“I am pissed,” read many people’s signs at an anti-Asian-hate rally that I attended the week after March 16, when eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in the Atlanta spa shootings. As an American-born Chinese woman who was raised in the liberal, multicultural enclaves of New York City and Los Angeles, I still grew up enduring my fair share of subtle microaggressions and outright racism. But despite this and knowing about the historical racism Asians have faced in the United States, as well about the landmark racetrack in my hometown that was used as a Japanese internment camp during World War II, I have never felt particularly “woke” about Asian Americans as an issue or field of study. I have always thought the racism we have faced as a racial group and as individuals is unjust, but I have never felt deeply wounded by it.
In the days following the shooting, I closely followed the reaction of the news media that surrounds us, of public K-12 education in which I have worked and in which my own children are educated, and of higher education, in which I currently teach. I observed the news cycle reigniting a short-lived wave of interest in issues concerning Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) that lasted only about a week — despite headlines about how that wave felt different than ever before.
I observed a muted response from the New York City Department of Education but was heartened by a strong call to action from the principal of my 5-year-old son’s school. And I observed the statement that the City University of New York’s (CUNY) chancellor made condemning the Atlanta shootings, building on an earlier statement denouncing increasing violence against the AAPI community. Both those statements, however, were posted on the university website, which garners little student traffic and which my own students certainly didn’t see. Even the institutional statements sent out via email often go unchecked as students struggle to keep up with their flooded college inboxes.
This sparked my curiosity around how many academic institutions have made timely statements through a communication channel that is more likely to reach students. So I conducted an ad hoc study of two small populations of colleges: 1) those that are part of the CUNY system and 2) members of the Ivy League. I chose to focus my analysis on Instagram rather than Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, since Instagram is the most popular institutional social media platform at our college, and one that is also reported by the Pew Research Center to be “especially popular” among the 18- to 24-year-olds who are of traditional college age.
I first visited all 18 CUNY community and senior colleges’ accounts on Instagram just to see how many colleges posted a public statement. To control for colleges that might have more robust communications offices and Instagram activity, or for the fact that they might have posted a message on their website or other channels like Facebook and Twitter but not Instagram, I also compared how many of those colleges made an Instagram post in response to George Floyd’s murder last year.
I found that in response to George Floyd’s murder, 15 out of the 18 CUNY colleges, or 83 percent, posted something related to Black Lives Matter, such as a direct statement on systemic racism or a #BlackOutTuesday post. In contrast, only 67 percent responded to the Atlanta shootings or #StopAsianHate (although five out of the six that did not post on Instagram posted something related to Asian solidarity on Twitter, in some cases one to two weeks later). And while the chancellor published a public statement on the CUNY website and Twitter, the university system did not publish anything related to the Atlanta shootings on its Instagram account, from what I could see. Instead, it featured photos of spring cherry blossoms and ongoing vaccination messages. Yet it made three antiracism Instagram posts in the week after George Floyd’s death.
As for the Ivy Leagues, all eight Ivy institutions posted a message on Instagram after George Floyd, compared to five out of eight after the Atlanta shootings. At several of those institutions that did not post, Asians composed close to 20 percent of their student bodies.
I am certain that communication offices across higher education are overextended in their capacity, especially in being able to keep up with posting similar messages or cross-posting the same message on multiple platforms. But this comparison of social media activity within the same platform of Instagram suggests that when an event is significant enough like the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, institutions will put in the effort to make sure the message goes through all platforms to reach as many people as possible.
Nationally, about 7 percent of all American college students are Asian. At an urban university like CUNY, about 20 percent of all students are of Asian descent (increasing to more than 40 percent at some colleges). Neglecting to go the extra mile of broadcasting a wide message across all communication channels can work against attempts at building an inclusive campus environment and student body (and indeed if one reads the comments of a college that did not post anything on Instagram in the immediate wake of Floyd’s death, one will find angry comments asking when the college was going to make a statement). As AAPI student activism grows, and as colleges strive to decolonize curricula and expand ethnic studies offerings through programs like CUNY’s Black, Race and Ethnic Studies Initiative, ensuring all students receive institutional statements in response to major national events can help build much-needed racial solidarity among diverse student bodies. At colleges with proportionally fewer AAPI students, it is arguably even more important to go this extra mile to make certain they are not further marginalized.
Social media and institutional statements aside, other acts of symbolism also matter. Some might call it performative, but in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I attended many meetings and events that began with a moment of silence for the Black lives that were lost. No meeting or event that I attended following the recent loss of multiple Asian lives did the same.
I do not write this out of wanting attention taken away from the Black Lives Matter movement. If anything, I want, as I wrote before, to fight anti-Blackness. I want more solidarity, particularly among the BIPOC community, as exemplified by AAPI and BLM supporters united to rally against hate. This is the only way that we can fight white supremacy and systemic racism.
I write this as a reminder of how AAPI students, faculty and staff are easily ignored because we systematically have yet to be prioritized in higher education. We too often remain an invisible minority in institutional policies, protocols and actions. Considering the enormous increased investment in diversity, equity and inclusion work across higher education in recent years, one post across all social media channels, with the goal of reaching all students, should be a minimal expectation of colleges and universities. It is a small investment of time and effort that can allow AAPI individuals to feel seen and included in America’s ongoing conversations around race.
Finally, because some of the perpetrators of recent violence against Asians have been Black people, fear of and misinformation about Black Americans is spreading within AAPI communities through channels like WeChat — particularly among the older generations of parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents of our students. Now more than ever, AAPI students need support from the institutions they attend — ideally one that goes even further than a basic tip of the hat of a #StopAsianHate message and also shows them how to address misinformation within their own families and communities. This can begin with bystander training for all, along with multiracial healing and solidarity events designed for students. But when the AAPI community remains an afterthought while their other counterparts of color are institutionally recognized, we run the risk of AAPI students retreating into more insular communities and further entrenching racial divisions.