AN AMERICAN VIRUS: RACISM AND THE RISE OF ASIAN-AMERICAN HATE CRIMES

Lucile Henderson (center) co-organized the AAPI Solidarity Rally April 2 with Natalia Ventura (right), in partnership with the OC Justice Initiative. Photo courtesy of Clarisse Guevarra.

It begins as a joke. Squinty eyes. China-virus. Kung flu. There are the confused looks. Where are you from? The comments. No, like really from. And then comes the hatred. The aggression. The violence. 

For 18-year old Jenna Dupuy, commie bitch, nuclear terrorist, and North Korean whore were just a few words yelled in her face as she was physically assaulted right here in Orange County.

“He made remarks to me and no one stopped him, he threatened me with physical violence and no one stopped him,” Dupuy shared in an Instagram post. “I should have been protected better. Asian bodies need to be protected better.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an alarming escalation of bigotry and xenophobia against Asian-Americans in the United States. And neither Orange County, nor Chapman University, are immune.

The attack left Dupuy with a concussion, fractured ankle, chip-fractured shoulder, and bruises, scratches, and pepper spray burns all over her skin. Photo courtesy of Instagram, used with permission.

In fact, the UN reported more than 1,800 racist incidents against the AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander) community in an 8-week period in the United States from March to May of 2020. Orange County Human Relations reported its own surge of hate crimes, which began as early as January 2020.

The attack on Dupuy occurred in broad daylight at a skatepark in Tustin. A talented roller skater, Dupuy, a recent graduate of Orange County School of the Arts, used the park often and was about to set up to teach an art class when the attacker approached her. 

“This incident was motivated by hate against my race and gender,” Dupuy said. “And I know that the hate that touched me… touches my community, and reaches every other community of minorities in the US.”

According to Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting center first launched in March of 2020, verbal harassment makes up a majority of incidents. On the other hand, physical harassment comprises 11 percent of reports.

Last semester, a Chapman mental health survey revealed over fifty percent of Asian-American students at the university had been victims of some form of xenophobia.

“I don’t think it’s easy to make sense of these things,” said Bernadine Cortina, a freshman at Chapman. “I don’t think anyone teaches us to make sense of these things.”

Clarisse Guevarra, a film production major at Chapman, echoed the shock.

Clarisse Guevarra, a film projection major. Photo courtesy of Guevarra.

“I was really affected by reading stories about just moms and grandparents who are getting beat up on the streets for no good reason. Literally no good reason,” said Guevarra. “It’s very shocking. I’m struggling to find words, because I have no words. I just don’t even know how to put it into coherent thoughts.”

What’s worse: the anti-Asian aggression didn’t start with the pandemic.

Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, explained to Today that these fears and stereotypes are always lurking beneath. The “yellow peril” tends to surface “during times of war, pandemic, and economic downturn.”

Having immigrated with her family from the Philippines nearly three years ago, Cortina, 18, understands these prejudices all too well.

“When my mom chose to immigrate and bring me and my sister, she was giving up a lot of things – like a lot of things to be here,” Cortina said, with tears in her eyes. “I want her to be safe… she didn’t understand why this was happening… she didn’t realize this was how the United States really was.”

On March 18, two days after the Atlanta shooting which tragically claimed eight lives, President Struppa released a statement denouncing violence against AAPI.

With Asian-American prejudice on the rise, Chapman students have begun to take action. Photo courtesy of Clarisse Guevarra.

“Hate against Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities has risen alarmingly, with a 1,900 percent increase since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” read the statement. “We at Chapman stand in solidarity. We denounce the racism, xenophobia, bigotry and violence inflicted upon AAPI communities.”

Yet earlier this year, Struppa was accused by students of not denouncing white supremacy.

When asked how she felt about the university’s email, Guevarra responded, “I’ve gravitated away from reading Struppa’s emails because they make me angry, especially last year. And I just don’t even know how to go about this. I don’t know how to encourage Chapman to do anything at this point.”

Sean Oketani, a junior television writing and production major, has also grown tired of Chapman’s response. Or rather, the lack of a response, as Oketani explains:

Sean Oketani, television writing and production major. Photo courtesy of Oketani.

“It just feels like the university always knows when to say something at the appropriate time and then will drop that topic of discussion and end discourse. And I saw that when the Black Lives Matter riots and protests were happening and Chapman was relatively silent besides a couple posts, and nothing came out of it.”

Just recently, the leaders of the Black Student Union stepped down after not feeling supported by the university.

“I can just imagine them feeling like they’re just screaming to nothing,” said Oketani.

Cortina, too, had to step away from social media for her own mental health.

“It’s very apparent that a lot of the efforts towards addressing this huge problem is student-led,” Cortina said. “There needs to be more support, more initiative to have more of these conversations, to just draw more attention from the larger Chapman community as well.”

Logo courtesy of the OC Justice Initiative.

Indeed, organizations are still hard at work. In the beginning of April, Chapman Activists in partnership with the OC Justice Initiative hosted an AAPI Rally. The event saw students gathering on campus to hear from Asian-American voices and marching in solidarity to Orange Circle.

“It was such a healing experience to have such a large turnout,” said Lucile Henderson, a senior at Chapman and co-organizer of the event. “And it has been empowering to see a shift in the amount of people really trying to learn more and show up. It was such a beautiful reminder of why I do this work.”

Charlotte Thurane, a representative of the OC Justice Initiative, said, “The community has truly united through the chaos.”

Chapman marched toward Orange Circle with signs for the AAPI Solidarity Rally. Photo courtesy of Clarisse Guevarra.

Hatred is a virus. But unlike COVID-19, there is no magic vaccine that will make us immune to the problem in two doses and a little over four weeks.

“It’s just something that exists as I go about my life that is now in my mind,” Oketani said. “It’s just something that I have to carry now. The knowledge that this is a thing, and it’s possible, you know. It’s kind of scary.”

But we can make a change, if we put in the work. 

According to Cortina, “Education is really important and really powerful in not only challenging white supremacist narratives… but also important in humanizing this community.”

And in regards to Chapman’s campus, Guevarra said: “We need more diversity, period.”

In the meantime, Chapman students will continue to fight to raise awareness for the AAPI community, and will continue to seek change from their university.

Said Oketani:

“I think the students at Chapman are what makes me feel safer, because there are students who do care… they have always been vocal against the wrongdoings of Chapman’s administration. So that’s something that’s at least been comforting, knowing that my peers care.”

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Megan J. Miller is a senior student at Chapman University, studying journalism and documentary film. When she isn't writing, you can find her working on her '95 Bronco, exploring new hiking trails, or scouring the thrift stores for the best vintage finds.