“If you could choose one word to describe how you’re feeling right now, what would it be?” asked a moderator during one of the breakout rooms in the second portion of last Thursday’s event. 

“Scared,” said one person. “I’m enraged,” said another. “I’m just really … tired,” said a third. 

In response to the recent increase in anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States, the Brandeis Asian American Students Association and the Intercultural Center hosted a virtual event called “Anti-Asian Racism and Envisioning Safety in our Communities” on March 18. The murder of eight individuals, six of whom were Asian women, in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16 was one of the recent occurrences that prompted this event. 

330 people attended BAASA’s virtual event. According to their Instagram, the theme of a five-event series in celebration of Asian Pacific and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was “Power Through Peril.” This theme “aim[ed] to draw attention to moments of Black and Asian solidarity and envision paths towards healing and justice within our communities.” Other events sponsored by BAASA as part of the series included a talk and Q&A with YouTuber and actor Mike Bow, a screening of “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice” (1993), a poetry reading and Q&A with Kimiko Han and a performance and Q&A with singer Mxmtoon.

The “Anti-Asian Racism and Envisioning Safety in our Communities” event discussed the history, causes and current climate of anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States. The organizers also discussed next steps for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Vice President of Student Affairs Raymond Ou began the event with a personal statement. He shared his story of immigrating from Taiwan to North Carolina at nine years old, an experience that has had a lasting impact on his life, he said. While noting that his personal experiences are important, he said that the event was about a much broader issue, remarking that members of the Asian American community must acknowledge, grieve and discuss concrete steps toward safety for the community. 

The co-presidents of BAASA — Juliana Hyojoo An ’21, Ellie Tang Kleiman ’21 and Heather Choe ’22 — and APAHM coordinators Elizabeth Gong ’23 and Grace Wang ’23 , led the virtual presentation. Kleiman prefaced the presentation by emphasizing that the event sought to create a meaningful and healing space for the Asian community, as well as her hopes for everyone to leave the event having learned something.

Kleiman explained that “more than 2,100 anti-Asian violent incidents have been reported across the U.S. between March and June 2020.” Further, she highlighted some of the recent attacks that have occurred across the country, noting that elderly Asians have experienced an increasing number of attacks. Kleiman described a recent attack that occurred in Quincy, Massachusetts, where two elderly Asian residents were robbed, leaving one seriously injured.

When speaking about violence targeting Asian American communities, the presenters identified two distinct forms of it: interpersonal and structural/systemic. The presentation included a tweet by award-winning poet and activist Terisa Siagatonu. The tweet described structural and systemic violence such as “poverty, houselessness, and unemployment.” One of the structural types of violence that was discussed involves carceral institutions, institutions related to police, prisons and the military. Siagatonu shared in her tweet that reliance on these carceral systems must be rethought: “We cannot rely on the same systems that oppress us to protect us.” 

Another example of structural and systemic violence is seen with the impact of COVID-19 on Asian American communities. A study shown in the presentation reported that Chinese and South Asian people living in New York City have some of the highest COVID-19 death rates when compared to other racial groups. While higher rates of certain health conditions (asthma, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure) contribute to Asian Americans' high-risk status, there are also structural inequalities that contribute to the high COVID-19 death rate, including housing and food insecurity, redlining and working class frontline jobs, per the presentation. 

The event’s focus turned to the history of anti-Asian and Pacific Islander violence in the United States. In the 1800s, increasingly large waves of Asian immigrants immigrated to the United States, with many working on the railroads in California due to the need for cheap labor. Connections between Chinese immigrants and cheap labor caused many Americans to perceive them as a threat to the established societal and employment norms at the time. This resulted in the idea of yellow peril, defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the belief of “a danger to Western civilization from the expansion of the power and influence of eastern Asian peoples” Hyojoo Ann said that “the idea and effects of yellow peril are tied to the events that happened in Atlanta on Tuesday.” Clarifying that this event did not have the space to provide an entire history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, the presenters shared what they believe to be some of the most important parts.

The second half of the presentation gave individuals impacted by anti-Asian violence and discrimination an opportunity to share their experiences. The hosts created breakout rooms to provide a safe space for healing and community building and for those impacted to discuss their feelings and opinions.

In an email sent to attendees after the event, the BAASA co-presidents mentioned that the event was altered in response to the killings in Atlanta in recognition of an immediate need for a communal outlet. In fact, the email stated that the choice to reconstruct the format of their presentation in part stemmed from the fact that the University administration did not organize such a space quickly enough in reaction to the events of March 16. 

Although BAASA noted their appreciation of the direction and promotion of their event from President Ron Liebowitz and Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas’s email, they did not receive any support or considerable check-in from the administration. This made it difficult to solidify security for the event, raising questions for the organizers of the event about the administration's role in supporting its students of color.   

This year, the news cycle has flooded people with stories of tragedy, which has taken an emotional toll on many students. BAASA and other student cultural organizations have been an available outlet for many students of color to join together in celebration, conversation, pride and advocacy.  

(Check out the link in BAASA’s Instagram bio that provides resources on BAASA’s Action Steps, readings on Asian racism and Black-Asian solidarities and reflections by the BAASA co-presidents on the “Anti-Asian Racism and Envisioning Safety in our Communities” event.)

Editor's note: BAASA didn't end up holding the Yuri Kochiyama event, but the film is available for free on their linked resource list. Article revised on Mar. 25 following communication with BAASA over Instagram direct message.