A year marked by the global pandemic was also marked by anti-Asian xenophobia, evidenced most recently in the Atlanta shootings. The Trump administration’s reaction to COVID-19—“calling it the Wuhan flu, kung flu, the China virus, struck multiple chords,” for Asian and Asian American people, particularly Chinese-born international students, postdoctoral students, staff, and faculty, says Peter Van Do, director of the Pan Asian American Community House (PAACH). That rhetoric, combined with the increased violence toward Asians documented on the news and in lived experience results in many people living “in fear of stepping out, even for something as simple as getting groceries,” Van Do says.
In response, the University launched the Task Force on Supporting Asian and Asian American Students and Scholars at Penn in April 2020, affirming its commitment to diversity and anti-discrimination. As part of the task force, Van Do has been working with Penn Global and Pablo Cerdera, associate director for restorative practices at Penn, to hold healing spaces for Asian and Asian American populations.
Restorative circles are informed by indigenous practices in North American, particularly in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, says Cerdera, who was trained in this technique at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis. The task force circles are led by facilitators, all members of the pan-Asian/Asian American community. The circles consist of people with shared values and group norms (for instance, all participants might identify as Asian undergraduate students) and each person is given time to speak uninterrupted, Cerdera says. Pre-pandemic, “you sit in a circle and pass a talking piece. Over Zoom, the way we’ve replicated that effect is creating a talking order. You move through the order with the option to pass.”
“It was the first time I realized that I am not alone in experiencing identity-based violence,” said one participant. “It was helpful to hear the experiences of others,” said another. “It helped me understand that I’m not alone or crazy.”
The circles began last summer for faculty, staff, and postdoctoral students. Anh Le of Penn Dental Medicine is serving on the task force, participating in these circles the last several months, lately as one of the facilitators, together with Rupa Pillai, senior lecturer in Asian American studies in the School of Arts & Sciences. “The reason Asian faculty do not express too much is because of fear. They worry about microaggression,” Le says.
The goal of the restorative circles is to establish a safe space to engage Asian faculty of different backgrounds, Le says. “We experience more by sharing lived experience and by listening to others; people feel that they can process it and they are not alone.”
Van Do prefers the term “brave space,” which “entails vulnerability, seeing eye to eye, and also being challenged,” he says. Van Do was introduced to the term through an anti-racism and mental wellness workshop led by Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. The experience of participating in a restorative practice circle can “become a beginning for feeling validated, heard, and supported,” Van Do says.
After positive responses from faculty and staff this summer, the task force wanted to expand the program to give opportunities for students and alumni, Cerdera says. The team has been planning since January to host these spaces, which “happened to coincide with the horrific killings in Atlanta earlier this week, he says. “The need existed prior, and in this kind of acute moment of pain it’s really important that community spaces are available.”
“After a year of consuming negative stories of anti-Asian sentiment or hate crimes, it felt therapeutic being surrounded by others who could empathize with that fear and anxiety,” said one of last week’s participants.
Xenophobia is not a new phenomenon, says Van Do. “Asian Americans have been excluded, interned, and lynched in this country,” he says. Yet these experiences are often overlooked and not discussed, he said. “Asian Americans have often been invisible and not seen in respect to our own personal experiences around discrimination race and racism.”
The Atlanta shootings are part of a general increase in anti-Asian violence, following a pattern that is rooted in the Page Law, which refused entry for Asian women because they were seen as unclean, says Van Do. “One of the things that gets connected to that is massage. If an Asian American woman does that work, it is connected to sex,” he says, calling this “Orientalism at its core.”
Since the Civil Rights Movement, Asian Americans have been characterized as a “model minority,” Van Do says, “and policies have been put into place to support that idea through immigration laws only admitting educated folks that meet certain criteria.
“When we talk about Black/white there is racial triangulation, so certain communities that don’t clearly fall under either category are pushed and pulled according to what supports white supremacy,” Van Do says.
“The root of colonialism is to divide and conquer. We see this in Asia; when Great Britain tried to colonize Burma, they pitted the lowlanders against the highlanders,” Van Do says. The United States has re-created that scenario, “where Asian Americans are pitted against Blacks and Latinx and Native Americans in a particular way,” he says.
The Asian American community has a rich history of solidarity with other people of color, but “as decades have passed by, you see more and more of the role of the system in separation,” Van Do says. In our programming, it is important to acknowledge that anti-Asian violence is made possible by anti-Blackness and anti-indigeneity,” he says, in addition to the fact that “anti-Blackness is real within Asian communities, and we need to acknowledge this, as well as the solidarity.
This moment is an opportunity to “utilize all of our resources collectively on Penn’s campus,” Van Do says, “to become a beacon for other institutions within higher education and to really do great work around supporting and creating this space where there’s collaboration, respect, connectedness, and care.”
The resources the University has provided, the Task Force, and Flatten the Hate campaigns, are a start towards creating a culture of support, Le says. “You really feel that trust,” she says. In spite of “what people suffer, what they experience, they are part of the Penn community, and they know that somebody is taking care of them.”