The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed an explosion of anti-Asian racism in the United States, ranging from derogatory slurs, to blaming the outbreak on Chinese people, to violent physical attacks. In an open letter to school leaders in Boston, Quincy, and Malden, a coalition of Asian-American students and their supporters is urging educators to take action now to ensure their safety as a new school year begins.
“In school, we feel we are not equal to other students. Whether it be among our peers, with faculty members in-person or online, it is suffocating to know there are those who look at us cautiously and choose to ignore the rising issue of xenophobia in the U.S.,” the letter said. “Our mental health is deteriorating, and our grades will drop, impacting our futures in higher education. We feel unsafe returning to schools with unaddressed racism.”
Asian Americans have endured an onslaught of bullying and abuse in the months since the coronavirus outbreak erupted in China. Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative of several California-based Asian American civil rights organizations, has tracked more than 2,500 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between mid-March and early August, including reports of workplace discrimination, online harassment, and physical assaults.
Stop AAPI Hate recorded 61 such incidents in Massachusetts.
Civil rights groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have accused President Trump and public officials of exacerbating anti-Asian sentiment by referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” or “kung flu.”
The open letter, posted Sept. 21, has garnered more than 60 online signatures from students, teachers, parents, and community members in and around Boston. Seventeen-year-old Sarah Xu, one of the six students who coauthored the letter, organized the campaign through the nonprofit Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.
She got the idea from a class at Boston Latin School, where she’s now a senior, called “Facing History and Ourselves." The class, Xu said, examines “the unspoken narratives of different oppressed populations." Shortly before Boston schools closed, the class began discussing the recent surge of anti-Asian prejudice. With help from the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, she and the other students started drafting the letter this spring. They finished polishing it just in time for the new school year.
“I was definitely afraid and anxious because this has never happened in my lifetime so far," Xu said in an interview Monday, regarding the troubling rise in anti-Asian bigotry. “I’m thankful for the fact that I haven’t personally been attacked yet and I’m also in a community that keeps me safe.”
But in March, Xu still detected tension in her classes at Boston Latin, where roughly 30 percent of the students are of Asian descent.
“It did feel uncomfortable at times when people would talk about COVID," she said. "People couldn’t help but look at the Asians in the room.”
In the letter, the students described being stared at while walking down the street or riding the train. They cannot go to the grocery store, they wrote, “without fear of strangers harassing us."
“For me, I’m Chinese, so I wore masks very early,” 17-year-old Xi Zheng, a senior at North Quincy High School and one of letter writers, told the Globe. She said she’s afraid of leaving her home and “being attacked by a racist.”
“People look at me very strangely," she continued, “and I feel very uncomfortable.”
The students asked school leaders “to stand in solidarity with communities of color” by publicly speaking out against racism; hiring more diverse faculty and staff; hosting monthly anti-bias trainings; and teaching Ethnic Studies. They also requested a system for “reporting incidents of racism," and listening sessions and healing circles for students and families.
Letter writer Mandy Sun, who is also 17 and a senior at Boston Latin, said racism against Asian Americans is “normalized," which she hadn’t fully realized until the pandemic began. She recalled an incident in the spring, when a white student at a nearby suburban high school wrote a scathing Facebook post blaming the virus on Chinese people. Despite the student’s outburst, her school didn’t reprimand her, Sun said, because the student later apologized on social media.
“It made me feel, at first, angry, and I started thinking, ‘How are we going to move on from this? How are we going to create a better society?’ I feel like the only people who got outraged were in the Asian-American community," Sun said. The episode left her feeling “slightly hopeless.”
Boston Public Schools spokesman Jonathan Palumbo said the district is reviewing the letter and working on a response to the students. In an interview with the Globe on Tuesday, Malden Public Schools superintendent John Oteri reiterated the district’s commitment to anti-racism teaching and training.
“I think when you’re doing anti-racism, anti-bias [work], you’re trying to undo generations and, frankly, centuries of systemic oppression. It’s going to take awhile and it’s always going to be a work in progress,” he said. “I want to make Malden the most equitable, welcoming, inclusive school community, where people feel like they belong.”
The superintendent of Quincy Public Schools, Kevin Mulvey, did not return requests for comment.
“Young people are very much concerned about these issues and very much want to use their voice to make change, so this was a way for them to do that,” said Ben Hires, CEO of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, who signed onto the letter as a supporter. “To me, it’s just inspiring to see these young people use their voices in this way."