By Christina Chen
Last Thursday, 26 Asian high school students, many of whom are recent immigrants from China and Vietnam, were targeted in a series of racial attacks in the hallways of South Philadelphia High School.
Xu Lin, a community organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, reported “a gang of other students” were “searching for victims” throughout the day, resulting in a spate of beatings that landed seven Asian students in a nearby hospital.
As somebody who has worked with low-income, immigrant students affected by anti-Asian violence in Bensonhurst Brooklyn (and encountered my fair share of it growing up in the Bay Area) I have a bone to pick with the way in which school administrators, law enforcement officials, and the media have handled the case.
It’s easy to buy into the cut-and-dry, mainstream coverage of the incidents, but these articles often lend credence to counterproductive stereotypes and aggravate longstanding tensions in our schools.
For starters, reports of anti-Asian violence often lapse into tired “model minority” tropes. In profiling Asian students as defenseless victims of these assaults, these articles overlook the brio with which these same students speak up and fight back. As Helen Gym, an activist with Asian Americans United a community advocacy group that has helped document and address these and similar offenses, points out:
“Many of these immigrant students have become articulate and impassioned leaders for youth voices. They’ve written platforms about what they need from their principals and teachers. They need to be heard - and the recommendations they’ve made over the year taken seriously.”
South Philadelphia High’s Asian immigrant students, like Wei Chen, president of the school’s Chinese American Student Association, may be harassed because of “cultural barriers” and their status as non-native English speakers. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are complacent in the face of escalating violence.
On Sunday, Chen announced that South Philadelphia’s students will be mobilizing an all-week walk out. These budding student activists will be convening in Chinatown to work “on their own plans, conduct research… and meet with community and district leaders” to formulate their own solutions to the attacks.
Chen stated in a press release:
South Philadelphia High School is still not a safe place for us. Because we are Asian immigrants, we are targeted. We have been working with the school a long time, but still the school has failed to provide a concrete plan to address our safety inside and outside the building.
Chen and his peers are looking beyond law enforcement mechanisms to foster a more secure campus. Let’s be real here: South Philadelphia High is 70 percent Black and 18 percent Asian. The “disciplining” of those involved in the attacks often translates into the further criminalization of youth of color. High school students in Philly, New York in the Midwest, the South, and yes, even in California, are being taunted and physically attacked for being Asian, and yet schools and police respond by criminally prosecuting kids. What these perpetrators did is wrong. But how will these measures curb the racism and hostility faced by Asian immigrant students?
These incidents of cross-cultural, interpersonal violence warrant the creation of strong, anti-oppression curriculum that avouches the powerful stereotypes generated by the systemic relations between this nation’s racial groups. And it's no help that the model minority myth, which mainstream coverage of anti-Asian violence often perpetuates, has long pitted Asian Americans against other communities of color.
South Philadelphia’s students are a far cry from the powerless, academically obsessed victims that the media make them out to be. This week, they will disabuse whatever notions folks may have about Asian immigrant students as “mere victims” involved in incidents over which they have no agency.
South Philadelphia High youth have put out a call for assistance for Mandarin and Vietnamese translators and for contributions to help pay for the students' transportation as well as meals during this time.
Contributions may be sent to:
Asian Americans United
1023 Callowhill Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123