Asians in America: Fighting invisibility amidst a long history of racism and violence

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A photo of a vigil to mourn and confront the rising violence against Asian Americans in Philadelphia The vigil was held following a mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of them women of Asian decent. Photo courtesy of Joe Lambert of Camden Courier-Post via Associated Press.

Six of the eight victims gunned down in the Atlanta-area shootings on Tuesday were Asian. Their murders mark another instance in a growing trend of anti-Asian sentiments and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. While anti-Asian racism is being brought to light in recent days and months, it is nothing new to American history and the greater story of the Asian American experience. 

To bring these issues into greater context, the Asian American Cultural Center in collaboration with the UConn Association for Asian American Faculty and Staff and the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute hosted a panel discussion of Asian and Asian American students and faculty to discuss their experiences at UConn and in American society as a whole. Though being held two days after the mass shootings in Atlanta, the discussion was planned weeks prior to the deadly incident to address anti-Asian racism in the COVID-19 era.  

The panel began with an opening statement from Angela Rola, the founding director of the Asian American Cultural Center at the UConn Storrs campus. She reminded the audience that the events witnessed on Tuesday are nothing new, as Asian immigrants and subsequent generations of Asian Americans have been subject to verbal harassment, physical assault, civil rights violations and online harassment, with over 3,800 incidents having occurred between March 2020 and 2021. 

“And now with the shootings in Georgia,” Rola said. “We add murder to that list.” 

The panelists voiced their individual struggles with the incident as members of the Asian and Asian American community. 

“I think we’re all heartbroken, but our hearts at this point are held together by duct tape.” Glenn Mitoma, assistant professor of human rights and education and director of Dodd Impact at UConn, said. “They’ve just been broken so often.” 

“I think we’re all heartbroken, but our hearts at this point are held together by duct tape. They’ve just been broken so often”

Glenn Mitoma, assistant professor of human rights and education and director of Dodd Impact at UConn
A women holding a child, in comfort, following the death of eight people in the Atlanta, Georgia shooting, to which six of the victims were Asian women. Photo courtesy of Joe Lamberti of Camden Courier-Post via Associated Press.

The panelists also reflected on their own experiences as Asians and Asian Americans in the United States. Shaina Selvaraju, an eighth-semester biological sciences major and co-chair of IMPAACT (Identifying the Missing Power of Asian Americans in Connecticut), shared her experience feeling different and out of place in society despite being an American-born citizen. 

“I was the awkward kid with the weird lunches that smelled weird,” Selvaraju said. 

At the age of six, Selvaraju was told by her classmates that while she was an American citizen, she would never be American and would always be Indian. 

“Why am I not American?” Selvaraju said. “Will I ever be American? Will I ever be enough? That sort of impacted my formative years.” 

“Will I ever be American? Will I ever be enough? That sort of impacted my formative years.” 

Shaina Selvaraju, an eighth-semester biological sciences major and co-chair of IMPAACT

Other panelists addressed several microaggressions in American lingo that are used to the detriment of Asians and Asian Americans living in the U.S. Those introduced at an early age, the “no offense, but …” statements or dismissive stereotypes such as Asians being only suited for STEM careers, are often internalized since they can be difficult to cope with for so long. 

Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have long been referred to as the “model minority,” having followed what White American society deems as the “proper” path to economic success and assimilation in the United States. Mike Keo, founder of the #IAMNOTAVIRUS campaign, said that this characterization has largely taken away the voice of the Asian American community and divided them based on economic means. 

“We are not given the language to really be able to say what is racist against us.”

Mike Keo, founder of the #IAMNOTAVIRUS campaign

“We are not given the language to really be able to say what is racist against us.” Keo said. “We are stuck wondering, well, how does this experience make me feel, but we don’t have the language to really dive into why it feels so bad. It’s so important right now, when these hate crimes are happening to have that access to explain our personal traumas and the way we feel.” 

Rola also wanted to remind viewers that racism is very much a public health crisis, so students should remember that UConn offers several resources to help those in need during this difficult time. The Asian American Cultural Center, the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, UConn Association for Asian American Faculty and Staff are all accessible, as well as the other cultural centers, the Dean of Students office, Student Health and Wellness and the Office for Diversity and Inclusion. 

While anti-Asian racism is nothing new, it is conversations like these, the panelists agreed, that can bring these stories and experiences to broader audiences and work as a vessel for greater solidarity and inclusion in the future. 

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