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Constance Alexander: Spate of anti-Asian violence underscores need to support greater diversity

As if COVID-19 has not already caused enough upheaval, now — instead of celebrating the flowering of Japanese cornel dogwood as a glorious harbinger of spring — all I see in the clusters of its opulent golden buds is their similarity to images of the virus.

Photographer Kate He, a biologist and a Ph. D., provides a different perspective on the blossoms. “They are signs of hope, renewal, and awakening,” she says, a reminder that nature has its own ways of teaching lessons if we are willing to acknowledge them.

In a recent letter to Murray State University President Bob Jackson and leaders of the MSU community, Dr. He and Dr. Robin Zhang urged university leadership to acknowledge the recent nationwide uptick in anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes and asked for the public denunciation of bigotry and violence against persons of Asian descent or ethnic Asians.

Japanese cornel dogwood flower (Photo by Kate He)

Last week’s tragedy in Georgia, that left eight people dead, six of them Asian women, is just one example. Time magazine reports that since the start of the pandemic last spring, Asian Americans have faced racist violence at a much higher rate than previous years.

The letter has attracted scores of signatures from faculty and staff to demonstrate their solidarity with its message. The same day, President Jackson emailed a response to students, staff, and faculty denouncing “hate and racism in every form,” with a pledge to continue providing “a safe and supportive environment for everyone.”

In addition, the Women’s Faculty Caucus drafted “A Statement in Support of Our AAPI Community,” (AAPI is the acronym for individuals who identify as Asian American/Pacific Islander.)

To explore the range of issues underlying all three communiqués, six MSU faculty agreed to be interviewed about why public affirmations of support are especially relevant to life on campus and in the community in the age of COVID. One of them, Yoko Hatakeyama, admitted that subtle discrimination was happening even before word of the pandemic began to reach U.S. shores.

“I’m sensitive,” she confessed. “I’m always worried about my English. People are condescending. They treat me like a child. After I speak, they know I am non-native.”

That’s when patronizing attitudes kick in, or when an impatient salesperson calls the manager and complains, “I don’t understand her.”

“I don’t think the statement will change that,” Hatakeyama concluded.

Robin Zhang, who crafted the letter with Kate He and distributed it to other MSU department chairs, explained that being second-generation Asian does not make any difference when people say things like, “You don’t belong here.”

The question, “Where are you from?” can initiate discussions that can range from uncomfortable to confrontational. “When are you going back?” is often the follow-up query.

“Asians are Americans but they are seen as foreigners,” Zhang explained. Rhetoric about the Asian Flu or the so-called “China Virus” just adds to the perception of Asians as “other.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

As a direct result of COVID and kids being schooled at home, Kate He worries about the next generation of AAPI. “I’ve heard they don’t want to go back to school. They prefer to be at home,” she said, referring to their exposure to subtle discrimination and stereotypes at school.

“It’s not just chopsticks,” Jie Wu said.

She realizes that experiences with bias are very individual, and some negative remarks are not necessarily intentional. Sometimes it boils down to ignorance of history and international cultures. “But hate crimes do exist and we need to condemn this behavior,” she said.

According to Diane Nititham, an important message to communicate by signing the letter to MSU leaders is that words matter. “We are invisible in some ways,” she observed. “In the U.S. race is mostly black and white. Those in the middle are left out of the conversation.”

The underlying message of invisibility translates to, “You don’t count enough.”

While walking her dog and steering her baby’s stroller during quarantine, Nititham waved to a woman in her car and the two made eye contact. An instant later, the same car and same woman seemed to be heading toward her. “We had to throw ourselves on the grass. There was no effort from her to move,” she recalled, adding that this frightening act occurred within a half-mile of her home.

In drafting the letter of support from the Women’s Faculty Caucus, Antje Gamble commented, “Systemic changes are needed on campus and off.”

With university leadership almost exclusively the realm of white males, the need for increased diversity is obvious. Moreover, the role of education in reducing bias and bigotry becomes increasingly important.

Rather than focus on individuals’ stories, the Women’s Faculty Caucus takes a more rational approach. “We want to keep data-focused. That is one of our strategies,” Gamble declared. “To keep it data-driven.”

Lessons learned from science are crucial. As Kate He explained, “All flowers stem from the same branch in terms of the family tree.”

In other words, we are one race, the human race.

An article by Vivian Chou, “How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century is online at sitn.hms.harvard.edu.

Academy of American Poets provides creative resources to aid in grieving the loss of lives in Atlanta last week, including poems by AAPI poets at poets.org.

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