more conversations about what they’ve experienced back home during the pandemic and what they’re dealing with now,” he says.



UNWANTED AWARENESS

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Quỳnh Hương Nguyễn, assistant director of the Gender and Sexuality Center

Growing up outside of a Vietnamese community, Quỳnh- Hương Nguyễn was taught to assimilate herself as much as possible to avoid ridicule from peers, teachers and adults. She changed her birth name, only spoke English and never dared to pack food from her parents’ homeland in her lunchbox.

“I was young and didn’t have an elder or role model who could guide me and explain what I was experiencing,” says Nguyễn, assistant director of the Gender and Sexuality Center. “I didn’t realize people were tokenizing my identity. No matter what I did, I was always seen as a foreigner.”

In college, she pretended that everything she was experiencing was normal despite the continuous microaggressions— insidious racial slights that Asian American students commonly face in school.

“When I was in college, I pretended that I was all right and that the interactions never hurt. I thought it was a normal experience for most people,” Nguyễn says. “When I realized how much it hurt, I didn’t know how to defend myself because people acted like it wasn’t a microaggression and I was being dramatic.”

When she turned to others for guidance, she was told to let it go and keep her concerns to herself.

“They wanted me to brush it off and represent the entire Asian community, even though I felt uncomfortable and knew it was wrong,” she says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the Asian community due to its multigenerational immigration history and lack of representation. The Asian community is a lot bigger than most people realize, and each community faces different challenges.”

Nguyễn can empathize with her students as they face anti- Asian sentiments and harassment when out in the community. Some, she says, are fearful of wearing masks in public because they might give off the perception of being diseased. Others have resorted to staying home entirely to protect themselves.

“Even though the Asian communities are often overlooked, anti-Asian sentiments have been a part of U.S. history for a long time,” she says. “The pandemic has brought more attention and awareness to the Asian communities, but not in the way that we had hoped. The number of anti-Asian hate crimes has spiked since the start of the shelter-in-place order back in March.”

When terms like “Wuhan Virus” and “Chinese Virus” started making headlines, Nguyễn grew more concerned about the rising number of racially charged attacks, many of which, she notes, are likely to go unreported due to language barriers and a lack of knowledge about resources and support.

“These terms have encouraged xenophobic behavior toward the Asian communities,” she says. “It is important we take the time to learn more about the issues that have impacted so many different communities. Also, it is important to think about how to support and advocate for marginalized communities using Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality.”

Nguyễn encourages her students to take comfort in knowing they are not alone—and that with a unified effort, change will come.

“In the words of law professor Frank Wu, ‘We are not alone as Asian Americans, any more than we are all the same,” Nguyễn says. “Take action for your own community and the communities outside of your identity. Even though my experience is not similar to yours, it is important to understand and acknowledge that lived experiences are real and that it’s important to move toward a society with equal and equitable opportunities for everyone.”


HIDDEN FIGURES

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Pictured here is a member of the “UT 10,” a group of student activists who spearheaded the establishment of the Center for Asian American Studies in 1999. Protestors were arrested for criminal trespassing while advocating during a rally and sit-in on the West Mall in response the interim College of Liberal Arts dean’s decision to delay the creation of the center until hiring a permanent director.

Before the pandemic hit, Joshua Tadeo was on the verge of opening a photo gallery at the Austin Asian American Cultural Center documenting an untold piece of UT Austin history.

“The gallery, now postponed, features Asian American student organizations and their connection with campus life and the broader Austin community,” says Tadeo, a junior majoring in Asian American studies. “I wanted to show how UT has helped foster a diverse Asian American population.”

While digging though the library archives, Tadeo found boxes of photos labeled by specific student demographics. One demographic, however, did not have its own box.

“Even though the Asian communities are often overlooked, anti-Asian sentiments have been a part of U.S. history for a long time,” she says. “The pandemic has brought more attention and awareness to the Asian communities, but not in the way that we had hoped. The number of anti-Asian hate crimes has spiked since the start of the shelter-in-place order back in March.”

“I found random pictures of Asian Americans scattered in various boxes,” he says. “They are interesting and important figures in our history, yet they didn’t have enough capital to have their own designated box.”

This disconcerting finding reaffirmed Tadeo’s mission to bring visibility to this overlooked group and dispel some commonly held misconceptions.

“Asian Americans are stereotyped as being apolitical, but this photo gallery highlights the political power of student activists who came together and significantly contributed to the campus and the community,” Tadeo says.

The best way to counter these racially biased beliefs, he says, is to read up on their history, which appears to be repeating itself.

“People aren’t aware of their biases because they lack education in ethnic studies,” Tadeo says. “There is this stigma of uncleanliness attached to Asian Americans that dates back over 150 years ago to the ‘Yellow Peril’ of the Chinese railroad workers.”

This piece of history stood out in Tadeo’s mind when his two non-Asian roommates sat him down for a lecture on handwashing and social distancing. Although it seemed like a harmless conversation, he couldn’t shake the sinking feeling they were singling him out based on his race.

“That conversation didn’t sit well with me,” Tadeo says. “On the surface, it was just about hygiene and basic safety measures, but what I was hearing was, ‘You’re more likely to get it because you’re Asian, and it will be your fault if we get exposed.’”

Tadeo, who is actively involved with UT’s Asian American student community, knows that many others are being singled out as well. He encourages his peers to raise awareness by vocalizing their encounters with racism.

“There’s power in your story, and it deserves to be heard,” Tadeo says. “This pandemic will be studied well into the future by researchers and theorists, so the best thing you can do is to share your experience, which will in turn create a better understanding of the Asian American experience.”


POWER IN CENSUS NUMBERS

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Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, assistant vice president for community and economic engagement

Suchitra Gururaj is no stranger to stereotypes. For much of her life, she has dreaded that quizzical look by strangers and the inevitable question that followed: “But, no, where are you really from?”

“It’s a question that underscores people’s perceptions of Asian Americans as ‘perpetual foreigners,’” says Gururaj, assistant vice president for community and economic engagement. “It’s also the kind of thinking that has historically fueled the sense that Asian Americans have split loyalties. As we’ve seen over American history and certainly after 9/11, when people start to suspect you’re ‘not quite from here,’ it’s easy to head down the path of suspecting that they are disloyal, dangerous or devious.”

With the outbreak of the coronavirus—and all the misguided theories about its origins—she notes that Asian Americans are once again being painted as disease carriers.

“Chinese-American people, in particular, have also been harmed for at least a century by the stereotype of the ‘Yellow Peril’ that painted Chinese immigrants as lacking in hygiene and spreading disease,” Gururaj says. “The White House’s insistence that COVID-19 is a ‘Chinese virus’ is, of course, a deliberate means by which to evoke that stereotype.”

As hate crimes continue to rise in cities across the nation, Gururaj has observed that much of the hostility has been directed toward people of East Asian descent. Now, more than ever, she urges the entire Asian American community—and the community at large— to collectively stand up to racism in all its forms.

“The fact that these microaggressions haven’t been directed at me, as a South Asian American, points to the diversity of the Asian American Pacific Islander [AAPI] population and to the responsibility of those of us who are not subject to these microaggressions to continue to actively push back against bias on behalf of all AAPI folks,” she says.

The best step toward eradicating the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, Gururaj adds, is to bring visibility to all ethnic groups that have been generally categorized as “Asian American.” That’s why she has teamed up with the Asian American Complete Count Committee to get Austin’s fastest-growing racial group counted in the 2020 U.S. census.

“Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to respond to the census or even express familiarity with it,” she says. “But by not responding, we won’t just lose out on critical resources—we’ll also miss an incredible opportunity to dispel the stereotypes that keep us civically invisible.”

Gururaj believes it remains to be seen if the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests will significantly alter our nation’s race relations. However, she is confident there will be a heightened awareness of systematic inequities that surface during times of crisis.

“The fact that so many folks who are organizing, protesting and marching may come from the communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 is a wake-up call to everyone that systems—be they related to health, education or public safety—are all intertwined,” Gururaj says.

by Jessica Sinn / Photography by Bret Brookshire