Anti-Asian violence scares UI community
April 22, 2021
A young Asian American individual sat on a bench outside of the Beckman Institute, searching for the words to describe the fear and sadness they felt when thinking about the Atlanta Spa Shootings.
Their partner extended their hand to offer support. Ham Gadel, a Champaign-Urbana community member, accepted the offering with gratitude and began to speak.
“It’s really scary,” Gadel said. “In a way it’s not surprising, but it’s just really terrifying to know that it can get to this level and go beyond microaggressions and harassments, even though it’s something that’s been real for me for a long time.”
Eun Jeong Cha, assistant professor in Engineering, said it’s unusual for Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals to share their feelings due to a traditional culture of modesty.
“It’s not very common to express this kind of vulnerability in the Asian culture unless you’re in a very, very comfortable situation,” Jeong Cha said. “It’s very difficult to talk about now.”
However, the increase in anti-Asian sentiments and violence have escalated emotions, making people feel as if they can no longer stay silent. This is largely true for the AAPI community on campus.
Lily Greenberg, an Asian-American freshman in Education, said as she sees elderly Asian people beaten or murdered on the news, she fears for the safety of her family.
“When I see a lot of the crimes being targeted at elderly Asian people, I’m thinking of all my family members and especially the ones that live in Chicago who are walking around the city where anyone can come up and do something to them,” Greenberg said.
“It’s weird to have that fear that at any moment the next victim on the news could be someone I know or someone related to me.”
This fear for family members living in large cities is overwhelmingly present among AAPI students on campus. Kathy Tran, senior in AHS and member of the Vietnamese Student Association, said she is scared of her parents getting hurt.
“I get worried about my parents because they live in Chicago,” Tran said. “I’m just a little worried because they’re older and my mom works at a nail salon.”
Tran said it’s particularly scary for her because she feels as if violence toward Asian-Americans could follow her parents anywhere they go.
“It’s also scary because my dad and I were talking about places where my parents could retire and we were talking about Atlanta, Georgia,” Tran said. “And the day after was the shooting in Atlanta, so it was just scary to see that happen especially right after we talked about them retiring there.”
Tran said she is worried for her own safety as well. When she goes out in public, which isn’t much due to COVID-19, she said she feels as if she has a target on her back because of her race.
“When I went to go get my vaccine, I went to the Walgreens off campus and when I was trying to cross the street, this dude looked me up and down,” Tran said. “It was a little nerve-racking because I didn’t know what they were thinking. I always expect the worst so I started walking as fast as possible to get away from him.”
Saramaya Huynh, junior in AHS and Asian American Association Executive Board member, shared this fear.
“I saw an article about a 19 year-old being shot in the eye,” Huynh said. “She was in the city in her car. And it’s like, it’s just very traumatizing to think that could be yourself. Whenever I’m out, I walk really fast. Whenever someone’s right behind me, I get really anxious. So then I have my keychains out, just in case.”
About 40% of the total student population are students that represent the Asian American and Asian international community, according to the Asian American Cultural Center.
Greenberg said she feels safer on campus than she does in her hometown, Evanston, Illinois, due to the large AAPI presence.
“For me personally, when I’m just walking around on campus, I’m not scared,” Greenberg said. “I feel as if it’s different on a college campus especially because on our campus there are a lot of Asian people, so I feel like I’m able to feel a sense of comfort that people around me aren’t trying to harm me – hopefully.”
Many professors at the University said they understand the emotional trauma AAPI students are facing.
Helen Nguyen, associate professor in Engineering, said she and her colleagues hosted a vigil for the victims of the Atlanta Spa Shootings to provide their students with a safe place to gather in solidarity and share their thoughts.
“We want to show the students that they are not alone because I know that they are scared, that they are concerned, they don’t know who to talk to,” Nguyen said.
In addition to helping students, Tina Horton, teaching assistant in LAS, said professors are trying to get in tune with their own emotions.
“All of the TA’s and professors have taken a moment to say, ‘If you need to talk, we’re here,’” Horton said. “But we’re also trying to make sense of what’s going on and process it ourselves.”
Many professors at the University assert that this violence isn’t happening for the first time.
“This is nothing new,” said Soo Ah Kwon, director of the Asian American Studies Department. “Anti-Asian violence has a long history in American history and experience.”
A. Naomi Paik, associate professor in LAS, said the recent uptick in violence towards the AAPI population in the U.S. can be attributed to the Trump administration, although she emphasized that many other leaders throughout history are also guilty.
“There’s a lot of white supremacist rhetoric from the previous administration particularly calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘kung-flu’,” Paik said. “I think that speaks to ‘why now?’ But anti-Asian violence has been occuring in the U.S. since Asian people got here.”
Kwon said there are many classes that educate students about the history of anti-Asian racism and violence. However, education systems across the nation are cutting these programs.
“More and more, the humanities have been shrinking and units like ours have been shrunk nationally,” Kwon said.
Leland Taberes, visiting assistant professor in LAS, said it’s vital for a University to have these programs, and appreciates the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s program.
“Asian American studies departments are underrepresented and there is obviously a need for them, especially considering the role that Asian America plays in the formation of America,” Taberes said. “This is so unique and special to be here because there is institutional support for the field that I’m in.”
Many said they feel these classes are important because they allow for students of all races and ethnicities to learn how to communicate and empathize with one another.
Greenberg is half Filipino and half white. She said her white side of the family isn’t capable of having the level of fear the AAPI community has and feels as if this applies to a large portion of white Americans.
“My Dad’s side of the family is white, and I feel like they can obviously empathize and really try to do their part, but they don’t really understand the fear because it’s not their own blood that they’re fearing for,” Greenberg said.
“It would be appreciated if (the University) discussed how students can be better allies to their Asian peers along with backing and promoting things like protests,” Greenberg said. “Even though protests don’t solve everything, it would mean a lot to see more people actually showing up to these events where Asian voices are being amplified.”