Words are powerful. They give voice to beliefs and deeply rooted ideologies that can incite violence. Mark Padoongpatt, associate professor and director of Asian and Asian American studies in the College of Liberal Arts, knows that all too well.
When the coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, Padoongpatt initially downplayed its seriousness to his Asian American and Pacific Islander students, hoping they wouldn’t become targets of public anger and frustration. But as understanding of the virus evolved and the pandemic took hold, he feared finger-pointing and the callous use of terms such as “China virus” would fuel a spike in anti-Asian sentiment and violence.
His fears became reality as rhetorical violence turned physical with a string of unprovoked attacks nationwide and deadly this year with the killing of eight people, including six Asian American women at Atlanta-area spas. Hateful rhetoric and misinformation may have played a part in the alarming trend, but Padoongpatt says the sense of inferiority and beliefs about minority “otherness” are at the heart of hate, and prove difficult to completely stamp out.
'We Need to Talk About Anti-Asian Hate' panelists:
- Stewart Chang, UNLV law professor
- Vanessa Concepcion, student oral historian, "Reflections: The Las Vegas Asian American & Pacific Islander Oral History Project"
- Vida Lin, president, Asian Community Development Council
- Tessa Winkelmann, UNLV assistant professor of history
The special episode on anti-Asian hate is part of the “We Need to Talk: Conversations on Racism for a More Resilient Las Vegas” series, which explores racism in various forms and brings together campus and community experts to have frank conversations in search of solutions. The series is sponsored by UNLV Libraries and the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.
Here Padoongpatt talks about stemming the tide of anti-Asian violence, embracing shared struggles, and moving from allyship to comradeship.
Why did you decide to host this special episode?
I’ve done a number of interviews where I’ve given a history of anti-Asian violence. This is a chance to listen to others in the community and hear their thoughts. It’s more than just having a conversation; it’s to push people to think a little more deeply. Hopefully, we can offer a different lens and push people to say, “I want to learn more about this.” Maybe it can be a gateway.
Give some historical perspective on the treatment of Asian Americans in this country.
There is a long history of anti-Asian violence that is systemic. It was large groups of people attacking the Chinese in the late 1800s, and collective violence against the Chinese in Wyoming, in Los Angeles, up and down the West Coast. In the 1930s, it was against the Filipino Americans in California, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, which is another kind of violence.
All this physical, rhetorical and legal violence spans the spectrum. There were the exclusion laws, the 1924 Immigration Act that banned all Asians from coming into the United States. There was colonialism and colonial violence. It’s not just that these attacks have happened to Asians historically; American culture has defined itself by these attacks. These attacks help the United States understand what it is not and what it does not want to be. “We’re not Asian; we’re not Filipino.”
That’s the longer history and legacy that continues to play a role today. It’s not just the physical violence that continues to happen. It’s that the logic and the rationale for those attacks continue to exist: “It’s China and the virus. It’s these people who are diseased. They don’t fit in our country. They’ll never become citizens.” That’s the danger. “We did this (violence) because they don’t speak our language. We did this because they don’t want to assimilate.”
What is the impact of the Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate campaign? Are such educational campaigns effective?
One of the things about Stop AAPI Hate is they’ve been doing great work for a long time. They’ve been trying to collect data on anti-Asian violence for a while. It helps because you have to have these things documented. To have more evidence is always going to be more helpful. The more reports we have, the clearer picture we can get of what this looks like. We know physical violence is only about 11 percent of the attacks, which we wouldn’t have known if we didn’t have tools to collect this information. We wouldn’t know to what extent these are physical or verbal or where they are happening.
How can we ally with the AAPI community to stop hate and curb acts of violence?
Try to understand the roots of this kind of violence. It’s rooted in America defining itself as a white nation. The phrase I learned from (UCLA historian) Robin D.G. Kelley is "love, study, struggle." First, root all the activity that we do in care and love for one another as part of humanity. Study — always be in the practice of learning about these mechanisms and how they work. And then struggle — find ways of collaborating with existing movements. Find out what people are doing and see how you can best help.
I’m thinking of this idea of comradeship more than allyship, which assumes that each group has its own individual struggles and none of these struggles are related to each other. When we think it through, there’s no way these struggles aren’t related to each other. Asian Americans being seen as not being true citizens, is connected to the Black experience because historically citizenship has always been up for debate for the Black community. No matter how American I try to be, no matter what I do, I’m working against 150 years of history that has defined me as the exact opposite. That’s the white privilege. I can’t be American unless I’m American the way they want me to be. If we can think about that collectively, then, in fact, we do have a shared struggle that can be different for each of our communities. We are no longer allies; now we’re comrades. We’re in the trenches together.
How have recent events informed or changed your teaching practice?
It’s forced me in a good way to be more mindful of students’ mental health and well-being. We’re not always focused on how a student’s well-being is affecting their learning. In this moment, it’s really pushed me. What do my students need now at a basic level to do the best work they can do? This goes beyond our professional relationship. This is about community building, trying to make sure they’re OK, and seeing how I can help them do better work in the midst of all this. It’s made it more visible that we need Asian American studies and ethnic studies programs — not because it’s going to fix immediately what’s happening right now but it can be a preventative measure for the future. We need to do the work to educate, so these things don’t happen again.
What do you want colleagues and the UNLV community to know?
The anti-Asian violence we’re seeing right now is cumulative; it’s a continuation of a longer history.
If we ever want to truly combat it, we’re going to have to address the logic of anti-Asian violence, not just the attacks themselves. We have to think about how Asian Americans are seen. We need to have a conversation about what the term “Asian American” means. For some of us, it means someone who is Asian and has an Asian cultural background and cultural identity. For me and other Asian American colleagues, it’s a political identity that means we are people of color and that we have been in this subordinate position to whiteness.
I’m excited. It’s the opening of the conversation. It’s not the answers, but we’re beginning to ask some of the right questions. I’m excited that it’s happening at UNLV. We’re starting to see what community building looks like in Las Vegas. Having these conversations around issues that affect multiple communities is a process of community building that I’m happy to be a part of in a small way.