Anti-Asian Incident at Penn Highlights Persistent On-Campus Tensions in the Ivies

University of Pennyslvania's College Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
University of Pennyslvania’s College Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

What should have been a fun mixer to celebrate the end of the school semester turned ugly two weeks ago at the University of Pennsylvania. On April 17th, members of the school’s Vietnamese Students’ Association hosted a members-only barbeque event for Spring Fling.

Witnesses say that a non-member student approached the event and asked for a burger. When informed that the event was closed, the student — described by witnesses as an “African American male wearing an OZ tank top” — reportedly said, “Is it because I don’t look like you? I eat rice and watch anime, too.”

OZ (“Old ZBT”) is an unsanctioned, off-campus unofficial fraternity organized around a former chapter of Zeta Beta Tau. In 1988, ZBT was expelled from the University of Pennsylvania campus for a party that involved “strippers, cucumbers and ketchup” that left the house charged with violating numerous university regulations and state laws including sexual harassment, alcohol abuse and prostitution.

In this most recent incident, the student allegedly returned to the VSA’s private BBQ with a group of other students, many of them also sporting OZ tank tops. The group proceeded to verbally harass the VSA students, using numerous racially charged phrases and slurs while issuing death threats. Reports the Daily Pennsylvanian:

People were saying things like ‘f**k you chinks’ and other really horrible things,” College senior Bethany Cam said. She recalled that some students tried to climb onto their porch, and that people attending the barbecue formed a blockade to try to prevent non-members from entering the property. She said that a mob of people formed outside the house, all yelling and screaming at them.

She also recalled death threats. “People were saying, ‘We’ll kill you — you don’t belong here.’ There were maybe two or three guys chanting it,” Cam said. One of the other people there, she said, threw a cup of alcohol at them. 

They remembered that the original student who approached them, noticeably more intoxicated, instigated the second confrontation, approaching the house and saying, “Remember me?”

An undergraduate who witnessed the attack told me by email that the incident “escalated to the point of near physical contact and the chanting of ‘Fuck you, chinks!'”.

This whole situation has been quite absurd and frankly horrifying, but it does entails how racism has continued to reside even in one of America’s prestigious schools. [We] felt cornered and attacked… Shouting racist slurs, trespassing, threatening, and sexual harassments are all things that model students of our school should denounce and not do. And yet, this was what VSA encountered on that day by the same students that sit next to them in class.

While this incident must have been harrowing, thankfully it does not appear as if anyone was hurt in the 10-minute mob attack that formed around the VSA Spring Fling party.

Meanwhile, where do I even begin with this? This incident is not only an example of racially-charged violence, but more importantly it is grounded in the presumption that Asian American students are unwelcome, abnormal, and do not belong at the University of Pennsylvania. Students attend universities to find academic forums of reasoned debate; the tolerance of racist invective is not just an attack on the individual students, but on the entire institution’s mission of building a civil discourse within their academic environment. This kind of open, racist hostility should have no place on a campus of higher learning.

Thanks in no small part to the persistence of the Model Minority Myth, the racism that Asian American students face typically receives scant attention. Even though Asian Americans make up more than 20% of most Ivy League universities — we are 21.3% of the U. Penn student community — hostile anti-Asian stereotypes persist on this campus and throughout much of the Ivy League. Anti-Asian stereotypes — from the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype to the Asians-are-all-the-same stereotype to off-hand remarks about Asians as geeky math nerds — are casually tossed around for a laugh, particularly in anonymous social media forums like Yik Yak where such comments are commonplace. Such mistreatment is so pervasive that it was the topic of a recent town hall at Cornell University, and similar conversations have begun elsewhere around the country. Meanwhile, the Model Minority Myth asserts that the Asian American is too unassuming and politically disengaged to fight back in the face of racism; yet, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Following the incident in April, the VSA issued an email to their members, and have engaged the campus’ Pan-Asian American Community House, the Vice Provost’s Office, and the Office of Student  Conduct; and are seeking a formal investigation as to whether or not the attack violates university regulations and/or constitutes a hate crime.  Meanwhile, the instigating student has issued an email apology and both the OZ organization and university administration has distanced itself from the incident.

The anonymous student who contacted me on this story said that the campus has now interpreted the incident as evidence of deteriorating relations between the Black and Asian community. Yet, this seems like a bizarre characterization of the events: the African American student described as the instigator was by his own admission the only Black student in the crowd of attackers. Thus, this incident is clearly not characteristic of Black and Asian tensions. Rather, it is indicative of the kind of on-campus racial environment faced by scores of Asian American students in our institutions of higher education. Says the anonymous student:

We go to an Ivy League school and we expect more from our peers. Not only that, but we demand equality as well. Asian-Americans have always been the “passive voice”, in these conversations concerning race, but I believe that this is the time to stand together and fight this injustice.

No student should have to go to a school where they must endure an environment where their peers are empowered to engage in a form of racist mob hostility, and the administration is complacent about doing anything about it. No student should have to sit in a classroom next to someone who has uttered a racist death threat against them.

As of right now, there is no organized action on this incident. However, if you would like to make yourself heard, here is the website link for the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Student Conduct contact page.

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