Universities brace for another wave of anti-Asian attacks

Concerns over international recruitment as need for better communication emphasised

April 14, 2021
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Attacks against those of Asian descent have intensified on and around campuses in Western countries, a year after experts first warned against rising xenophobia linking or blaming certain populations for the Covid pandemic.

University leaders called a mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, in March – in which six of the eight victims were Asian women – a “turning point” for broader awareness about discrimination. Higher education institutions have set up hotlines and task forces to combat the problem, and are addressing anti-Asian bias in their research, communications and public outreach.

Dan Mogulof, assistant vice-chancellor for executive communications at the University of California, Berkeley, told Times Higher Education that student orientation and campus communications were addressing the issue. “The first step is to acknowledge that anti-Asian discrimination, bias and violence exist,” he said.

Regarding the impact on international students, he said “we will – as we always have – continue to do everything in our power to ensure they feel – and are – safe, respected and welcome”.

While rising xenophobia puts all Asian communities at risk – both domestic and foreign – it may act as yet one more deterrent to international students already kept away by Covid, visa delays and other political tensions.

Yingyi Ma, a sociologist at Syracuse University and author of Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, told THE that “Chinese students and their parents are definitely concerned about recent attacks against Asians in the US and other Western countries. They may definitely consider this as part of their concerns over safety issues in their deliberations of studying abroad.”

“There is fear of being Chinese in the United States,” William Kirby, a China studies professor at Harvard University, said at a THE Live US event about international student recruitment. “Anti-Asian racialism has been stoked politically and exists in the public domain. It comes at a serious cost.”

Frank Wu, president of CUNY Queens College, told THE that “this is affecting our community”, referring to a student body of 139 nationalities. “Our students can be assured that providing an atmosphere of inclusivity and respectfulness is among our highest priorities,” he said.

He called the recent attacks “the culmination of a year of violence that forms a pattern. Asian-Americans are scared to leave their homes, not because of fear of catching a disease but being blamed for the pandemic.”

“Asians abroad, many Asian exchange students and even some Asian immigrants recently arrived are doubting their choice: for them, the allure of America is vanishing,” he wrote recently. 

Attacks could also deter scholars from the UK. Peng Wang, a business lecturer at the University of Southampton, posted photos of himself bleeding from the nose and mouth after he was beaten by four white men. Dr Wang was jogging when his assailants yelled racist slurs and attacked him.

He told the BBC after the attack in February that if the “hostile environment” did not improve, he might consider returning to his native country.

Dr Wang told THE that some of his Asian students had expressed concern about “how their safety can be guaranteed” if they travelled to the UK.  

“Better education is urgently needed”, he said, as most attacks happened outside campus and that “most racist people don’t know that what they’ve done is a criminal offence”. Southampton said that it would launch a new tool for students and staff to report harassment, bullying or hate crime.

Canada has also been affected. Less than two weeks after the Atlanta killings, an Asian student at the University of British Columbia was assaulted near her workplace. Her assailant used a racist term before punching her in the head and abdomen, the police said.

Santa Ono, UBC’s president, told THE that he was “horrified to hear of the reported racist and misogynistic attack in the neighbourhood adjacent to UBC”.

“It is important to recognise that this is not just one incident. It follows the very recent tragedy of senseless violence in Atlanta, Georgia. These are flashpoints that connect to long-standing historical issues in Canada,” he said. “The more recent wave of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence amplified by Covid-19 is the latest in a long history of racism.”

He added that the university must “engage on this crucial issue beyond our community.” UBC recently announced a new anti-racism and inclusive excellence task force and will be holding an online forum in June.

Professor Ono also emphasised the need for greater research in this area. “There are many scholars who work tirelessly at our institution to combat forms of anti-Asian discrimination daily through their research and teaching,” he said.

Christine Yano, former president of the Association for Asia Studies (AAS) and a professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, told THE that “examining the sources of racism is important historically, as well as now”.

“The race issue in the United States is typically framed as a black-white problem. But as anti-Asian violence gains more media attention, people will recognise the very real problems inherent in racism that affects other groups, such as Asians,” she said.

The AAS said in a statement that “the politicisation of Covid-19, such as mocking references to China or Wuhan, has further inflamed anti-AAPI [Asian-American and Pacific Islander] sentiments, legitimating the belief that all members of AAPI communities can be reduced to virus carriers and not treated as human beings”.

study by Stop AAPI Hate recorded 3,795 incidents of discrimination in the US alone, in the year up to February 2021. About 95 of those incidents happened at a university.


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