Featured image: Christie Soper and Tina Firesheets (photo by Perfecta Visuals)
A few weeks ago, Anthony Chow learned that his brother was attacked in California while he was stopped at a traffic light.
“He’s a professor at Stanford and he’s driving, and he gets attacked in the middle of the street,” Chow said. “This guy comes and tries to stomp on his windshield.”
Chow said that his brother called the police but that they didn’t log the incident as a hate crime because there was no evidence of racialized motivation. But Chow doesn’t buy it.
“Out of all of the cars in the lanes, he picked my brother’s,” he said.
According to the organization Stop AAPI Hate, there have been close to 3,800 reported incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States from mid-March 2020 through February 2021. While verbal harassment makes up most of those incidents at 68 percent, the most visible attacks in the past year have been physical in nature such as the shootings in Atlanta that took the lives of six Asian women and the attack in New York City in which a man repeatedly kicked a 65-year-old Filipino woman in broad daylight. In that incident three men, including a security guard in the lobby of a nearby luxury apartment building, stood by as they watched and did nothing.
An analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism by California State University from March found that as hate crimes decreased by 7 percent overall in 2020, those targeting Asians rose by nearly 150 percent. According to data by Stop AAPI Hate, the attacks range in location, gender and targeted ethnic group as well.
“Racism knows no status,” said Chow. “No accomplishments. No matter what you accomplish in life, you cannot avoid it.”
Combatting anti-Asian racism in higher education and beyond
Now, Chow is using his role at UNCG as an associate professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies and as the chair of the faculty senate to create an Asian caucus across the UNC system. As of this past week, Chow said that they have had 98 people sign up across 10 institutions. No representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill or UNC-Charlotte have signed up yet, but Chow said he anticipates that number to double in no time.
“I sent out an email to all of the faculty senate chairs at the UNC system schools and asked them if they think it’s a good idea to form an Asian caucus,” he said. “And the answer has been, unequivocally, yes.”
Chow, a Chinese American, grew up in Florida and has lived in Greensboro for about 15 years. As a child, Chow says he faced all kinds of racism, despite being tall, athletic and a star student.
In fourth grade, a classmate called him “eggroll.” In high school at a basketball camp, he was called “Jap” and “chink.” And that hasn’t really ever stopped, he says.
“Every two years or so, something will happen,” he said. “Like out of the blue, someone will call me ‘chink.’”
Tiffany Lam-Balfour, a Chinese-American woman who was raised in Greensboro, says that when rumors of the pandemic were first circulating in February of last year, she began experiencing microaggressions at work. When her assistant got sick, Lam-Balfour says she was blamed because she had experienced a 24-hour stomach bug a little while before.
“This coworker sprayed Lysol in my direction,” she said. “And then I started thinking, Is this because of the pandemic?”
A few months later, one of Lam-Balfour’s neighbors was talking to her friend about the community HOA and referred to Lam-Balfour as a “Chinese bitch,” not knowing that her friend would later relay the remark to her.
“I don’t even know how this person knew I was Chinese,” she said. “But the venom of calling me a bitch when you don’t even know me — it’s just really upsetting.”
According to Stop AAPI Hate data, businesses are the most frequent sites of discrimination at 35 percent. Public streets and parks are the next most common.
That’s one of the reasons why Chow is passionate about creating an Asian caucus for the higher education system. He says that understanding racism within the workplace is key.
The goals of creating the caucus are threefold, he explains. One is to let Asian colleagues know that there is a support system. The caucus will also work to educate one another and the broader community about the unique challenges facing the Asian community.
While Chow is collecting stories from Asian colleagues across the higher-education system, two local women are working on compiling the experiences of Asians locally.
Christie Soper and Tina Firesheets are unveiling a new project called PAVE NC which seeks to raise awareness about the Asian community by sharing personal narratives as well as community resources.
“The recent attacks were definitely a springboard for this, but I think more than anything, our hope is to make ourselves more visible and make our stories more visible and to serve as a bridge-builder,” said Firesheets, who is a Korean adoptee.
Soper says that much of the publicity has been focused on the hate crimes and the negativity around the attacks, but she and Firesheets want to share stories of success and joy as well.
“In my opinion, the Asian-American community is complicit in being pretty invisible and not always being vocal,” Soper said. “Some of that is cultural but it became very important last year to combat that, to start leading a dialogue and to have conversations about what it means to be Asian American really.”
Part of what Soper, Firesheets and Chow are combatting as East Asians is the insidious concept of the “model minority” which arose in the mid-1960s as a way to cast Asians, particularly Chinese and Japanese Americans as the hardworking and ethical, “good” minorities compared to Black and Latinx Americans. The myth caused a rift between many Asian and Black and Latinx communities, seen most notably during the clash between Korean Americans and the Black community during the LA riots in the 1990s. But repercussions of that rift can still be seen today.
How the model-minority myth creates a rift between communities and renders Asians invisible
Chow says some of the most racialized hate that has been directed at him over the years has unfortunately come from Black individuals. A few years ago, Chow says his son was also targeted by a Black student who bullied him daily in elementary school. In a way, Chow says, it’s understandable when the complicated history between Black and Asian communities is coupled with the continued harassment and racism that Black people face on a daily basis.
“If you’re not being treated very well, it is easy to turn around and treat others poorly, especially if they are a bigger minority group than you are,” he said. “And Asians can be easy targets.”
In the New York incident, Brandon Elliot, a Black man, was the perpetrator who beat Vilma Kari after stating that “she didn’t belong here.”
And that’s a problem that the larger community has to face, Chow said.
“We have to address the elephant in the room,” he said. “It’s not unilateral by any means but it seems to be a problem. I think the answer is solidarity and education…. That’s the only way to move forward.”
The model minority myth also acts as a double-edged sword by rendering Asians invisible, Chow argues.
“My identity was wrapped up in success,” Chow said. “If I’m doing well, it’s because I’m a model minority, and not because I’m working hard.”
That kind of thinking leads to the erasure of Asian-American identities, says Soper who is both Korean and white.
“It can be a lonely life to be Asian American,” she said. “There are days when you are proud but some days where it’s hard.”
That can lend itself to staying quiet when people have been harmed, Lam-Balfour says.
“A lot of Asian people are inclined to not speak out and not rock the board,” she said. “That’s how my parents taught me to be.”
To combat that invisibility, Soper and Firesheets are collecting personal stories from Asians in the community to share on a forthcoming website and social media platforms. Their goal is to create high-quality content with professional photography and offer it to local businesses and organizations for free so the stories have a wider reach. For the month of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, they plan to share stories weekly. For the first batch of stories, they reached out to local friends and family but they hope that the project catches on and can eventually encompass the whole state. Eventually, they want to create resources that list local Asian-owned businesses and organizations as well.
According to Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans recorded the fastest population growth rate among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States between 2000 and 2019. That same growth is reflected at the state level, which shows that the Asian American population has increased by 175 percent in the last 19 years in North Carolina.
However, despite the rapid growth of the overall community, the Asian American diaspora is varied and broad, encompassing dozens of nationalities and languages. Because of that, Soper and Firesheets say they plan to incorporate the viewpoints of all Asians including those of Southeast Asian descent, the Montagnard community and those from the LGBTQ+ community.
“We need to create unity in the voice,” Soper said.
The time of being invisible is over, Chow says.
“We’ve remained quiet too long,” he said. “The consistent idea is that when shit hits the fan, we just keep going. Instead of trying to attack racism, we just keep going. But we need to hit this directly.”
Learn more about PAVE NC by reaching out to [email protected] and by following them on social media @pavenc. They will also roll out their website, pavenc.org, on May 1. To learn more about the UNC system’s Asian caucus, visit apicunc.org.