Diversity Forum panel discusses xenophobia


Zoom screenshot

Panel members talked about xenophobia during a Diversity Forum event last Wednesday.

By Ashton Crawley, Senior Staff Writer

Racism in America is not new, Waverly Duck said. The racial tensions in America today are an extension of centuries of “othering” minorities.

“Racism has a special way of warping and changing to accommodate the ‘othering’ of people,” Duck, an associate professor in the department of sociology, said.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted a panel moderated by Paula Davis, the assistant vice chancellor for health sciences diversity, last Wednesday featuring four speakers to discuss xenophobia. The panel focused on hate crimes perpetrated against Asian Americans and minorities within the United States, particularly the complexities of assimilation. Several audience members asked questions ranging from how to combat racist or xenophobic remarks from people in positions of authority to ways the Pitt community can combat anti-Asian sentiment this upcoming academic year.

Phuc Tran, who moved from Vietnam with his family in the late ’70s to Carlisle, read a few pages from his memoir to begin the session. In the book, titled “Sigh, Gone,” Tran described the difficulties he and his family faced as the only Vietnamese refugee family in the area at that time.

”I never thought I really would tell my story,” Tran said, describing his opportunity to give a TedX talk in 2011. “It was picked up by NPR and then I was approached by an agent who asked if I’d be interested in writing a memoir.”

Duck began his part by acknowledging the victims of COVID-19, as well as victims of racial violence, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. Duck spoke about the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, which he believes is a byproduct of statements like “the Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.”

“Whenever there were diseases or outbreaks that were probably due to pests or bacteria, they were projected onto people,” Duck said. “This isn’t something new.”

In his recently published book, “Tacit Racism,” Duck discussed how race is socially constructed and how it stems from interactions with others. He said it’s a matter of life and death for many people.

“Whether it’s police-citizen interactions, whether it’s pain not being taken seriously by your doctor, the stressors people experience in the workplace — it really has a way of shortening life,” Duck said. “I think what happens for people who find themselves in situations where it’s being projected onto them is this nonrecognition, that ‘I am not what you have projected onto me in terms of stereotypes.’”

Duck said racism is prevalent in all aspects of our lives, and that how you see yourself may not be how others see you. He added that racism is embedded in our nation’s language, culture and history.

“It has to do with power. What would the world be like if things were more equitable? How do you navigate a world that is pregnant with racism?” Duck said.

Alyssa Khieu, the advocacy chair for the Asian Student Alliance, brought a student perspective to the panel and spoke about the “forever foreigners” concept. This is a theory that white Americans will see Asian Americans as better than other races, but never as being fully assimilated.

“I would argue that we’re seeing this concept today with the coronavirus and how we’re seeing this huge increase in anti-Asian racism,” Khieu said.

Khieu also touched on the “model minority” myth, in which Asian Americans are often pinned against other races.

“The model minority myth tells us that we need to assimilate in order to be successful, when in reality, it doesn’t work like that,” Khieu said. “It perpetuates the idea that our productivity equals our success and worth as humans. It puts less on us as people and also puts less value on our culture and history by saying that whiteness is success.”

Khieu’s family members are refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Similar to Tran’s family, they had a sponsor family in America. The Khieus’ sponsor family encouraged them to convert to their religion and learn English very quickly, which resulted in Khieu’s father and siblings no longer being able to communicate in Khmer, their native language.

“In my own experience, growing up, there was a lot of emphasis put on succeeding and it’s OK if culture was lost in that,” Khieu said.

Sheila Vélez Martínez, a professor of refugee, asylum and immigration law and director of the School of Law’s clinical programs, spoke about how COVID-19 has brought many societal issues to light, specifically through its effects on minorities.

Vélez Martínez discussed the history of anti-Asian xenophobia in America, beginning with the Gold Rush and the influx of Chinese and Japanese immigrants to America. Federal policies were then created to target the Chinese community, such as the Immigration Act of 1924 and national origins quotas. Vélez Martínez said resisting xenophobia and racism is a constant battle.

“Ultimately, we must engage in solidarity and resist the temptation of division. That is, for me, the best way,” Vélez Martínez said. “We are part of a culture that privileges whiteness. We have to check ourselves constantly and interrogate ourselves constantly.”