On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Acworth, Georgia, eight people were killed in the Atlanta Spa Shootings, with six of the victims being women of Asian descent. According to Matthew Laurel, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) literature class teacher at Berkeley High School, this incident, along with many other reports of Asian American hate crimes that occurred during the pandemic, shocked the BHS community.
“That was one of the first times we saw, in modern history, a direct shooting massacre directed at Asian people,” said Laurel. The AAPI literature class, which was an addition to BHS in the 2022-2023 school year, was created primarily because of the hate against Asian Americans during the pandemic, according to Laurel.
Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 77 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans nationwide. In San Francisco alone, there was around a 500 percent increase in reported hate crimes against AAPI people between 2020 and 2021. Jocelyn Mae Sandiego, a junior at BHS, shared how reading about hate crimes against the AAPI community during the pandemic caused extreme duress.
“There was this one article that I read about this Filipino boy in New York … these kids saw him and started taunting him or something,” Sandiego said. “I don’t even remember exactly what was in that article, but it just made me feel so sad. I think I cried for two hours. I was just talking and crying to my mom about, ‘Oh my god, that could’ve been me. That guy was my age. I kind of look like that guy.’ That was when I was like ‘Wow, I don’t feel safe right now.”’
Despite how traumatic the hate crimes during the pandemic were, BHS senior Evelyn Chou explained that it did bring considerable attention to the struggles of Asian Americans in the United States.
According to Chou, something that has obscured Asian American struggles in the past is the model minority myth. Centered around stereotypes, the model minority myth largely pushes the idea that Asian Americans are automatically successful and have more privileges than other minority groups.
“The model minority myth is so prevalent that I think a lot of people had kind of forgotten about the fact that Asian Americans have and continue to face racism,” Chou said.
Sandiego shared a similar sentiment.
“In this world, a lot of people put Asians on a pedestal,” Sandiego said. “White people, or the American government, they basically put Asians on the pedestal so that they can make other races look bad, (…) they’re kind of dismissing everything that an individual is, and their struggles.”
Laurel explained that the pandemic helped bring awareness to the fact that Asian Americans do experience oppression.
“We are definitely a community of color, a marginalized community, a community that gets targeted for various things,” Laurel said. “The more visibility, the more awareness around anti-Asian hate is a good thing.”
According to Laurel, visibility is an important aspect of the AAPI literature class. That’s why he believes that it’s important for his students to feel a strong sense of belonging and connection in his classroom.
Sandiego believes this connection between Asian American students and other members of their community has also been extremely prevalent as students try to process the hate crimes. Sandiego explained that trying to talk to her non-Asian teachers about her experience was never the same as talking to her Asian teachers.
“When I talk to my Asian teachers, I felt like they could really relate to my situation, and they could put in more support,” Sandiego said.
BHS counselor Tiffany Liew agreed that teachers, counselors, and clubs that represent the Asian community are invaluable resources for students, especially when they’re experiencing targeted hate.
“It’s very important that students feel like they can be themselves and tell the stories that they need to tell and express the feelings that they need to express, without feeling like they need to conform or modify it in a way that’s more palatable for people who don’t understand,” Liew said.
Similarly, Chou mentioned that having a strong support system was what really helped them during the pandemic.
“I think it’s important to have people to talk to about it so that you’re not bottling (your emotions) up and internalizing them,” Chou said.
Chou also explained that on a larger scale, she feels the event has eased some tensions between specific Asian American ethnicities.
“With the rise in hate crimes and the Stop AAPI Hate movement, that kind of brought a sense of Asian unity within the entire community,” Chou said. “As much as the hate crimes took a toll on everyone, they also brought us together.”
Chou explained their desire for this sense of unity to continue to hold strong within the AAPI community. She also hopes that people continue to talk about what happened, so as to not forget or disregard what the AAPI community went through during the pandemic.
Liew explained that in the future, she wants more conversations to be had about the hate crimes during the pandemic and similar instances of oppression, so that students can feel more seen.
“There is an intentional conversation being had amongst us Asian American staff at school to create more spaces so that we’ll be more equipped later down the road, and so that we’re more visible in our own school,” Liew said.
Laurel explained that when talking about these kinds of sensitive topics, people need to be mindful of taking up too much space, especially when speaking from an outsider’s perspective. He advises that we should be aware of how our experiences and prejudices affect our place in the conversation.
Laurel acknowledged that everyone affected by the hate crimes will continue to process them in different ways, especially since not everyone was affected in the same ways. He expressed that the more people share their stories, experiences, and learn about their heritage, the better.
“I think those are the types of things that will ultimately help Asian American students at Berkeley High, and by extension, in the United States, feel more a part of society, more a part of the communities,” Laurel said.