Smile Politely

On anti-Asian racism in C-U

Anti-Asian racism has been amplified by the pandemic. It was becoming evident here in Champaign-Urbana early as February of 2020, and it has been aggravated by the words carelessly, yet specifically used by Republican leaders. Our community has a history of anti-Asian racism, rooted in our country’s history of mistreating Asian Americans, so it’s on all of us to recognize it, to learn from and listen to those experiencing it, and push back against it.

In 2014, then-University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, a Chinese American, did not cancel classes for extreme cold. In response, students took to Twitter with racist and sexist tirades. One tweet referred to Wise as the “Kim Jong Un of chancellors.” Caleb Curtiss tied the incident to our culture of racial complacency at the U of I, which in addition to Asian students, attracts a share of privileged, white, upper middle class students: 

“The students who Tweeted sexist and racist things about Chancellor Wise rely on a different sort of power. Theirs comes from a culture that supports their feelings of exceptionalism and privilege — one that assures them of their racial superiority on a daily basis. In attacking Wise, they are enacting a very old narrative that states their superiority regardless of social rank, thus pejorating Chancellor Wise and all other minorities in the process.”

Wise’s situation was not an isolated incident. Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen has a history of racism against Chinese students before he was investigated by the Illinois Attorney General for possibly violating state discrimination law after he ran an ad claiming “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our busses.” 

The most egregious and horrific instance of anti-Asian hate was the brutal murder of Yingying Zhang. Zhang, a scholar and researcher from China, was disappeared by a white, male U of I student.

While these are well-known and well-publicized occurrences, they are representative of not just our culture here in C-U, but our willingness to tolerate anti-Asian racism as a community and society. The U of I is composed of thousands of students of Asian descent, including 4,000 Chinese students and 600 South Korean students. In this Inside Higher Ed article from 2015, a Korean American student describes microaggressions she’s experienced: 

“More worrisomely, Grace Kwon, a senior creative writing major from the Chicago suburbs, tells me that she has witnessed ‘some very inappropriate or offensive mannerisms’ toward international students. She has friends who aren’t international – they’re Asian American – but they’ve heard pointed comments on the street like ‘the library’s that way’ (a statement that presumably rests on the stereotype of Asians as studious). Kwon, who is Korean American, says she’s been called the slur ‘Ching Chong.’”

It should be noted that Chinese students are heavily recruited to the U of I, and their tuition dollars are so important that in 2017, a fear of losing that revenue due to politics or pandemic led Grainger College of Engineering and Gies College of Business to buy “insurance worth up to $61 million to protect the university against such losses, including $36 million due to a pandemic.” We must show through actions that the lives of those of Asian descent matter beyond empty celebrations of our community’s diversity and tolerance and a reliance on their tuition money. 

We are saddened and horrified by last week’s mass shooting in Georgia, where six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. The killer claimed he was motivated by a “sex addiction”, leading Jay Baker, a spokesperson for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office, to dismiss the actions as the result of this young man’s “bad day” and an entire narrative eliminating racist motives to develop, without acknowledging how racism and sexism are intertwined, especially for Asian American women

By now, we’ve become accustomed to being utterly disappointed by our representative, but the comments by IL-13 Rep. Rodney Davis following a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes are dangerous and disturbing. After abhorrent comments from Republican TX-21 Rep. Chip Roy, Rep. Davis told a reporter from CNN that there is nothing wrong with using terms like “Kung Flu” and “Chinavirus” to refer to COVID, as the former President and other Republicans have being doing for a year. 

Yes, Rodney “vitriolic rhetoric” Davis doesn’t believe using these derogatory terms have any effect on the lives of Asian Americans, and that suggesting it does is merely “political correctness”. Of course, he quickly went on the defensive, blaming CNN, offering a healthy dose of whataboutism, bringing the narrative back around to centering himself, and overall invoking an “all lives matter” sentiment.

Davis seems to forget (or rather doesn’t really care) that he represents a district that is home to a large university with a significant number of Asian and Asian American students, as well as many individuals and families of Asian descent who live, work, and own businesses in IL-13. 

We are in a moment when those of us who desire to be anti-racism allies are acutely aware of just how egregious the problem is, much like the moment created by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. So, how do we meet the moment? Much like our discussion about reparations, we listen and look for opportunities to learn how to advocate without centering ourselves. The Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) is a good place to start. Their website has a list of anti-Asian bias tools and resources. 

On Friday, there’s a vigil to remember and commemorate the lives lost last week, and there are rallies against Asian hate and violence happening on March 27th and March 30th. On April 9th, AACC is offering a free online training on how to counter anti-Asian harassment. It’s open to all. If you encounter harassment within the U of I community, you can report it here. Hate crimes in the state of Illinois can be reported here. Stop AAPI Hate has more general information on how you can advocate wherever you live. 

You can also remind Rep. Davis that he needs to represent his entire district, and he can start by acknowledging the pain of those enduring increased harassment and fear because of his party.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top photo by Anna Longworth.

More Articles