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Perspectives on COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Bias and Xenophobia

(Photo: Jessica Wong, Jenny Chiang, and Sheila Vo from the Massachusetts Asian American Commission outside the Massachusetts State House in March. Steven Senne / Associated Press)

Introduction: Perspectives on COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Bias and Xenophobia

Wednesday, September 23rd, 12:00-2:00pm

Panel 1 Description:

Since the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19, thousands of acts of anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported throughout the United States alone. Acts of physical violence and racism on Asians and people of Asian descent have spread globally as the virus itself spreads. These incidents connect to a long history of anti-Asian racism that has been supported by laws, institutions and representations, along with a long history of resistance by Asian Americans in solidarity with other communities of color.

The September 23rd panel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst presented various perspectives from diverse groups of UMass Amherst faculty, professional staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and community members. It was organized by the University’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and co-sponsored by the Asian & Asian American Studies Certificate Program, the Department of History, the Labor Center, the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, and the Asian & Asian American Arts and Culture Program, Fine Arts Center, the College of Education, the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the UMass Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, the Department of Sociology and the Public Engagement Project.

Nefertiti Walker, Interim Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer
Emmanuel Adero, Senior Director of Diversity Outreach, Assessment, and Planning
Ebru Kardan, Director of Diversity Communications

Miliann Kang was the panel organizer and moderator. She is Associate Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Director of Diversity Advancement, College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

Opening Remarks:

Welcome and thank you for joining us today for this important panel on anti-Asian racism and xenophobia during the COVID 19 pandemic. Like many campuses and communities we at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have faced many challenges since the beginning of the pandemic, many of which we have truly risen to the occasion in meeting, and others we are struggling with how to respond to more effectively. Today's panels provide a diversity of perspectives, in the spirit of open dialogue to move ourselves forward and prepare for the many challenges which still lie ahead. 

I am Miliann Kang, faculty in Women Gender Sexuality Studies and Director of Diversity Advancement for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and will be moderating. I'd like to thank the University of Massachusetts Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for hosting this event and for all the faculty staff students and community members who are participating, and all the co-sponsoring departments and programs. In the interest of time I will not list them all and will just briefly introduce each presenter. Their full bios are on the event website.

The first panel includes faculty from diverse fields who will speak about the current and historical contexts and responses to the rise in anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second panel includes current and former students staff and community members who will discuss the impact of the pandemic on our local community as well as community responses.

Panel 1: Bios and Abstracts:

“Documenting and Contextualizing Anti-Asian Racism During the COVID- 19 Pandemic”
C.N. Le, Senior Lecturer II in Sociology and Director of the Asian & Asian American Studies Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts

Description:  The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number and severity of acts of anti-Asian racism.  How have recent instances heightened persistent “yellow peril” stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans as threats to U.S. dominance and White supremacy? How has the Asian American community responded and how can Asian Americans build solidarity with Black and other communities of color to fight back against institutional injustice?

C.N. Le’s research focuses on demographics of race/ethnicity, immigration, class and culture within Asian American communities.  He is the founder of the website,, and has been cited in the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN, PBS, and the Huffington Post.

“U.S. Empire-building and Anti-Asian Racism: A Historical Perspective”
Richard T. Chu, Five College Associate Professor of History

From the Chinese exclusion laws to anti-Chinese/China discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. has historically treated the Chinese and other Asians as a racialized “other,” both within American society as well as in the global stage. The lecture demonstrates how such xenophobia against Blacks, Indigenous Peoples, and other peoples of color, stems from a racist ideology based on the principles of “Manifest Destiny,” “White Man’s Burden,” “American exceptionalism,” capitalism, and neo-liberalism to form the foundation of the U.S. nation-state and sustain its position as the global hegemon today.  

Richard Chu’s research focuses on the history of the Chinese in the Philippines during the Spanish and American colonial periods. He is author of Chinese and Chinese Mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity, and Culture 1860s–1930s, and is co-editor of an anthology of LGBTIA+ studies in the Philippines entitled More Tomboy, More Bakla Than We Admit that is coming out this year

“How Would an Inclusive Community Talk about China?”
Sigrid Schmalzer, Professor of Chinese history and Vice President of the Massachusetts Society of Professors

Description: The mainstream media has to some extent recognized the overtly racist and xenophobic character of recent US political discourse on China. This brief presentation will ask us to consider how more routine, apparently innocent statements reinforce the enduring prejudice in the US that sees China as fundamentally alien—a place to avoid “traveling to” rather than a place that is home for many in our community. What message do such statements send about inclusivity? And how would a truly inclusive community talk about China?

Sigrid Schmalzer is a Professor of Chinese history and a vice president of the MSP. Her research interests include the history of US travelers to China and their contributions to political discourse.

“Recuperating Multiracial Labor Solidarity as a Meaningful APA Politics: Lessons from the Filipino ‘Essential’ Workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee”
Cedric de Leon, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Labor Center

What is to be done in light of anti-Asian racism in the age of Covid? Drawing on the example of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a Filipino farm workers' union that began the Delano Grape Strike in California in 1965, I argue that Asian Pacific Americans should recuperate a politics of multiracial solidarity as a way to confront contemporary white supremacy.

Professor de Leon has written five books including Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule (Stanford 2019) and The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago (Cornell 2015). In a previous life, Cedric was an organizer and local union president in the American Labor Movement. He grew up in the working-class Filipino community of St. Jamestown in Toronto, Canada.

“Creative Responses to Anti-Asian Racism during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Michael Sakamoto, Interim Director of Programming and Director of Asian/Asian American Arts and Culture.

Sakamoto will speak about Viet Thanh Nguyen (writer) and Kristina Wong (performance artist) as public figures addressing the current situation through their practice.

Michael Sakamoto (MFA, PhD) is a scholar-artist, educator, and arts manager active in dance, theatre, media, photography, and culture. His articles and anthology chapters have been published by Routledge, Palgrave MacMillan, Thames and Hudson, and McFarland, and his book, An Empty Room: Butoh Performance and the Social Body in Crisis, is forthcoming with Wesleyan University Press. Michael’s creative works have been presented throughout the US and in fifteen countries worldwide. He is former faculty at University of Iowa, CalArts, Goddard College, and Bangkok University. Michael currently serves as Director of the Asian/Asian American Arts and Culture Program and Interim Director of Programming at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. Further info:

“Anti-Black Racism and Anti-Asian Racism: Bridging Divides, Renewing Solidarities”
Sangeeta Kamat, Professor of Comparative and International Education, College of Education.

The South Asian diaspora offers a unique vantage point into the uneven terrain of racism where on the one hand South Asians face racism but South Asians also perpetrate anti-Black racism and colorism. This duality or contradiction can only be understood through the lens of caste and caste hierarchies that travels from the subcontinent to the U.S. but also as Isabelle Wilkerson writes in her groundbreaking book “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” it underlies the structure of race in the U.S. with Blacks and Whites as the two ‘poles of the American caste system’ and multiple racialized ‘others’ occupying places in between. The struggle to end racism therefore must confront how racial ‘others’ are divided and pitted against one another, in particular Asians against Blacks and must work to revive old solidarities and build new ones in times of global supremacist politics.

Sangeeta Kamat is Professor of Comparative and International Education in the College of Education and has published on Hindu nationalism in India and the diaspora, on the NGOization of social movements, and on neoliberalism, educational inequality and issues of inclusion


Panel 2: Graduate and Undergraduate Students, Staff, and Community Representatives

Emmanuel Adero, Senior Director of Diversity Outreach, Assessment, and Planning

Jay Wong, Program Director and Brooke Kamalani Yuen, Western MA Coordinator of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (AAC). The AAC has provided assistance and support for these communities affected by COVID-19, such as financial assistance, educational panels, anti-Asian community action guide toolkit, voter registration, participating in the census.

Sonia Lindop, Project Director for Auxiliary Enterprises Career Ladder Program, a collaborative program that provides career advancement opportunities for food service employees at UMass. In the recent years, the program has provided training in Mandarin, Vietnamese, Nepali, Spanish and English.

Dora Tseng, Consumer Manager in Disability Services.

Lian Guo, PhD candidate in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

Lily Tang, a rising Senior at UMass Amherst studying Political Science and Asian/ Asian American Studies. She founded UMass' first-ever Asian American Film Festival and brought to campus popular filmmakers and actors like Mike Bow and the Wong Fu Productions. Throughout her time at UMass, she advocated for the Cultural Centers and worked to secure additional funding and staff for the centers. She strongly believes in the importance of culturally sensitive support programs for students of color. Under her leadership, the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center increased its programming capacity and student engagement. Lily is the Director of Outreach for the Commonwealth Seminar, a nonprofit dedicating to opening the doors of government to marginalized communities. Lily is also passionate about advocating for the Asian American community and pushing for diverse political representation.

Hwei-Ling Greeney, founder, Amherst Community Connections, an organization that addresses the issue of homelessness in Amherst. ACC has been particularly active in helping Asians/Asian Americans find shelter, food, assistance, etc. in this time of CoVid-19. Furthermore, a number of UMass students have been interning with the organization. So I think it would be great to invite her to tell us more about AAC, what it has been doing for Asians/Asian Americans affected by CoVid-19, and how UMass can partner with her organization (aside from internships for students).

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