In light of the recent shootings in Atlanta that targeted Asian women, and the rise of xenophobic racism against Asian Americans and Asian Canadians during COVID, universities have released statements condemning anti-Asian racism. As immigrants who grew up in South Korea and the Philippines, the Atlanta shootings remind us of how Asian marginalization within and beyond North America shares intersecting histories.
Those histories include depictions of Asian Americans and Asian Canadians as “perpetual foreigners” or “model minorities” in order to conveniently gloss over complex practices of belonging and our diversity as a group. They also include the effects of colonialism and militarism on our respective countries, where white supremacy takes on different but equally dehumanizing forms. When understood through such histories, the Atlanta tragedy not only exposes the classed, gendered and sexualized violence that placed Asian women in harm’s way, but it also points to structural conditions that dictate the pathways that economically precarious immigrants must negotiate as they perform low-wage labor into their later years.
Mindful of those intersections, we see official university statements condemning anti-Asian racism as ringing hollow if they don’t, in fact, stop the anti-Asian racism that already exists, from its most mundane to its most systemic forms, within many of these same institutions. Anti-Asian racism can only be countered when the university values the diverse knowledges, histories and lived experiences that Asian community members bring. While the microaggressions and structural issues we point out pale in comparison to the violence wrought in Atlanta, we nonetheless see the crucial role that universities play in producing social transformation. With that goal in mind, we offer a list of suggestions to counter anti-Asian racism.
Acknowledge that anti-Asian incidents can produce strong and complex emotions among community members. All those feelings for themselves and others deserve validation. So in the wake of anti-Asian violence, you should take the needed time to center community members’ feelings around that violence. This can take the form of a brief statement discussing this incident’s significance, a moment of silence or an offer of support -- emotional or otherwise. The key is not to act like nothing of importance has happened. At the same time, don’t compel community members directly affected by the incidents to share their feelings.
Know that racism against those of Asian descent can manifest itself in the simplest of ways. One form it takes in professional settings is the categorizing of different members of the community as the same. So when you mix up Asian community members with each other, you perpetuate harmful myths that all people of color, regardless their diverse backgrounds, are interchangeable. Such depersonalization also occurs when you take lightly what people’s names mean to them. So avoid asking those whose names are unfamiliar to you to provide their “real,” “American” or “English nicknames.”
In addition, be mindful that people with names that are not Anglophone often have their names misspelled the most. If you encounter such moments of misnaming, let the person know so that this behavior is corrected. The point is to bring those moments to the attention of those who create them.
Recognize that language is an intimate and deeply personal form of communication. The way people speak and the language that they prefer to speak in are often crucial facets of their identity. So avoid comments that convey judgment or impute value around Asian people’s fluency in English, even if said as a compliment. When you see others remarking on community members’ fluency in English or their “lack of accent,” inform those individuals that this not acceptable. Ask them to reflect on whether they would offer the same observation to someone who is not Asian or a person of color.
Avoid harmful stereotypes. As universities continue to benefit from international students for revenue, be weary of labeling Asian community members as “Chinese students,” and thus “foreign,” or as coming from a particular class status or lacking the preparedness needed to demonstrate adaptability. Stereotyping in this way also affects students who identify as Asian American and Asian Canadian, who represent various migratory histories, affinity with places and class trajectories. Rather than focus on defining whether community members are “domestic” or “foreign,” address the structural barriers that they face when navigating the institution from diverse points of entry.
Moreover, despite the monolithic nature of the term “Asian” as an identity category, the lives and experiences of those who compose it are irreducible to that category. Asian communities in North America, for example, come from different class backgrounds and migrant pathways. So from an institutional standpoint, it is crucial to disaggregate the multiple identities and circumstances that make up “Asian” experiences on a campus, including the uneven kinds of access people encounter.
Target approaches, programs and metrics. At University of Toronto, separating Southeast and South Asians out from the larger category “Asian” is likely to reveal that they are significantly underrepresented in terms of faculty and staff in the humanities and social sciences -- despite the large number of students and members of the general community in the greater Toronto area who belong to these groups. Accurately addressing the underrepresentation of certain people in higher education institutions thus requires a more nuanced way of defining and measuring that underrepresentation. It also requires a targeted approach in areas such as hiring, admissions and scholarships, as well as an effort to allocate resources so that they align with a more nuanced understanding of access and equity.
Bring scholarship to bear on the issues. Knowledge -- who produces it, how it is circulated and how it is valued -- is an important area where inequity in a higher education institution is maintained or condoned. In this regard, universities need to encourage and support the scholarship that is essential to dismantling anti-Asian racism through an interdisciplinary project that brings academics throughout the institution together. This also entails offering a space for intellectual exchange through research and pedagogy that prioritizes the lived experiences of Asian community members who seek to lead that exchange.
While the study of Asia as a field and a geographic focus is important in its own right, it should not be used a stand-in to replace Asian American and Asian Canadian studies that are guided by community-based politics and ethics. And it is crucial to provide appropriate resources -- faculty and staff lines, infrastructure, and other relevant funding -- to fields that have as their core project studies of social transformation like ethnic studies, Asian Canadian studies and Asian American studies.
Challenge anti-Asian racism more broadly. Universities need to serve their local communities as well as support initiatives that seek equitable conditions for people who face exclusion from across all levels of the institution. That entails supporting unions and offering adequate financial aid for undocumented students. It also entails creating space, through community engagement and public outreach projects, for those whose stories are often not told and whose struggles are often not valued.