The shooting at Asian-run spas near Atlanta were a dark moment in a grim year for anti-Asian racism — since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group Stop AAPI hate has catalogued nearly 3,800 of anti-Asian discrimination or xenophobia. It’s a theme that’s been echoed in many of my exchanges with international students, so I wanted to talk with an expert. I called up Yingyi Ma, a Syracuse University sociologist and author of a terrific book on the Chinese-student experience
. Our conversation was edited for space and clarity.
How do you think international students are absorbing this news?
American higher education doesn’t score high on the safety front, and last week’s event definitely exacerbated that fear that America is unsafe, that a random person can use guns to kill people. The very fact that six out of eight victims are Asian women definitely makes the violence racialized and gendered. And given that 70 percent of all international students in the United States are from Asia, I think that would definitely make them very, very afraid.
But I would argue that anti-Asian racism is always there. It’s just made prominent last week, made more visible last week.
I agree that anti-Asian racism isn’t new. But I wonder if you think that the pandemic — and now these shootings — has changed how international students perceive racial attitudes and racism towards them in the United States?
Certainly. I think it’s not surprising that before the pandemic, international students did not view the issues through the lens of race. Take Chinese international students, for example. They’re coming from a society where race is not a salient social category. They don’t really have the vocabulary, this analytical lens of race, in their home country. China isn’t a ethno-racial society as the United States is. A lot of them came here to attend college and probably for the first time ever had a conversation about race and racism. It’s not surprising for me that they do not really tend to interpret their experiences as being targets of racism. Probably they have experienced it, but they do not interpret it that way. The pandemic probably has changed this for many students.
I have done research and published a paper
during the pandemic focused on mask wearing. Chinese international students were among the very first groups in America who started to wear masks before mask wearing was mandated or endorsed by CDC guidelines. I’ve interviewed students from California to the East Coast and almost every single one of them struggled with this decision of wearing one. When they wear a mask to the classroom, they were even questioned by their dear professor who asked them, are you sick? If you’re sick, please don’t come here. If you’re not sick, why do you wear a mask? Are you selfish?
They were caught in these cross-cultural differences in responses to the public health crisis. Sometimes when they wear a mask, they were yelled at on the street. And several people mentioned that this is actually the first time ever they have experienced racism in America. So yes, to answer your question, the pandemic has really made their experiences with racism more visible.
Do you think this will have a lasting effect?
I think only time can tell. But I think if you ask how Chinese students feel, a good starting point is how the American public views them. And I think you and I are both aware that the American public does not really view them very favorably. As long as the geopolitical tensions are there, and are escalating to some extent, Chinese students are going to be viewed as part of that tension.
I see a lot of institutions making statements supporting their Asian American students. Are there ways in which colleges ought to be offering messages of support to their international students?
I’m the director of the Asian and Asian American Studies program at my institution, and I am very intentional in getting our international students from Asia included in our messaging and our programs. Because both groups are the targets of xenophobia and racism, anti-Asian racism, in the United States.
I think data shows that violence against Asian Americans is less likely to be defined as hate crimes compared to other racial minority groups. As tragic as the recent events are, they shed light on this invisible shadow that Asian American communities are under. Oftentimes, they are targets of racism and hate crimes without the full recognition of the mainstream society and the criminal justice system.
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