Chinese students and scholars take action to counter emboldened US racists

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/23 19:33:39

○ After the Charlottesville riot, Chinese students and scholars residing in conservative states have explained their concerns and past encounters with racism in President Trump's US

○ Some Chinese say they need to express themselves as members of a racial minority, especially in this time, and take a stance against extremism and racism

People light candles in the shape of a peace sign in front of the White House on August 13 in Washington, DC as part of a vigil held in response to the death of a counter-protestor in the Charlottesville riot. Photo: CFP

After white supremacists clashed with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, Jasmine Yan was rather relieved to find out that her university had taken measures to prevent such violent scenes from being reproduced on its campus.

A couple of days ago, she received a letter from the administrators of Texas A&M, where she is a medical student, saying that a "White Lives Matter" rally scheduled to be held on September 11 on their campus had been canceled for safety reasons.

Well-known Texan racist Preston Wiginton had been scheduled to speak at the rally. He was not allowed to use university facilities, so he chose to hold the event outdoors at Rudder Plaza, located in the middle of campus, during a school day. Prior to the event, he sent out a press release under the headline "Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M."

The school quickly announced the event was cancelled, saying "Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus. Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian)."

While the university's decision prevented a confrontation from taking place in this instance, white nationalists seem to have been emboldened since Donald Trump became president. Chinese students and scholars say that they can feel tension in their lives, as racial minorities, though actual attacks are rare. They have spoken of a need to voice their concerns and show unity.

Discrimination in Trump's US

The same racist speaker came to Texas A&M to speak last year, on December 6. The university allowed Wiginton the opportunity to speak, but also took all of the necessary precautions to ensure the event was peaceful.

When it was going on, Yan happened to walk past the student center and saw hordes of people congregated there. A photo she sent the Global Times of the event showed police guarding the center.

Yan says she thinks this was just an isolated incident. She says the people she studies and works with are nice and she hasn't encountered any open racism, but she says that due to the wider environment she stays away from those who may do harm.

You Tianlong, a PhD student at Arizona State University and founder of iamElection, a WeChat public account that publishes articles analyzing American politics, wrote for FT Chinese that he felt more racism and tension after President Donald Trump came into power.

He was teaching assistant for a class titled "Immigration and Justice" and felt students at Arizona State University generally discriminate against immigrants, seeing them as a drain on resources and criminals. Once, while discussing "What kind of person can be considered 'American,'" You says a student directly said to him that "someone who speaks English with a foreign accent, like you, definitely cannot count as American."

During the election, students had fiery debates in class. You and other assistants also received emails written by students from racial and sexual minorities, complaining they've received unfair treatment at school and need counseling, he wrote.

Chen Shengyuan, an international relations major graduate from George Washington University, told the Global Times even though he has not felt direct discrimination or tension, he has seen more reports of racist incidents since Trump started running for office. He thinks many have been influenced by Trump's rhetoric and think their jobs are being stolen by Chinese people.

When the riots occurred in Virginia, Trump's reaction was seen by many as ambiguous, which further encouraged white supremacist groups.

In February, Columbia University students reported that many of the name tags on the dormitory doors of Chinese people were ripped off or destroyed, while other names remained intact. In April, racist flyers went around University of Texas-Austin (UT Austin), describing a "special class to teach Chinese more about ethics" that implied Chinese people lie on their resumes and plagiarize others' work. 

Both these events elicited responses from the Chinese community. After the Columbia University incident, Chinese students started uploading videos to YouTube explaining the meaning behind their names to bring attention to the incident. After the UT Austin incident, the Chinese student association reacted quickly and alerted the authorities.


Taking a stance

Guo Xintong, a student at UT Austin, remembers when the racist fliers were circulating a couple of months ago, Chinese students were outraged by this act and many spoke up in their community WeChat group, demanding something be done.

When the fliers were going around, the Chinese student association (UTCSSA) reacted quickly. It sent out a notice on its WeChat public account saying it won't remain silent, while calling for people to remain calm.

UTCSSA's chair Zeng Zijie told the Global Times previously that the organization immediately sent an email to the school's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, asking for action to be taken and the school moved fast.

A peaceful protest was also planned in case no action was taken by administrators. In the end, the school released a statement condemning the fliers and promising the person behind them will face punishment.

Guo said she wouldn't voluntarily join a parade for safety reasons, but that doesn't mean she won't stand up for herself, especially as a member of racial minority. She thinks there need to be better and more rational ways of voicing concerns. She highly praised how Chinese students reacted to the fliers.

"I don't think a full frontal confrontation can bring anything good," she said. "As Chinese students abroad, I think it's wise to avoid personal conflicts and face it in rational, smart ways."

Zang Chongzhi also stressed the importance of making a stand when such incidents occur.

He started teaching at the medical school at the University of Virginia last fall. When the riots happened at Charlottesville, he was at home and didn't see the first round of events. But afterwards, on August 16, when he heard a colleague talk about a candlelight vigil that had been organized by students and teachers, he decided he had to attend.

"I felt it was time to show our unity," he said.

The vigil was not publicized on any posters or chain emails, only through word of mouth. However, when Zang arrived, the place was packed with thousands of people, all with candles in their hands, flickering in the darkness.

Then the group proceeded to trace the route the tiki-torch wielding supremacists had taken a few days earlier, eventually arriving at a lawn at the center of the university, surrounded by buildings that were designed by US founding father Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago.

Then people sang, together, songs such as "Let Freedom Ring," "Auld Lang Syne" and the US national anthem. Standing in the crowd, Zang felt touched. He also spotted other Chinese friends and coworkers in the crowd who had chosen to make a stand with their presence.

He said from a political point of view, it's not surprising such conflicts have emerged, because American society has become more and more divided in the past few years. Even though many, especially people back in China, think the university might now be dangerous, the vigil assured Zang that the staff and students stand together against racism, so he's not afraid.

"We are overseas, as a racial minority in US society, of course we need to have a definite and clear-cut opposition to all racist ideologies and tendencies, because this type of extremist can be dangerous to us all," he said. "As Chinese, we might have been educated to stay out of trouble, but such an attitude will only make you ignored in American society."

Newspaper headline: Making a stand

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