Urban community reflects on its response to AAPI-hate: “it was long overdue”

Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States of America has seen a consistent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The March 16 shooting in Atlanta sent shock waves across the country and prompted a response from political figures, celebrities and the Urban School administration.
A statistic gathered by Stop AAPI Hate, where people self report hate crimes against Asian Americans, reported 3,795 AAPI hate crime cases nationally in 2020. More than 700 of these attacks took place in the Bay Area. The surge in hate crimes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has further jeopardized Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ sense of safety within their communities. Accordingly, as Urban returns to in-person schooling, members of the AAPI community sink into apprehension.
“To be honest, I was really nervous thinking about transitioning into

AAPI protest illustration. Illustration credit: Tulin Chang-Maltepe
in-person school,” said API Affinity Space Co-Leader, Cassie Eng ‘21. “A lot of [the AAPI community] has become really cautious about how we present ourselves in public.” Eng has taken on the responsibility of keeping her parents safe in public spaces. “I make sure to stay really close to [my mom], I want to make sure that she’s in my eyesight, and that she can see me at all times.”
With the Atlanta shooting at the start of Urban’s Spring trimester, “a lot of students and teachers don’t get to just have the first week of school,” said History Teacher Charisse Wu. “Personally, I felt like I was just witnessing Urban happening. I was there, but it just felt like it was all happening very quickly.” As the Urban community scrambled to initiate hybrid learning, the AAPI community was left to process yet another horrendous hate crime against their community.
In response to the shooting in Atlanta, Head of School Dan Miller and Dean of Equity and Inclusion Aku Ammah-Tagoe emailed the Urban student body on March 16. “AAPI students, faculty, staff, and family members are woven into the fabric of our community…We encourage AAPI students to reach out to adults or take time away from classes as needed; simply notify your Grade Dean when you return.”
Although Eng appreciated the response sent out, she said “it felt long overdue. Even though I knew that Urban was trying [and] the adults were trying, my gut reaction was that it took too long.”
In February of 2020, prior to San Francisco’s first mandatory lockdown order, API held a forum on anti-Asian rhetoric as a result of the pandemic. In May of 2020, they held a two part forum on the coronavirus itself. “We had been speaking up for a while, but it took over a year for people to actually come together to talk about it where it wasn’t initiated by API,” said Eng.
“I think that there’s a lot of work for students who are not API identifying to realize that this is part of their community and their society, too,” Wu said. “The work should not only rest on API students, adults, faculty and community people.” As Eng and Wu both mentioned, the Urban community relies heavily upon its own community to educate themselves in intersectional ways, but oftentimes, that responsibility is left to the people of color. “It’s not sufficient to have the response be only towards checking in on an Asian American friend, or a colleague or a classmate, it’s just one of the steps,” said Wu.
As the AAPI community continues to sit with the hate crimes that have been committed over the last year, Eng reflects on the cultural power dynamics that are at work within Urban. Such power dynamics drive the messages and responses that Urban presents to the community. “We analyze the power structures at play all the time in our classes. White supremacy, the patriarchy, those big buzzwords, they all have power at Urban,” Eng said. “We are good at detaching from that.”
“By being a predominately white private school, [the Urban community] has to unpack a lot of internal biases, even if [they’re] unconscious. They need to unpack the feeling that [just] because you’re disconnected from the issue, then you don’t have to care about it, and it doesn’t affect you,” said Eng.
In examining the complex social and power structures that are embedded into the school, Eng is appreciative of the willingness Urban has had to hold itself accountable and establish change. After Eng expressed her anger for the lack of response from the school administration, they worked together to continue the conversation about anti-AAPI hate and it’s presence in the school community. All school meetings, classes, affinity spaces and clubs have set aside time to discuss or reflect on the shooting in Atlanta.
Wu is “incredibly grateful that the Urban community [has] a strong [AAPI] community space. I think about Mahjong club. I think about how for a long time, our varsity women’s basketball team was predominantly API, [which] I think was really powerful, because they were the most winning team that we had at Urban. I think about the Asian American history class which I can now teach for two sections out of the year.”
Although these spaces and resources have a strong presence in the school, both Eng and Wu agree that the conversations about AAPI communities have to be constant and sustained. Wu encourages students and faculty to learn about the severity of anti-Asian laws and practices within this country, particularly in the Bay Area. Eng urges more students to attend Month of Understanding events and other panel discussions.
“A lot of people in the Urban community, even if some of them came to the API events, could turn their brain off and not think about it [after],” Eng said. Looking at this past year’s MOU events, Eng is critical of it’s lack of intersectionality as well as the steps that Urban takes after MOU conversations. “MOU had a really big turnout and conversation around gender in the classroom, but I want to push back on why we have to keep having this conversation. Why do we have to keep [Young Men’s Group and Students for Women’s Equality and Rights] together? They are almost always centered around white students even though we talked about the same [issues] in the women of color panel.” Eng said that even though “Urban [says] yes, we hear you and thank you for leading us in this conversation,” once students ask for real change, “the [response] is limited, so we end up having to have the same conversation again next year.”
“Urban can do a lot more to collectively consider and regard Asian American stories, voices, presences and contributions. Not just when people die tragically,” Wu said. “This is also something that is ongoing for how the school thinks [and] talks about all [communities] of color. It is an ever evolving battle and everyone has a part to play [in it].”