Anti-AAPI violence affects high school students

July 5, 2021

“Hate is a virus,” one poster said. “Today we mourn, tomorrow we act,” was written on another. Masses of students gathered in front of 115 Greenough on Mar. 26 after the school day and spilled onto Cypress Field.

Signs at the Mar. 26 vigil (Aryn Lee)

In the wake of a spike in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) across the country, Brookline community members have been speaking up about discrimination against the AAPI community.

Among those who attended the vigil was Alicia Hsu, a former Brookline teacher and longtime resident, who has been an active advocate for increased representation and discussion of Asian American and Pacific Islander issues.

During her time in Brookline, she has experienced microaggressions from her fellow colleagues.

“I had taught in Brookline for many years, I had won a big teacher award, I had helped with big initiatives. Not only did I think I was known, I thought I was held in high regard,” Hsu said. “When (another teacher) called me someone else’s name, I shrunk to my 13-year-old self feeling invisible and without a story.”

Hsu elaborated on her personal experiences with racism in Brookline and said that microaggressions of any kind, regardless of the intention, leave an impact on the recipient.

“That happened to me also as a teacher in Brookline. So the same thing happened to me on a professional development day. We [another teacher and Hsu] weren’t sitting next to each other, the other teacher wasn’t there, but I was called the name of another Asian-American teacher,” Hsu said. “And of course, everyone feels badly when that happens. But that hurt is long lasting.”

Due to the increase in discrimination against AAPI since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hsu said she was not completely surprised that an event such as the Atlanta shootings occurred.

“I can say that, while it was just a shocking and horrific tragedy, I am struck by the fact that it’s been a year of pain and hate that we’ve been trying to maneuver around and address,” Hsu said. “It’s terrible, but perhaps not that surprising that there would be a terrible thing that eventually happened because of the racism that’s been sort of unleashed during COVID.”

According to Hsu, the grieving process is an important step to digest the spike in hate crimes against the AAPI community and figure out how to best move forward.

“For those of us who identify as Asian American and Pacific Islander, I think that the first thing we need to do is to gather together and to process and to grieve and to share our anger and rage and outrage in ways so that we can support one another,” Hsu said.

The local scale

For some AAPI students at the high school, a persistent lack of representation pervades the classroom.

Senior Abigail Spiller said that, aside from the vigils and protests, she cannot recall many active steps the Brookline community has taken against anti-Asian racism. In particular, Spiller found some class discussions and conversations inadequate.

“We had a few classes where we would talk about it as a class. I thought that was really productive, but I had a few teachers who weren’t really engaged and were more interested in pushing through the curriculum, which is really frustrating,” Spiller said. “Especially with a white-dominated faculty, it seems like everything has been pushed aside because it doesn’t affect them.”

Sophomore Olivia Lee has had a similar experience. Although some of her teachers tried to start conversations based on race, she did not believe their attempts were genuine.

“My teachers would talk about this sort of thing for 10 minutes or so and then move on. It felt like they were just doing it because they were told that they had to,” Lee said. “At that point, I’d rather them not do it at all. I feel like if they are going into this sort of thing, they have to fully commit to it and not just do it because they are told to.”

AAPI students have to confront not only a lack of representation in the curriculum and in classes, but more overt acts of racism. English teacher Kevin Wang said that students of color frequently have personal experiences with confronting racism and discrimination.

“I remember last year, a student of mine who was Asian-American came up to me and said ‘this guy on the T just accused me of spreading coronavirus.’ I was shocked, upset, and then I was not surprised that I was upset, and then upset about that. It was a whole mismash of emotions,” Wang said.

The impact of the Atlanta Shooting

After the events in Atlanta, many of the high school’s teachers, students and other Brookline community members were personally affected by the mass shooting itself and the overall increase in COVID-19-related hate crimes. Many AAPI in the town, like Wang, had strong reactions to the killings.

“My first reaction was one of frustration, and then frustration turned into deep sadness. In the world we live in, of course with George Floyd, I was upset that it happened, and then I was upset that it didn’t surprise me,” Wang said. “You’ve been hearing for a while both in the news and personal testimony that Asian-Americans had been facing a lot of violence and a lot of hate speech for being who they were.”

Lee said that the shootings affected her personally as an Asian woman.

“I was not surprised because this happens so often. But, hearing all about it and hearing other people make connections to misogyny, it really hit being an Asian woman,” Lee said.

Spiller, who was also not surprised by the Atlanta events, felt that stereotypes about Asian American and Pacific Islander struggles affected her perception of violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander community.

“I feel like I haven’t heard that much about Asian-American violence, and so I just was kind of like ‘it’s just another killing,’ which is awful to say, and I think it’s all due to how the Asian-American struggle is portrayed in the media,” Spiller said. “It’s not portrayed at all and there are a lot of stereotypes of Asian-Americans that make it seem like our community doesn’t really struggle or have any problems.”

Head of School Anthony Meyer said that the desensitization of violence against the AAPI community was saddening for not only the local community, but for the nation as a whole.

“There is concern not only for high school students, staff and families, but nationwide and worldwide. Unfortunately you are accustomed to reading about violent incidents in our country,” Meyer said. “There was a time when there were not as many of those as there are now, and it’s just more than dispiriting.”

In honor of the victims of the Atlanta shooting, the high school hosted a vigil after school on May 26, organized by Ashley Eng ‘19; senior Jackie Gu; juniors Yoki Hoshi, Lily Lockwood and Lilia Burtonpatel; and freshman Tina Li.

Eng an alum, coordinated with current students to organize the vigil. She received logistics help from the Brookline Asian-American Family Network (BAAFN) and spread the word using social media.

“What the vigil meant was that it was an opportunity to provide a place for AAPI students to share how they’re feeling and raise calls to actions for the greater community. It was a place for the community to listen to the voices of AAPI students and to continue listening,” Eng said. “What it means to me personally is that the work doesn’t stop at the vigil. I just hope that all the energy that was brought by both the organizers and the community doesn’t stop. I hope that that energy is actually used to make impactful change.”

The national context

Hate crimes against individuals in the AAPI community have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began and have only recently been getting recognition. Incidents such as verbal and physical abuse toward AAPI have been reported. Recently, on March 16, 2021, the Atlanta shootings resulted in the death of eight people, six of whom were AAPI women.

The advocacy group “Stop AAPI Hate” reported that they received 6,603 incidents from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021. Politicians and public figures have been using increasingly xenophobic language to refer to COVID-19, such as “kung flu” and “Chinese virus.” This normalization of hate has contributed to the increase in hate crimes against AAPI.

Dean of classes of 2022 and 202 and Asian American Studies teacher Brian Poon said that, with the emergence of COVID-19 last year, discrimination against AAPI in history has assumed an important role in his classroom.

“There’s a pattern of dehumanization of Asian-Americans that is pretty vivid in American history, and my course, that’s one of the throughlines of our focus,” Poon said. “And so, last spring and winter, when the Coronavirus was starting, it got pulled forward as a current event.”

Much of anti-AAPI hate has been swept under the rug due to the model minority myth which perpetuates the stereotype that Asians “do well in math” and are “inherently successful and problem-free.” This is harmful to the AAPI community and other minorities because it creates an unrealistic standard and clumps a vast number of people with diverse cultures and histories into a category.

AAPI have faced discrimination, but Poon explained Asian-Americans’ history of discrimination is not validated due to a legacy of AAPI not being recognized as people of color and the challenges they face not being noticed.

“There’s a question of whether or not Asian-Americans count as folk of color. And then there’s a pitting of Asian-Americans against Black and Brown folk, in terms of do their issues count, in light of the challenges that African-American and Latinx people face in our country,” Poon said. “That’s a very complicated legacy, and part of what you see is this fury, of Asian-Americans of ‘Why doesn’t our pain count?’”

Looking Forward

The English department’s goal is to have all students read literature by authors with a variety of backgrounds.

“In the English curriculum, we are doing our best to include writers of color. And I think we are doing all right. I’m really happy with the changes we are able to make. This year, for instance, I have taught one white, male author all junior year. Every other writer has been a writer of color,” Wang said. “That’s been really phenomenal and that wouldn’t exist if some really bright people didn’t get together and go, ‘Hey! We should be inclusive in our curriculum!’ so I’m really happy with the way the English curriculum pans out.”

Spiller emphasized the need for curriculum changes and more substantive forms of activism. She is currently taking Asian American Studies, but said she would like to see more AAPI representation in mainstream history classes, not just history electives.

“I wish Asian-American history was put in our general history curriculum because you can’t teach history if you are only going to talk about it through one biased perspective. I also wish that Brookline strayed away from performative activism and towards substantive [activism],” Spiller said. “I think that moments of silence are great, but we can do other things that directly impact and change the circumstances as a community instead of just giving our condolences.”

Ultimately, Hsu said that acceptance will only come when representation for AAPI is attained in all aspects of society.

“In our community, we need to make sure that we are represented in political office and decision-making circles. Every time there’s a table where people are gathered to choose pathways forward, I think Asian and Asian-American community members need to be at that table,” Hsu said. “I also feel that’s true for us in the schools. We want to make sure that all children have the experience of having Asian-American teachers in all subjects from preschool, to Latin, to phys ed. Then our stories will be told more and more, and hopefully we can turn this around.”

Contributed reporting by Eliza Brown, Andi Lowe, Valentia Burlak, and Alice MacGarvie Thompson

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Rosa Caramazza, Editor-in-Chief

Rosa Caramazza (she/her) is currently a senior at Brookline High School and has been on the Sagamore's staff since 2019. In her free time, she likes to...

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Elena Su, News Managing Editor

Elena Su is currently a senior at Brookline High School and has been on the Sagamore's staff since 2018. In her free time, she enjoys programming, running,...

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Aryn Lee, Arts and Multimedia Managing Editor

Aryn Lee is currently a senior at Brookline High School and has been on the Sagamore's staff since 2018. In her free time, she likes to sew, bake, knit...

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