Amid rising racism toward Asian people, Lawrence residents focus on finding common ground

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Derek Kwan, president of the Asian-American Faculty and Staff Council at KU, is pictured at the Lied Center of Kansas, where he is executive director, on Friday, March 26, 2021.

For Derek Kwan, the past year has felt similar to what he witnessed almost 20 years ago.

As the coronavirus swept across the world, creating a global pandemic, it also seems to have sparked what Kwan sees as an anti-Asian sentiment, likely because the virus was first discovered in China, which led to derogatory rhetoric from some political leaders.

As someone who had lived in New York City in 2001, Kwan, now the executive director of the Lied Center, said the recent racism toward the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, also known as AAPI, felt very similar to the harmful anti-Muslim sentiment he saw after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

To help dispel that kind of thinking, Kwan, who has lived in Lawrence since 2014 and is currently the president of the University of Kansas’ Asian and Asian-American Faculty and Staff Council, told the Journal-World he tried to find common ground with others, especially those who haven’t been exposed to much diversity.

Susan Kang, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when she was 10 and has been a Lawrence resident for more than 20 years, said she too believed in helping others better understand that their perceptions of Asians may be incorrect or prejudicial.

“We need to find as a society a way to not only celebrate our differences, but celebrate our commonalities in a way that is productive,” Kwan said. “We all want the best for each other, for our families, for our society. It’s unfortunate when rhetoric can get in the way of that.”

But the recent surge of racism toward the Asian community is now believed to have culminated in national tragedy after a 21-year-old man attacked three spas in shootings in the Atlanta area, killing eight people. Of those eight, six were of Asian descent, according to various news reports.

While there is a public debate about whether the accused killer’s motivations were because of racism toward the AAPI community, Kwan said when he first heard of the shooting, he believed it was a flashpoint for the rising racism toward Asian people in the last year. He noted that a recent study found that hate crimes against the AAPI community have increased significantly.

Kang said her first reaction to the shootings was dismay, but she was not shocked. She said it appeared to be another case of stereotyping, as the killer allegedly had a sex addiction and had frequented the spa locations previously. She said reducing someone, regardless of race, to one dimension made it easier to perpetrate violence against them.

“It’s yet another case of Asian and Asian Americans being reduced to certain stereotypes,” Kang said. “There’s a notion he was looking at these Asian women not as three-dimensional humans, but as sex objects. That’s what he had reduced them down to.”

Kang said she also began thinking of her parents in the Chicago area because of reports of elderly Asians in America being attacked in the streets, which she believes is associated with anti-Asian rhetoric associated with COVID-19.

According to NBC News, the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found hate crimes against Asian people increased 150% in 2020, despite the overall number of hate crimes in general falling by 7%.

Since the shooting, other attacks on the AAPI community have occurred elsewhere, including San Francisco, where a 75-year-old Asian woman, Xiao Zhen Xie, fought back her attacker on a street corner, according to NPR. She ended up giving the nearly $1 million that was raised for her in a Gofundme campaign to organizations that fight racism.

Additionally, here in Kansas, state Rep. Rui Xu, the only Asian American lawmaker in the Legislature, said he was recently threatened in a bar in Russell. A man questioned why he was wearing a face mask and threatened to assault him, according to The Associated Press. He also asked if Xu was carrying COVID-19.

“That’s a pretty specific dog whistle at Asian Americans from last year,” Xu, who is Chinese American, told the AP. “Most of the anti-Asian American rhetoric that has happened has had some form of that message.”

Kwan and Kang both noted that racism toward the AAPI community was not new, but has been a long-running issue in American history. They both mentioned the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s and the U.S. internment camps for Japanese people during World War II.

They both said they have generally not experienced significant acts of racism while living in Lawrence. However, they aren’t strangers to the issue. Kang said she’s experienced what could be described as microaggressions, while Kwan said he had experienced racist incidents while living in North Carolina and Michigan. He said he thought that most, if not all, people in the AAPI community have been targeted by some sort of harassment during their lives.

But when those instances happen, they both also said they have tried to educate the perpetrator rather than ignore it. Kang said she specifically remembers doing that while she was living in Massachusetts, when she overheard a group of young people talking about Asian women, describing them in stereotypical ways. She said she approached the group to tell them she had overheard their descriptions and felt that she needed to explain that they were incorrect and harmful.

“I’m somebody who immediately speaks up,” Kang said. “Every opportunity to educate, I will do so.”

Kwan said he too has tried to educate the people who have perpetrated racism around him to help them understand that what they were doing was harmful. He said everyone has different lived experiences and different perspectives, and it’s important to help others realize that we are all human beings. He said he hoped the spotlight on recent incidents would help others realize the significance of the problem and begin seeing others for their humanity rather than for their race and associated stereotypes.

“Once they see you are just another human being … it can really change a person’s perspective,” Kwan said. “I have always believed that if I can change the perspective of one other person, hopefully that can snowball into creating a society that can not only celebrate common ground, but also celebrate differences.”

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