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Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Nellie Tran Nellie Tran

A Powerful Voice Against Anti-Asian Racism

Nellie Tran, associate professor in counseling and school psychology, co-authored a congressional testimony on the wave of violence and discrimination.
By Michael Klitzing

Nellie Tran was already writing her congressional testimony on anti-Asian discrimination and violence  when  news broke about the killing of eight people — six of them Asian American women — in a series of mass shootings in Georgia. The Mar. 16 incident put a horrific spotlight on the surge of racism and violence targeting Asian Americans during  the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two days later, Tran — associate professor in counseling and school psychology at San Diego State University and vice president of the Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA) — and Anne Saw from DePaul University submitted the AAPA’s written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans. The document provided both historical context for anti-Asian racism as well as recommendations for federal action.

Tran also recently joined Virginia Loh-Hagan, director of SDSU’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Resource Center, and Congcong Zheng, associate professor in the Fowler College of Business, to write a commentary in The San Diego Union-Tribune calling for individuals to take action against racism.

The SDSU News Team spoke to Tran about the history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., its toll and what needs to be done.

What was it like to be preparing this testimony as this tragedy was unfolding?

I didn't know how to react. I was already inundated with my own experiences of anti-Asian racism, and then I had this really urgent task. Plus, I have a baby at home, we're in a pandemic, I have to do my teaching and grading ... and then this happened and I was very numb to it. Many of my Asian American students were also feeling enraged or completely numb. I felt a responsibility to write the testimony, and I felt privileged to have a platform. I just thought, “If I don't do this, I don't know who's going to."

How does the current surge in racism against Asian American communities fit into the larger historical context?

In the testimony, we talked about anti-Asian legislation passed from the 1800s all the way until now. Treating Asians as ‘other’ has been a normal thing throughout our history. One thing we don't talk about in the testimony and what a lot of Asian Americans today feel is racial slighting, microaggressions. We are the punchlines, the butt of all jokes. When you need a comic relief or a clown in a movie, it's an Asian person. I think when the shooting happened, for a lot Asian American women, it also raised these stereotypes around being hypersexualized, being objectified. We are stereotypes everywhere we go.

How has this manifested itself in your own experience?

Early in my career at a different university, I had a teaching evaluation that talked about how the way I looked and dressed was a temptation. This all brings that back for me. I didn't tell that many people about it at the time because I was embarrassed. I study race and racism, so I know that it was a sexist and racist comment, but it's embarrassing to have how you look called into your professional life in that way. Interpersonally, throughout our lives, this feels like normal. My family is Vietnamese and my mom was a manicurist shop owner. She's been held up at gunpoint on multiple occasions, and she has been harassed with racist comments throughout her career.

Have you felt this get worse since the pandemic?

I know that a lot of my family members and a lot of my students report experiencing more slights — microaggressive things at the grocery store and other places. People looking at them funny or turning around and walking away. I have friends who are nurses so I'm hearing about patients who ask for a different nurse. To me it feels like what we've always experienced. I have been writing about this type of racialism and misogyny for over a decade.

What kind of psychological toll does this take on Asian American communities?

We're constantly having to question, "Why does this keep happening to me,” and "Am I to blame for this?” Right now, we're still dealing with that immediate trauma response. But I think a month or two out, we're going to have folks who are dealing with higher levels of anxiety and more depression, more fear about interacting with other people and more trust issues.

What needs to be done now to address this?

I think what we need is for the government to suggest that this is an issue — not just through a hearing but through policies and allocation of resources. There are conversations starting about whether to categorize these incidents as hate crimes. When violence is not categorized as a hate crime, the government doesn't track it. That's why so many of the numbers we're hearing are coming from academics who decided, on their own accord, to document and try to track these incidents. The government needs to say this is a big enough problem to track, and to make sure it doesn't get worse. And we want money allocated for services — mental health services in particular. But I think folks in San Diego and at San Diego State need to hear that we are not outside of this problem. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be able to advocate for our community at the governmental level, but there are solutions we can work on here.