Stop Asian Hate: Community reacts to anti-Asian violence

By Katherine Cheng, Mia Baldonado and Meena Narayanaswami

“IREMEMBER last year [in] my Japanese class we had to do this thing where, in Japanese, we write a question for students to answer,” said senior Cody Hmelar, co-president of Palo Alto High School’s Asian American Student Union. “Two people had written in Japanese: ‘Have you eaten dog?’ Looking back on that experience now, I was not aware of how culturally rooted that kind of sentiment was, and that it was offensive.”

As early as elementary school, Palo Alto Unified School District’s Asian American students have withstood racism in all forms, from microaggressions to blatant hostility. Common experiences include name calling, watching classmates pull back their eyes to imitate “Asian eyes” and opening their lunch to see fellow students’ disgusted looks.

“Even in a city considered to be ‘accepting,’ there are still many macro and microaggressions towards Asians,” said junior Hillary Cheung, co-president of AASU.

Since last March, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 1,900% in the United States, according to a study by Stop AAPI Hate. Disturbing videos of attacks flooded social media feeds and timelines, igniting national discussion on the issue. 

“Especially in the Bay Area with all those stories about the elders being attacked, it’s really scary to consider [that] my grandparents are across the country,” senior Emma Wu said. “But they’re still in a very large urban area and so they’re at risk of being attacked. … I think it has just made it [the possibility of a family member getting hurt] a little more real.”

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in China, many blame China, and subsequently Asians, for the devastation the pandemic has caused. Even before the pandemic, Asian Americans endured both blatant and concealed racism, but the recent spike in hate crimes has led to a passionate response from students, local organizations and the surrounding community. 

Student discussion and activism

According to the Paly Profile, an annual report published by the school, Asian students currently make up over 40% of the student body. Clubs like AASU offer a way to unite students through their heritage as they watch Asian films and discuss Asian pop culture. In response to the recent Stop Asian Hate demonstrations, the club’s co-presidents, Hmelar, Cheung and junior Emily Yun, hosted an open forum for AAPI students during a February club meeting. 

“It not only brought us closer together as a club, being vulnerable about our shared experiences with racism, but it also made me reflect more as an individual,” Yun said.

AASU hopes to collaborate with teachers, psychologists and education specialists to implement a curriculum that would teach topics related to racism against Asian Americans. Although the project is still in formulation, Hmelar hopes that it will help teachers handle these situations by learning about issues such as microaggressions and how to address them.

“From my experience, it’s not a lack of wanting to learn,” Hmelar said. “It’s the lack of resources on how to deal with these situations. Teachers and administrators, they’ve been wanting to improve. They want to deal with these issues. It’s just a matter of finding what the students need from them and how they can deal with it.”

As with AASU presidents, Wu has worked to find ways to spread her perspective on anti-Asian violence, focusing on the medium of digital art. Her recent digital photo collage reflects on the March 16 Atlanta Spa Shootings, white supremacy and the way that white men exploit their power to hurt Asian women.

“It’s really considering ‘how do you think race is affecting your peers?’” Wu said. “Especially when that part of our identity is something that can play a part in our safety. I do think it’s something that mentally has been kind of heavy on me and just thinking about it all day and seeing it in the news cycle is something that is scary to me.”

Another student who has taken up the effort to address racism against Asian Americans is Amanda Sun, the founder of the Instagram account @tellasianstories and a Dartmouth College sophomore. With her account, Sun aims to provide a platform for Asian Americans to anonymously share their experiences, positive or negative, with a wider audience.

“Our goal with this is mainly to disrupt this model minority myth — that idea that Asians are very successful in this country and don’t deal with racism,” Sun said.

As a Chinese American, Sun observed that many other Asian Americans have had similar experiences, inspiring her to create a way to further the conversation about Asian American stereotypes and racism. 

“Even though … where I live in Sunnyvale, it’s very diverse and full of immigrants, there’s a lot of racism — just under the surface,” Sun said. “And I think it’s important to keep this in mind because it keeps us on our toes, and I think that’s important because there’s still work to be done.”

Representation in careers

Palo Alto City Council member Greg Tanaka was present at the March 21 Town and Country Village rally to protest against hate crimes against the AAPI community, and believes that there needs to be more Asian representation in politics. According to Tanaka, when he first ran for office, his father did not donate to his campaign because he did not believe Asians should be involved in politics.

“He thought we should keep our heads down and mouths shut, and I think that’s the attitude of a lot of Asians,” Tanaka said. “So when we get beat up, when we get discriminated against, we don’t say anything. We’re just kind of like a punching bag.”

Like many members of the Asian community and their allies, Tanaka feels inspired by the outpouring of support in response to the recent violence.

“In the past when Asians would be killed, there’d be silence,” Tanaka said. “I think this is a really strong showing [of support] … and this is a big step forward.”

National Basketball Association player Jeremy Lin (Class of `06) has been at the forefront of the movement to denounce violence against the AAPI community. Lin has been outspoken about his experiences in a career where there are very few Asian Americans.

“At first, it was hard to always be the Asian American player and to feel like I was being discounted because of that,” Lin wrote in a message to Verde. “At the same time, being Asian American on the court forced me to not let what other people think of me at first glance limit what I can do on the court.”

Lin emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural solidarity and sees it as necessary for progress in the fight against racism.

“I hope that the current moment Asian Americans are experiencing helps us to develop even deeper empathy for other communities,” Lin wrote. “One way we can all actively contribute is to be honest with ourselves as to where we all have biases and where we each can be better about our understanding for what other communities are going through.”

Photo captions:

1. SPREAD LOVE NOT HATE — A woman and young girl sit together on a park bench at the Brisbane rally to protest against hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Photo: Mia Baldonado

2. BACKLASH IN BRISBANE — Protestors gather in Brisbane Community Park to denounce racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. They hold signs as speakers share stories and start chants. “This is what community looks like,” the crowd shouts. Photo: Mia Baldonado

3. RISE UP — Community members rally at the corner of El Camino Real to call for an end to anti-Asian racism. Photo: Myra Xu

4. NO MORE ATTACKS — A protestor at the Stop Asian Hate protest in Brisbane, CA holds up a sign with a red cross through the words, “Attacks on Asian seniors.” Photo: Mia Baldonado

5. YOUTH OUTCRY — A kid stands among a crowd of students who have gathered on El Camino Real to express their frustration after several instances of violence against the AAPI community garnered national attention. Photo: Myra Xu

6. TANAKA TAKES ACTION — Palo Alto City Council member Greg Tanaka holds up a sign for passing cars to see. Photo: Myra Xu

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