Student organizers said they hope their demonstration at Baylor University on Tuesday evening draws attention to anti-Asian racism against one of their fellow students, a historic spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020 and the way racism against them can be overlooked.
A crowd more than 100 students, faculty, staff and administrators met up to march for an Asian American Baylor student who was assaulted near campus last week after a passerby yelled slurs at him. Co-organizer Josie Pooler, a sophomore studying social work, said she had experienced racism on- and off-campus long before the COVID-19 pandemic spurred more crimes targeting Asian Americans throughout the country.
“We have been scapegoated and blamed for this issue that is not our fault and has been detrimental to our community,” Pooler said.
Pooler, who is Chinese American, said when she was a Midway Independent School District student it was common for classmates to make jokes about her eating her pets, and she has heard plenty of slurs. She said on the Baylor campus, a student once told her to her face that she was a “walking fetish” because of her race and height.
“Having to defend my own humanity, my own personhood, is extremely difficult,” Pooler said. “Having to assert that I matter, that my presence matters along with all of yours and this community I care about.”
Co-organizer Nicole Ma, a 20-year-old junior studying psychology and economics, said as a Chinese American student she hopes the march will spur more action from the university’s administration to protect students but that she does not want to disparage the work the administration has done in those areas.
Baylor President Linda Livingstone, Provost Nancy Brickhouse and Student Life Vice President Kevin Jackson attended and listened to students speak about their firsthand experiences with racism.
During an interview before the march, Ma said Asian American students will be able to bring issues to university officials’ attention that they might not otherwise see and she wants the march to be the start of a conversation.
“Many people think, because of the model minority myth, that we don’t experience racism or discrimination. … But I think it’s so important to bring awareness to the things that have been happening to our Asian community so we can also help uplift even more our other ethnic brothers and sisters from different communities as well.”
Ma cited an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, based at California State University-San Bernardino that revealed hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by at least 150% from 2019 to 2020.
“I think media often portrays Asian Americans, or just Asian people, as sort of a model minority,” Ma said. “It really pits us against our other brothers and sisters of color, and who are marginalized and who are discriminated against.”
Ma said diversity was just a fact of life where she grew up in Houston. When she was younger she believed that “colorblind” was the fairest way to look at the world.
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she signed up for associate professor Jonathan Tran’s class called “race, religion, reconciliation.” Then the pandemic struck, followed by a summer full of Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country, and she soon decided talking about race was the only way forward.
“(I’m) seeing how the world that I thought I grew up in was different than I had imagined it in my head,” Ma said. “I thought we were so much ahead of where we are right now.”
She watched elected officials, including then-President Donald Trump, use slurs to refer to the virus at a time when Asian Americans were being attacked on the street by people who justified their attacks by claiming their victims were to blame for the pandemic.
She said diversity training is not enough, and adding classes that cover Asian cultures and languages at higher levels would help.
“So that way when someone takes a literature class, it’s not seven modules on Edgar Allan Poe and one on the Asian experience, told in a very stereotypical way,” Ma said.
Tran, an associate professor of philosophical theology, was among the people who spoke before the group marched. He said as an Asian American professor it was the most visible he had felt as an Asian American on campus. He said stereotypes that are seen as “positive,” like the idea that Asian Americans all have access to great educations, can both hurt and isolate.
“Many generations of Asian American students in Baylor’s history have lived lives that have been largely rendered invisible, erased, because they’re not seen as mattering, but also because America has such a limited capacity to take in the racism of what it does to Black folks, to indigenous folks, to Latinx folks” Tran said. “It’s almost too much to ask people to see the full story of America.”
He said the attack against a student last week was just the latest in a long list of racist actions against Asian Americans, listing several recent high-profile attacks, some of which were deadly, along with racist policies, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Roosevelt used to incarcerate Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.
The student hit last week has remained anonymous, but Waco police are investigating the incident. The student old the Baylor Lariat student newspaper he was walking in a residential area near campus when the driver of a pickup yelled racial slurs toward him and he responded “What did you say?” A group of four men then got out of the truck and argued with the student before one of the men hit him in the face, the told the Lariat.