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Responding Thoughtfully to Anti-Asian and Asian American Violence

Tools for Beginning Conversations with Students and Colleagues

Grace Lin is an award-winning Taiwanese-American children’s author and illustrator who, since 1999, has written a series of books. Her stories always depict multicultural characters and themes, including Asian and Asian American characters. On Sunday, she wrote a public Facebook post apologizing for her long held faith that the proliferation of such books was powerful enough to save lives. As an artist and storyteller, her work has proactively challenged exclusion and distortion by offering young people opportunities to embrace a range of people and experiences as part of the greater human experience. “But,” she noted “the books have never been enough. They are just tools and tools must be used to work. For the books to work, they need people to use them. They need all of you. And they need you every day. Not just during Lunar New Year. Not just during AAPI month. Not just after an Anti-Asian Attack.”

Despite her misgivings, Lin’s work has proactively built awareness for over 20 years. Her imperative for people within and outside of the Asian diaspora to recognize the range of tools that illuminate Asian American Pacific Islander experiences speaks to and beyond this difficult moment. The point many politicians, activists, and artists have made over the last year is that targeted violence against AAPIs has an extensive history in U.S. public policy, cultural depictions, and the political arena.

The increased media attention to violence against Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) and Asian nationals, in 2021 builds on patterns of bias and harassment reported in spring 2020 when the COVID-19 virus forced multiple nations into lockdown. The tragic murders in Atlanta amplify the deep impacts of racism and sexism and the necessity of recognizing the concerns, fears, and anxieties of students and colleagues, especially those who feel targeted directly by such hostility.

It seems every year higher education communities are seeking effective ways to navigate national and global issues of identity. There isn’t a singular solution, but we are positioned as educators to take an evidence-based approach to engage students and colleagues.

Below I share information for CAS faculty and staff, especially those seeking more context and information, to begin developing cultural awareness regarding AAPI concerns.

AAPI General Population Information

  • Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations comprise 5.9% of the U.S. population
  • The AAPI population is comprised of 48 ethnic groups.
  • The U.S. Asian population grew 72% between 2000 and 2015 (from 11.9 million to 20.4 million), the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group. By comparison, the population of the second-fastest growing group, Hispanics, increased 60% during the same period.

How the “Model Minority” Obscures AAPI’s Experiences with Racism

Since the late 1960s AAPIs have navigated the burden of the “model minority” myth. The term might appear endearing to some, but it has been used historically to pit AAPIs against African Americans and Latinos by contrasting comparative levels of educational attainment and financial success among. Such maneuvering deflects attention away from overarching forms of systemic racism.

In addition to the problematic and unnuanced comparison of racial groups based on a narrow set of culturally constructed “standards,” the collective understanding of AAPI identities is warped by ignorance of AAPI diversity. As Pak, Maramba, & Hernandez (2014) have noted, disaggregating the population by ethnicity, gender, immigration status and socioeconomic status reveals the “diverse homogeneity within the Asian American category” (5). Their argument reveals how artificial racial categories flatten out significant differences in background and experience.

For example, according to the Pew Center, about half of Asians ages 25 and older (51%) have a bachelor’s degree or more, compared with 30% of all Americans this age. These shares vary widely by Asian origin group, however. Indians have the highest level of educational attainment among Asian Americans, with 72% holding a bachelor’s degree or more in 2015. A majority of Sri Lankan (57%), Mongolian (59%) and Malaysian (60%) adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or more. But lower shares of adults have a bachelor’s degree or more for Cambodians (18%), Hmong (17%), Laotians (16%) and Bhutanese (9%).

This example illustrates how the “model minority” myth distorts the diversity of AAPIs, which also contributes to the exclusion of AAPI concerns in national conversations about racial discrimination. The “commonsense” logic that AAPIs are doing well based on select data can easily distort how activists, performers, and scholars have chronicled the persistence of harmful, degrading, and dehumanizing AAPI stereotypes in media and politics. The exclusion of   AAPI’s experiences with micro and macroaggressions from conversations about racial discrimination is one of the results of the myth.

Anti-AAPI Violence Since 2020

It’s important to note that 68% of bias and hate crimes reported in the last year against AAPIs targeted women. The murder of six Asian women and the violent attacks on Asian women, especially elderly women, speaks to why we must understand racism intersectionally.

Addressing racism toward AAPIs should not be construed as shifting the focus away from racism’s impact on Black and Latinx populations. Populations may experience different forms of racism, and/or have different histories of racism; these differences do not change racism’s brutal nature or its pervasiveness.

Helpful Resources

In addition to supporting the BU-sponsored programs (see Features), I encourage CAS faculty and staff interested in creating space for students and/or colleagues to employ the following tools for dialogue:

The following organizations offer a range of resources for ongoing education:

These are just a sampling of tools to help build a culture which acknowledges and responds to racism, and engages with AAPI people and culture in everyday contexts outside of flashpoints. Hopefully the work of creative artists who tell stories from Asian American perspectives, such as Lin, shifts from something we learn about in a crisis to something we seek regularly.


Vincent L. Stephens, Ph.D.
(pronouns: he/him/his)
Associate Dean, Diversity and inclusion, College of Arts & Sciences