Vassar Asian/AAPI community responds to Atlanta shootings with hopes for change

Courtesy of Seowon Back '24.

[CW: The article discusses racism and violence ]

[Full Disclosure: The reporter for this article is a member of Vassar’s Asian American Studies Working group] 

In the wake of three shootings in Atlanta, GA, that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, and a national uptick in anti-Asian hate incidents, the Vassar Asian and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAAPI) community responded with hopes that conversations about and actions against Asian racism do not stop here.

On Tuesday, March 16, a white gunman walked into three Atlanta-area spas and fatally shot eight people. Seven of the eight victims were women, six people were of Asian descent, two were white. The suspect has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggrevated assault

Authorities have identified those killed in the attacks as Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54. Elcias R. Hernández-Ortiz, 30, was seriously injured. 

Over the past year, the United States has seen a nationwide uptick in anti-Asian racist incidents, presumably inflamed by the xenophobic rhetoric that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic due to its origins in China. Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, Asians and AAPI have been the target of derogatory language in both media reports and statements released by politicians. Former President Donald Trump often referred to COVID-19 during his presidency as the “Chinese virus,” which some say fueled anti-Asian sentiments. A recent study conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, revealed crimes targeting Asian people increased by nearly 150 percent throughout major U.S. cities in 2020. There has also been a surge in assaults against Asian elders, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In response to this xenophobic violence, Vassar Asian and AAPI community members have reacted in a variety of different ways. Numerous Asian and AAPI campus organizations have released statements to their members providing their condolences and support.

In their statement, the Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA) stated, “Although we may not be directly impacted by these attacks, especially on campus, as Asians and Asian Americans we recognize that this is an issue that pertains to all of us. We want to reaffirm ASA’s commitment to creating a safe and nurturing environment for Vassar’s Asian and Asian American community.” They continued, “We are currently planning ways ASA can further support the Asian community, including holding space for discussion and reflection.”

The  Japanese Students’ Alliance (JSA) also provided their own statement, which said, “our org takes major influence and meaning from Japanese and Asian cultures. Asian culture can be respected and shared, but not when its people are being attacked at and made into scapegoats when it’s convenient. Racism and racists are inexcusable whether we are in a pandemic or not.”

Individual Asian and AAPI community members have also voiced their own personal emotions. 

When asked about her feelings regarding the recent events in Atlanta, Taylor Gee ’23 stated, “I feel anger, frustration, and a lot of sadness.” Gee has recently limited logging onto social media or reading the news. “It’s already so much to handle the stress of being a student, and so to take on even more emotion would be really overwhelming,” she said.

Although the past week has been emotionally taxing for Gee, she’s also grateful for the support she has received from friends. “I’ve been really appreciative of the messages I’ve been getting from friends asking if I’m okay or how I am doing. Overall, I’m just very touched that they were thinking of me,” she said.

On the other hand, Gee said these interactions sometimes feel tinged with pity: “As much as I love and appreciate people reaching out and checking in on me, something about it makes me feel like I’m being treated with ‘kid gloves,’ kind of like I’m too fragile or this incident will break my spirit or something.” 

Other members of the Asian and AAPI Vassar community explained how they were not necessarily surprised by the events in Georgia and the rise in anti-Asian incidents. In an email exchange with the Miscellany News, Post Doctoral Fellow of American Studies and Asian Studies Vivian Truong expressed this sentiment. “This is the first time in my life that I can recall this much national attention being paid to Asian American issues. I feel conflicted about that,” she wrote.

Truong recalled a 2019 anti-Asian attack at a Brooklyn restaurant known as the Seaport Buffet. Three Asian immigrant male workers were killed in the restaurant by an assailant who stated, “Chinese men are awful. They keep their women captive.” According to Truong, “The attack was mostly only covered by local news outlets. I only heard about it because I grew up in that area of Brooklyn…Anti-Asian violence has been a problem long before the pandemic, and it’s frustrating that it’s taken thousands of reported cases and a mass shooting for the country to recognize it.” 

Truong also highlighted the importance of academia in combating anti-Asian prejudice in the United States. “We can’t fully address anti-Asian racism unless we understand it,” she said. Professors and academics have a role in helping the public see the root causes of these acts of violence.”

She continued, “These incidents aren’t exceptional and don’t just come out of nowhere…they have a long history in this country from immigrant exclusion to the U.S. military occupations of Asia and the Pacific.”

Vassar administration was quick to address the violence in Atlanta. In an emailed statement, Dean Carlos Alamo-Pastrana sympathized with the Asian and AAPI community, encouraging the Vassar community to engage and support one another.

He also directed students to institutional support resources, such as Director of the ALANA Center Kevin Collins, Director of the SAVP Office Nicole Wong and Vassar Counseling Services. 

President Elizabeth Bradley also issued a brief statement to the Vassar community. “This massacre reveals the symptoms of a much larger national issue that concerns all of us. Injustice. Injury. We are all affected,” she stated. “As a Vassar community, we stand in solidarity with the Asian American community and women who are survivors of violence, as we aspire to advance a world of greater understanding, compassion, and peace.”

Gee viewed these statements as less than sincere, “While I really appreciate and think that they are coming from a very positive and kind place, something about it feels disingenuine…Something about the messages feel very performative.”

Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group (VASAM) member Gabor Fu Ptacek ’22 believes Bradley and the administration should develop a more concrete plan in response to this crisis. “An email is not enough…I want actionable promises…so that we can work towards an existence where something like this won’t happen in this country again, he said.“To do that, I want promises from the President that she will work towards giving us more Critical Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies … and not erasing VASAM’s contribution.” 

Ptacek referred to a statement shared by Bradley last February addressing the developing surge in Asian American attacks. In the message, Bradley cited Vassar’s tenure-track position in Asian American Studies as a way the institution has been working to combat anti-Asian prejudice. “In her first email about Asian American violence prior to the Atlanta attack, VASAM didn’t show up in that email and yet she talked about the tenure-track line that VASAM spent years working toward. That’s erasure,” said Ptacek.

Ptacek also expressed his hopes for Vassar students to act. “What I would hope would happen is that people will come off Instagram and show up to VASAM…or show up to other orgs around campus that are doing activism work, not just for Asian Americans, but for any BIPOC or underrepresented group … This work can continue online, as social media is a powerful tool, but it’s not the only tool,” he said.

Gee also voiced her hopes that conversations about anti-Asian racism will continue into the future, “My biggest concern is that this moment of Stop Asian Hate is kind of like a trend, and that the people who are not within the AAPI community will stop caring about it because it’s not trendy anymore to be talking about it.” 

She continued, “The biggest hope is that it continues to stay in peoples’ minds and the struggle of the Asian American community continues to be a part of the larger conversation.”

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