Staff Writer Phoebe Lu speaks with Asian students and club leaders as they reflect on the recent hate-crimes against the Asian community.
Editor’s Warning: This article discusses topics of racism, xenophobia, and violence.
Iris Chen, CC ’24, moved to New York City in early March this year to finish up her first year at Columbia. Born in San Francisco but having lived most of her life in China, it was Iris’ first time back in the United States in two years. On Friday, March 12, Iris boarded a subway downtown from Columbia with two friends, both also Asian. Two stops out from Columbia, a man boarded the same train, looked at the three first-years, and spat at them.
Iris didn’t approach me about her story as an interviewee, but as a friend. The day it happened, she had texted me to call her about a “New York horror story.” As she talked through her experience, she began to acknowledge that perhaps, the incident was more than one of the random tribulations of living in New York. “I mean, all three of us were Asian,” she ponders, “and given everything else that’s been happening…”
Iris referenced the rise in anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 150 percent in the 16 largest US cities in 2020. Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization that tracks incidents of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reported 3,700 instances of anti-Asian incidents in 2020. Due to problems with language barriers, these accounts of anti-Asian violence could be underreported, and this data may not capture the full magnitude of the number of attacks.
Iris had kept up with the news on the rise in anti-Asian attacks, but she never thought that one would happen to her. The study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism shows that New York recorded the highest number of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, constituting an 833% increase. For the Asian Columbia and Barnard students currently in the city, that 833% has been more than just a statistic.
Three Days, Four Incidents
On Monday, March 15, three days after what happened to Iris, Jennifer Li, CC ’23, was walking down Amsterdam Avenue when a man passing by hurled racial slurs at her, calling her a “yellow monkey” and demanding that she “go back to [her] shitty country full of yellow monkeys.” Another female Asian student, who chose to remain anonymous, also reported being verbally and almost physically assaulted by the same man.
Later that same day, Jennifer was walking by herself to the 72nd Street subway station when she heard two men behind her say that they wanted to “knock [her] over the head.” “That bitch will probably fall right over if we hit her,” they added.
A day later, James Hu and Jennifer Lin, both CC ’24, were walking back to campus from Levain Bakery when a passerby aggressively shoved them, unprovoked. Jennifer and James were also accompanied by a white friend, who was not attacked.
In that same week, Anna Zhang, BC’24, shared her story through Instagram. On Sunday, March 14, she and another Barnard first-year Ilana Gut were leaving the 116th Street subway station to return to campus when an elderly Korean woman approached them with two black eyes and bruises on her face. “I need a hospital,” the woman told them. Still dazed from her assault, she muddled her words and struggled to express herself coherently in English.
Luckily, both the woman and the Barnard first-years spoke French. Through a combination of English and French, Anna and Ilana learned that a stranger had punched her, unprovoked. She had come to Columbia because she knew that the university had a good hospital. Unbeknownst to the woman, Columbia’s Irving Medical Center was located several miles from campus. Anna and Ilana decided to escort her to the nearby Mt. Sinai hospital.
To get to Mt. Sinai, the three walked through Columbia’s campus. It was another regular night on campus. “Everyone was just getting their late-night John Jay,” Ilana recalled. In speaking about their respective incidents, both first-years Iris and Jennifer Lin mentioned how they used to believe Columbia existed in a bubble, insulated against the turmoil of the outside world. In our conversation, Anna and Ilana also echoed that sentiment.
However, as they escorted the victim of a potential hate crime across Columbia’s campus, it marked a moment of recognition. The perception of safety provided by the demarcation of Columbia’s campus had disappeared.
When speaking with Anna, I shared with her that an Asian friend of mine had been spat on in the subway. “Does your friend know if it’s racially motivated?” Anna asked.
When we initially spoke, Iris acknowledged though it seemed likely, she didn’t know for sure if the man had spat on her because she and her friends were Asian. In an Instagram story shared with her followers, Jennifer Lin also stated that though she believed strongly that her being shoved was linked to her racial identity, she “cannot say for sure” that it was. In many of these recent attacks, there is still a lingering, frustrating ambiguity. In these random, senseless acts of aggression, the hate is explicitly felt, but never explicitly stated.
Legally, racial bias can be notoriously difficult to prove, as it requires establishing not only what an attacker has done, but also what they were thinking. In the Atlanta shooting on March 16, Robert Aaron Long killed eight people, including six Asian women. Long denied that his crimes were racially motivated, and both the FBI and local Atlanta police believed that it was a sex addiction, not race, that instigated Long.
Even when anti-Asian sentiment is not acknowledged, these acts of violence create a lasting fear among those with Asian identities. Elaine Wei, BC’22 and the Barnard Vice President of the Chinese Students’ Club, said that in a CSC meeting following the shooting, “Everyone’s really shaken up. Everyone’s really feeling the ramifications of what’s happening.” Elaine shared that she too felt afraid walking near campus. Since her incident, Iris hasn’t taken the subway. When Jennifer Lin goes out now, she puts on sunglasses to obscure her features.
At Mt. Sinai, Anna and Ilana advised the woman to report her assault as a hate crime. She was reluctant: “she thought that the [police] wouldn’t believe her,” according to Anna. To the woman, the idea that a random stranger just came up and punched her seemed far-fetched. The first-years told her that these unprovoked attacks against Asians have been a pattern across the country, and they noted that she seemed surprised.
Benjamine Mo, CC’23 and the President of the Asian Creative Collective, told me in our interview that he felt that the Atlanta shooting, like many of the other recent acts of violence against Asians, should be explicitly defined as a hate crime. “There’s already a hesitancy in Asian-Americans, especially amongst our elders, to report hate crimes,” Ben stated. “A lot of them don’t even know what a hate crime is.” As figures of authority neglect to name these acts of violence as anti-Asian hate crimes, it exacerbates the lack of awareness around race-based violence, and Ben feared that will further discourage members of the Asian community from reporting future incidents.
Cecilia Guan, CC’22 and the President of the Chinese Students Club, made it clear that anti-Asian sentiment is nothing new. “These kinds of xenophobic, anti-Asian sentiments have been here since Asians touched down in the 1800s in the U.S., ” she remarked, pinpointing the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment Camps as a few of the many examples in American history.
Columbia is not immune to those sentiments. “Asian students have been suffering this way [for] a long time,” Ben told me in his interview, providing an example of an incident in 2017 where vandals ripped off name tags with Chinese-sounding names in Columbia’s dorms.
Across multiple interviews, Asian students agreed that there’s been a pervasive silence around anti-Asian racism. Elaine suggested that before recent attacks, much of the racism against Asian communities had taken the form of microaggressions, such as the propagation of “China Virus” and “Kung-flu,” where “you can’t see the visible effects, so it’s harder to acknowledge.” Even when there are visible effects, anti-Asian hate crimes receive little coverage. An article by progressive research center Media Matters showed that at the time the article was published in mid-February, the most airtime anti-Asian hate crimes received had been 20 minutes from MNSBC, while outlets such as CNN and CBS simply did not report on these crimes.
Lilly Cao, CC’22, attributed this silence to the model minority myth. In 1965, the Immigration Act opened immigration to Asian countries after a long period of restriction. In admitting immigrants, the United States gave preferential treatment to those with higher levels of education and professional skills, resulting in the Asian Americans that typically immigrated to be of higher income. In 1966, sociologist William Petersen cited this perceived success of Asian Americans, specifically Japanese Americans, as proof that it’s possible to overcome racism, thus coining the term “model minority.” Under this assumption, racism can simply be amended through hard work, without protest.
Amy Zhang, BC’23, shared that in her experience, parts of the Asian community have internalized this mentality: “No one was really talking about discrimination. It’s taught that if you worked hard, or if you just tried to be more like a white person, you could avoid [discrimination] entirely.”
Recent attacks defy that logic. Many of the interviewees remarked on the random nature of these attacks, where anyone could be the next target, where perceived success does not protect you. “I think there’s a realization that this hate has always existed, just that right now it’s being uncovered more obviously, ” Lilly observed.
This realization has influenced Amy to “sit with the different facets of [her] identity…that [she’s] just beginning to see for the first time.” Growing up, she simply accepted the lack of Asian representation as the status quo. Now, she questioned it: “I noticed that all the artists we were exposed to were white. I was like, where are the Black artists? Why didn’t I ever ask where the Asian artists were?”
This new heightened racial awareness has been difficult to navigate. Ben points out that decades of the model minority has placed the Asian identity in a “triangulated” position, where Asians are conventionally portrayed as superior to other people of color, specifically Black Americans, but alienized by whites. Occupying an in-between space, neither Black nor white, makes it challenging to place Asian identity within current racialized contexts. “It’s often complicated to identify which conversations to insert yourself in. Or where to insert yourself in those conversations,” said Ben.
Across social media, Columbia students, both Asian and non-Asian, circulate the popular hashtag #StopAAPIHate. “This is a moment that has stuck out to me in terms of Asian American advocacy because of the widespread denouncement of what’s going on,” Cecilia noted near the end of our conversation. I then asked her if she thought that we had arrived at a pivotal moment for the Asian community, where our identities and the racism we face would grow to be more recognized.
“It’s still very much up in the air,” she answered. “I think at the end of the day, what’s always hard about sustaining a moment like this is the momentum, the concrete actions that can come from here. Not just that this is a horrible thing, but what can we learn from this and what can be done.”
A Path Forward
At the time of publishing this article, it has only been thirteen days since the Atlanta shooting. Most of the Asian community is still struggling to come to terms with the blatant hatred perpetrated that afternoon. “Everyone’s just grieving right now,” Elaine noted.
In our conversation, Cecilia and Elaine point out that current times are packed with momentum—momentum that may rapidly dwindle if not sustained with concrete actions. CSC has already begun its work. On the day of the Atlanta shooting, CSC issued a statement through their Facebook page condemning “discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and violence towards Asians around the globe,” calling for “racial solidarity.” With the statement, CSC also highlighted various opportunities for aiding the Asian community, including links to a bystander intervention training program and a registration form for becoming a Chinese translator on COVID testing sites. On March 21, CSC also hosted an Education & Action-Planning Space, where they briefed the audience on the history of anti-Asian racism and used breakout rooms to discuss future steps to address this racism.
Cecilia established that CSC does not strive to be “a singular authority on the Asian American experience.” Rather, she sees CSC as a platform, where members can share their own experiences. Cecilia hopes this sharing of experiences can create “an entryway that’s approachable for everyone.” “At the end of the day, learning about other people’s cultural and racial identities starts with conversations with those around you,” she added.
The Asian Creative Collective, which Ben, Lilly, and Amy are a part of, is a space for Asian creatives to gather and share their projects and inspirations. On March 13, ACC announced their Community Collect project, designed to formulate a space for the Asian community to ruminate in the wake of the rise in anti-Asian hate. According to their Instagram announcement, the project calls for submissions of creative works that “interrogate and affirm AAPI identity.” Collected works will be displayed through a social media campaign and published in a zine.
ACC’s Communications Chair Vilanna Wang, CC’24, finds creative work to be especially cathartic at this moment. “You’re able to take things that are really negative…really ugly…and turn it into a piece of art… something that’s really beautiful. Something that belongs to me,” she reflected. “Works of creativity lets us take things back. It lets us gain our strength back.”
Lilly Cao, a creator for the ACC, artist, and art history student, pointed out that there’s a lack of art centered around the Asian identity in the mainstream art world. “I’m really excited to see this collection of works that just explores identity. Because it’s not something that exists,” she added. For Amy, the work of Community Collect offers the representation she never saw growing up. “Having an entire zine dedicated to those themes [of Asian identity] is so empowering. It’s definitely something I’ve never seen before,” she told me.
In my interview with ACC members, we also discussed the administration’s response to the surge in hate crimes. Vilanna and Ben mentioned Vice President for Student Affairs Joseph Defraine Greenwell’s email. Greenwell’s email was the first one released to the Columbia community that mentioned the shooting in Atlanta, titled “In the wake of violent attacks in Atlanta.”
Vilanna noted that it was refreshing to hear the administration acknowledge the crimes against the Asian community, whereas issues of race have been largely ignored in her high school. Ben, however, expressed his frustration at the fact that the words “race” and “racism” were never once mentioned in the email. “Why not put us in the conversation of race?” he questioned.
Ben also wondered if the administration could do more beyond acknowledgment. Like Cecilia and Elaine, he hoped for concrete action. Ben returned to the fact that anti-Asian racism is neither new to America or new to Columbia. He appreciated the attention the administration has given to these recent attacks, but he also wondered: “Where then, before all this, did Asian American students voice their concerns?” He suggested that perhaps a university task force dedicated to Asian and Asian American issues could serve as a platform for these concerns. More generally, he just hoped for students and faculty to be more understanding of Asian American issues.
I called Iris again after finishing my last interview. I told her that after waking up every morning to waves of fear, outrage, and even outright denial online, it had been refreshing to sit down with other Asian students and simply talk out how we’re processing it all.
Iris knew what I was feeling. She, too, found solace in the coming together of the Asian community, whether online or offline. “It’s a time of extreme pain and extreme unity, ” she remarked.
woman protesting anti-asian hate via Columbia News