As Arissa Oh refreshed Twitter on March 16, she felt sick poring over details about the shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people. Anger set in as more information about the victims, six of whom were of Asian descent, came to light.
“I felt not surprised,” said Oh, an associate professor of Asian American studies. “I felt sad. I felt sick. … I just felt full of despair. I was angry, I was really angry, but kind of numb—numbly angry.”
Boston College students, faculty, and staff voiced their support for the AAPI community on campus, and also organized opportunities for community members to express their concerns and heal in light of the event.
The shooting comes in the wake of a dramatic increase in anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the days following the shooting, protests broke out nationwide in support of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the United States.
“I just felt like with the escalation and the rhetoric, it was just something that was waiting to happen,” Oh said. “… We have this confluence of anti-Asian racism with the free availability of guns, so I guess that it would result in this kind of gun massacre should not have surprised me.”
Nathan Yeung, a member of the Boston College Chinese Students Association and MCAS ’21, also said he was not completely shocked by the shooting, especially given the rise in anti-Asian sentiments over the past year.
“My initial reaction was probably anger, just because I’ve been seeing on news outlets and media sources that there was a huge rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and when this happened, it was almost like I was dreading it, but almost kind of expecting it, which is really sad,” Yeung said.
Gordon Chang, the co-president of the Asian Caucus and MCAS ’21, said that as he started to learn more about the victims of the shooting, he became increasingly disturbed.
“Within a day or two, when the story caught more wind and we got to learn more about the victims themselves, I definitely felt very emotionally distressed,” Chang said. “Because seeing the images of the victims, I could see my own family. … I definitely saw my mom, my aunt in their faces, and that was very traumatizing.”
Last Monday night, the BC Asian Caucus and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center (BAIC) hosted two candlelit vigils to honor all victims of anti-Asian violence.
Yeung, one of the organizers of the vigil, said one of the goals for the vigil was to amplify the voices of AAPI students on campus.
“The candlelight vigil was something we thought was kind of symbolic and could kind of pay respects to the victims and their families, as well as show that we aren’t like the stereotype, we aren’t a quiet minority,” Yeung said. “We also have voices, and we want those voices to be heard.”
Chang said that the vigil was necessary for the AAPI community to grieve.
“I could definitely feel that there was some sense of urgency or need for our community to grieve and to really process what’s going on,” Chang said. “ … We knew this is something we needed to do and something that had to be done to honor the victims.”
Min Hyoung Song, director of the Asian American Studies Program and a professor in the English department, said the vigil was also an opportunity for members of the BC community to support each other.
“It was just really great to see so many people, and not just Asian Americans, but students from all races, as well as faculty and staff who I recognized were also there,” Song said. “I think it’s really important to have these kinds of gatherings to just show up and be there for one another.”
Song, who also serves as chair of the Aquino Scholarship Committee, said that after the shooting he was initially shocked, but feelings of sadness and anger quickly overcame him.
“It was especially jarring because we’ve gone through a period where shootings were not in the news … and then to have the very first be focused on Asian Americans really drove home a concern that I’ve been having for a while about the surging rise of anti-Asian violence,” Song said.
The Aquino Scholarship is a program that celebrates the accomplishments of students who represent the highest ideals and aspirations of BC and the Asian American community, according to BC’s website.
“We aren’t like the stereotype, we aren’t a quiet minority. We also have voices, and we want those voices to be heard.”
Song said that before the shooting occured, faculty members in the Asian American studies program, as well as those on the Aquino Scholarship committee, were already working on a joint-statement regarding the rise of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic.
Once news broke of the shooting, however, Song said the committee was compelled to release the statement as quickly as possible. The statement—which was signed by Song, Oh, and eight other members of the committee—encourages BC students to learn more about the nation’s history of anti-Asian racism.
“As educators, we encourage BC students to learn more about the long history of anti-Asian sentiment, practices, and institutions in the United States, as well as the cultural, social, and political forces behind them,” the statement reads.
In an email to the BC community on Tuesday, Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation Tom Mogan condemned the recent harassment and violence against the AAPI community and offered support through University Counseling Services and the BAIC.
“As a Boston College community, we must stand united against racism and remain committed to fostering mutual respect on our campus,” he wrote. “In the face of acts motivated by discrimination, we all must remember the importance of supporting one another and intervening when we see harmful actions occurring.”
Rachel Zhu, a member of the Asian Caucus and MCAS ’23, said that she is glad BC acknowledged the shooting.
“I feel like there’s always more that can be done,” Zhu said. “… But I’m glad that they addressed it because I know that the University doesn’t always address racial events that happen on campus.”
Oh, who is currently teaching a class on Asian Americans and U.S. wars, said that incorporating what happened in Georgia into her lesson plan helped to facilitate a discussion among students about the shooting.
“So a lot of those topics—sexualization, racialization, gender dynamics, all of that historical baggage—all of that stuff is part of the coursework anyway,” Oh said. “So this week we started to talk a little bit more about Georgia, but in the context of our readings, and I think that kind of historical distance helps people to think about current events but with the distance of time. And it makes it a little easier to deal with emotionally.”
Song said he has made sure to spend class time talking about the shooting as well as the broader issues of anti-Asian racism and how people should talk about race in the wake of such events.
He said his students have really appreciated taking the time to talk about these issues, and one student emailed him to thank him for having the conversation with the class.
“And I think for a long time, a lot of Asian students feel like our issues are being suppressed.”
Zhu said she felt grateful that her professors have been checking in on her.
“I’ve been lucky to have professors that have been very uplifting and supportive, and to have professors check in on me and just like, ask me how I’m doing, especially after this event…,” Zhu said. “I’ve been very, very appreciative of that because I know that that doesn’t happen for everybody.”
Even with supportive professors, Oh said many of her Asian American students still feel out of place at BC.
“I certainly get the sense from my students that there is a way in which the mainstream BC students, who tend to be white, see Asian American students as still being very foreign,” Oh said. “In a way, that really reflects the national political climate.”
Chang said it’s been frustrating to see many of his non-Asian peers fail to acknowledge the pain that the AAPI community is facing.
“A lot of people did feel that our issues were invisible because we’ve seen a lot of other students and professors carry on with day-to-day activities, barely acknowledging what has been going on,” Chang said. “And I think for a long time, a lot of Asian students feel like our issues are being suppressed, or at least like no one cares.”
Although he has not personally experienced overt racism on campus, Yeung said, there have been times when he’s felt out of place at BC.
“I personally haven’t experienced a hate crime on BC’s campus, or I haven’t experienced overt racism or prejudice, but there have definitely been times throughout my BC career where I felt out of place or not belonging because of my Asian American identity,” Yeung said. “I think small things kind of build up over time, like people asking, ‘Oh, where am I from,’ or other things like that.”
Chinenye Ugocha, chair of the AHANA+ Leadership Council (ALC) and MCAS ’21, emphasized the importance of addressing anti-AAPI sentiment on BC’s campus.
“Bias against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on a national scale is obviously something that needs to be addressed and needs to be recognized but it’s also happening on our own very own campus, whether it be through microaggressions or just students not feeling safe,” Ugocha said.
One of the most important things members of the BC community can do to support the AAPI community, Chang said, is to call out casual racism among their peers.
“A huge misconception that people have about racism is that it has to be something, like, overtly bad,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh, as long as I’m not calling someone a certain name or I’m not hitting someone, I can’t be racist.’ That’s a completely false narrative. Because something that I don’t want to be lost is that you don’t have to commit a hate crime to be racist.”
Chang also stressed that it’s important for activism against anti-AAPI racism to not exclude other kinds of racism.
“[Something that’s important] for other Asian peers out there is to make sure your anti-racism advocacy doesn’t step on other minorities’ issues, or in some way, shape or form, frame your advocacy if its anti-Black or anti-Latinx, because it’s possible to stick up for these issues without putting other issues down,” Chang said.
“There’s also a need, as well, to have a kind of long-term, sustained commitment to the study of race and and to make sure that it’s built into the institutions of the University.”
Song spoke about the importance of using one’s education to participate in public discourse and as a tool to reframe the ways in which anti-AAPI violence is covered in the media.
“Having that kind of education and preparation allows you to be ready when these kinds of events happen, because they do happen, and being ready to take to whatever venues are available to you and to offer your own framing of what’s happening—not to accept the framing that’s already given to us,” he said.
Oh said that the BC administration should do more to acknowledge the pain marginalized students feel when these incidents happen.
“There should be acknowledgement from the leadership, and not canned statements, but they should actually express horror, sadness, solidarity, anger, when these kinds of events happen off campus, and particularly on campus,” Oh said. “And I think just the kind of head-in-the-sand, pretending none of this stuff is happening, I think is really, really damaging, to particularly the students.”
Song said he would like to see BC make a more deliberate effort to expand opportunities and resources to allow students to study racial and ethnic issues and benefit from the enormous research that has already gone into those fields.
“In addition to the immediate response of community and solidarity, there’s also a need, as well, to have a kind of long-term, sustained commitment to the study of race and and to make sure that it’s built into the institutions of the University,” he said. “ … For me personally, the Atlanta massacre has been a wake up call to really think hard about the kind of courses we offer, the size of our programs, and the way our programs are organized.”
Chang said he thinks many people are hesitant to get involved in activism because they think they have to host a rally, protest, or another event to be actively anti-racist. In reality, activism can be listening to AAPI peers and making sure their voices are heard, he said.
“I think it’s really important to keep the momentum up,” Chang said. “Because even though right now, a lot of the work that’s being done is spearheaded by Asian students, it’s important to have allies passing on the torch, making sure these conversations don’t stop within a week.”
Featured Image by Amy Palmer / Heights Editor
3/30/2021 12:35 p.m. Editor’s Note: The Heights redacted quotes in this article from students at an AAPI town hall which were taken without their consent, which violates editorial policy.