Steffany Yang logged onto her computer on Wednesday, April 14, 2020. As a senator for the College of Engineering, she expected this Senate meeting to commence as usual on Zoom after the University of Nevada, Reno administration closed campus for the remainder of the spring semester.
While proposing a motion for legislation, a man interrupted Yang yelling at her to “shut the f*** up ch***” before flashing his nipple towards the camera. The attendants’ eyes grew wide, some jaws dropped in shock, and there was silence as everyone tried to process what had just occurred.
Yang recalled that she continued to read aloud the motion after the interruption, not knowing how to feel and unable to fully process what had just happened. Her phone flashed repeatedly as a flood of text messages from other senators and meeting attendees checked in to see if she was okay.
“That’s when I started to process what had just happened and had to turn off my video camera because I started to become emotional,” Yang said.
Yang is one of several Asian-identifying individuals who have dealt with harassment in the United States after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. At the University of Nevada, Reno, the Hate and Bias report showed at least three reported incidents of anti-Asian hate on campus. The university has 9.4 percent of the student population and 11 percent total faculty population who identify as Asian.
However, this isn’t just happening here. The incidents at the university’s campus are part of a nationwide increase of anti-Asian incidents over the past few years.
A report by the Asian American Bar Association found anti-Asian hate incidents increased dramatically in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and surged after the election of former President Donald Trump. The report found 2,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents related to COVID-19 between March and September 2020 in New York City.
Dr. Eloisa Gordon-Mora, the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer, said the identity of the perpetrator involved with interrupting Yang was not found despite the efforts to identify them.
“The ASUN Zoom bomb was probably the most extreme situation that happened to me ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started,” Yang said. “Although I have not been personally victimized ever since that situation, I have felt a sense of prejudice and distrust from U.S. society towards the Asian community, at large.”
Yang said she feels people from the Asian community who are not as assimilated into U.S. customs as she is—such as her parents who can be easily identified as “foreign”, are more subjected to be treated differently and with prejudice.
As a Chinese-Indonesian immigrant, Yang said she learned from a very young age that America is not a friendly place for people of color and minorities.
“Over the past year, I have witnessed countless events of egregious racial violence—especially towards the Black community as well as the Asian community—and I am disheartened,” Yang said. “I believe my white counterparts are less targeted because, essentially, America was systemically built off of racism and white supremacy—and we are all still living in the effects.”
Yang said that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an uprise in racial violence towards the Asian community. She believes that the university should help the community spread awareness about anti-Asian incidents.
“As an academic institution, the university should commit to educating [students, faculty and staff] on anti-racism and providing proper support resources,” Yang said. “The ‘support resources’ I’m referring to should extend beyond just our multicultural center … as it should be a university-wide effort.”
Yang still believes that her identity has affected her life at the university in a positive manner as she takes great pride in being an immigrant.
“I’d like to think that people who think Asians are the cause of this pandemic don’t have true ill-intentions, rather they have not been … educated on the true science-based, objective subject matter,” Yang said. “Therefore, I would point to resources that would help educate and spread awareness about the cause of this pandemic. I would also add how calling COVID-19 a ‘Chinese virus’ is wrong, dangerous, and stems from xenophobia.”
Dr. Xiaoyu Pu is a Chinese associate professor of political science whose research interests involve Chinese politics, East Asian politics, international relations and emerging world powers. He said although he has not experienced racism on campus before, it’s still a problem.
“I believe most Americans have common sense, and they are not blaming Asian people for the pandemic,” Pu said. “But racism is still a problem in some corners of the American society. Whenever there is a crisis, some people might scapegoat a particular minority for the problem.”
He said that during the 2020 presidential campaigns, some politicians used inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric to describe COVID-19, which may have caused hostility with China.
“To fight against such a problem, the Biden Administration has recently issued a new memorandum ‘condemning and combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance Against Asian Americans’,” Pu said.
Olivia Ngo, a freshman running for ASUN senator position for the College of Liberal Arts, said she assimilated to Western culture such as learning the language and cultural norms in Reno.
“When I started attending public school, I began to lose interest in my heritage because most of my classmates didn’t look like me, and I didn’t have resources in school for me to truly understand my identity,” Ngo said.
She felt that participating in Chinese cultural dance lessons helped her reconnect with her cultural identity.
“Although I differ from my other marginalized friends, being Asian American has helped me better understand the struggles of others and prioritize growth within myself and my community,” Ngo said. “Both my parents are immigrants and work [two] jobs to support our family. I knew from a young age that I wanted to attend college and take advantage of opportunities that they’ve sacrificed so much for me to have. Because of that, I am very driven to succeed and also advocate for diverse voices.”
Ngo has experienced racism on campus before, but did not want to disclose any specific events.
“I will say it was extremely scary to discuss the issue with a faculty member, even one I trusted, because of the lack of Asian peers within my classes themselves, and I was worried I would simply be dismissed,” Ngo said. “I’m grateful that this wasn’t the case, and I hope that we continue to evaluate our [diversity, equity and inclusion] practices, especially in such a critically-literate college as the Liberal Arts.”
Ngo said she feels angry because she has not seen any major media coverage on anti-Asian hate crimes and how that lack of coverage has made her family members feel unsafe.
“When my mom heard about the hate crimes, she took down some traditional Asian decorations on our front door because she was afraid of being targeted,” Ngo said. “Part of me wanted to tell her that the rumors she heard weren’t true and that she shouldn’t have to worry about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that because it simply wasn’t the case.”
She feels the university should be doing more for Asian students, such as advocacy and financial aid.
“The university should speak out against recent hate crimes and other issues affecting Asian-Americans,” Ngo said. “We have long been burdened by the model minority myth, which trivializes the diverse Asian-American experience. We need people who claim to be our allies to hear our stories, believe us, and truly listen, not to eventually get defensive, but to educate themselves on the reality that Asian-Americans live through.”
Jiego Lim, a student at the university, said the term Asian-American doesn’t resonate with him since he was not born in this country or naturalized as a citizen.
“Throughout my 10 years being in the United States I have felt ‘Americanized’, so the term Americanized Asian would probably be most appropriate,” Lim said. “My identity of being Asian means everything to me, this race is what raised me as a child. My identity is comprised of Asian practices, cultures, and traditions that have shaped me to the person I am today.”
Lim said prior to COVID-19, he didn’t “have it [as] bad” as other minority communities on campus, aside from microaggressions and stereotypes. After the pandemic, however, he recalls noticing more stares, distance and generalizations.
“Coming to the United States at a young age not knowing the language, the culture, and everything else in between is when I faced many challenges pertaining to my race and identity in the American society, despite it being hard and mentally draining I dealt with these struggles, but what got harder after COVID-19 is to witness my family go through this, especially my mom who continued to work throughout this pandemic,” Lim said. “Both my parents are not fluent in English so it is difficult to entirely express their feelings in the workplace, which again is painful for me.”
Lim believes the university needs to change.
“Throughout my time at the university I’ve made plenty of mistakes, many I’m not proud of but as I turn those mistakes into my drive to do better and be better I have realized that the best thing I can do is listen,” Lim said. “Many people in this university, many of them being white, try so hard in the name of diversity and inclusion, but they always forget to listen.”
He wants the university to listen to students, faculty and staff.
“Don’t take someone’s struggles and turn it into your chance to be praised and commended for being a white savior,” Lim said. “Involve these students and faculty in deciding how to best address these issues and to make sure they are of an equitable shot as anyone and everyone in this university.”
Gordon-Mora said that after the pandemic, one of the first focuses of the newly-formed Diversity and Inclusion office was consciousness-raising on the onslaught of hate and xenophobia directed against Asian groups.
“In terms of our university, we have been documenting the post-COVID impacts, beyond immediate health issues, including impacts of hate and biases, through the university-wide COVID-19 and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Survey we carried out last semester with all groups: students, faculty and staff; we have regularly been updating the information on our site and through our communication work with MarCom to reach broad social media outlets …” Gordon-Mora said.
She also said the university initiated a broad educational series called “Dialogue, Equity and Democracy” which began in February and will be giving more specific focus to the diverse needs and issues of different populations.
“Our Asian population is a principal sector of our university community. However, and similar to Latinx groups, we need to develop more differentiated and ongoing understandings of the complexities of such an incredibly rich and varied group—by national origin, languages, immigration status, religion, and other,” Gordon-Mora said.
She believes this is the direction that the university is continuing in. In addition, they are partnering with different organizations on campus which includes: The Center, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Center for Student Engagement, ASUN and the Graduate Student Association.
ASUN’s Director of the Department of Diversity & Inclusion Priya Bajwa said ASUN has taken several safety measures on Zoom, such as only sharing the Zoom link to people who directly reach out to the director or coordinator of any public meetings since the incident.
“I believe that Asian cultures in the past have often only been openly represented in collective events hosted by ASUN, such as Night of All Nations, in which the students themselves represent their culture,” Bajwa said.
Bajwa said she wants to expand outreach and ensure that ASUN takes the initiative as seen with their Cultural Appropriation campaign last week and their upcoming Proud to be Asian & Pacific Islander at Nevada campaign in April.
The Proud to be Asian and Pacific Islander campaign will feature social media highlights on students who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander and then hold a town hall where they will act as student panelists. Bajwa encourages faculty and students to attend and listen.
“In the age of COVID, many initiatives and events have had to transition to virtual platforms, putting a larger emphasis on social media outreach than ever before,” Bajwa said. “Thus, I think we need to utilize this tool and continue to host virtual events and campaigns that have the power to reach expansive audiences for education and awareness on current issues.”
Taylor Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @taylorkendyll.