First Thought

Insights drawn weekly from Karin Fischer’s global-education newsletter, latitude(s). Subscribe here.

The shootings at Asian-run spas near Atlanta were a dark moment in a grim year for anti-Asian racism — since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group Stop AAPI Hate has catalogued nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian discrimination or xenophobia. It’s a theme that’s been echoed in many of my exchanges with international students, so I wanted to talk with an expert. I called up Yingyi Ma, a Syracuse University sociologist and author of a terrific book on the Chinese-student experience. Our conversation was edited for space and clarity.

How do you think international students are absorbing this news?

American higher education doesn’t score high on the safety front, and last week’s event definitely exacerbated that fear that America is unsafe, that a random person can use guns to kill people. The very fact that six out of eight victims are Asian women definitely makes the violence racialized and gendered. And given that 70 percent of all international students in the United States are from Asia, I think that would definitely make them very, very afraid.

But I would argue that anti-Asian racism is always there. It’s just made prominent last week, made more visible last week.

I agree that anti-Asian racism isn’t new. But I wonder if you think that the pandemic — and now these shootings — has changed how international students perceive racial attitudes and racism toward them in the United States?

Certainly. I think it’s not surprising that before the pandemic, international students did not view the issues through the lens of race. Take Chinese international students, for example. They’re coming from a society where race is not a salient social category. They don’t really have the vocabulary, this analytical lens of race, in their home country. China isn’t a ethno-racial society as the United States is. A lot of them came here to attend college and probably for the first time ever had a conversation about race and racism. It’s not surprising for me that they do not really tend to interpret their experiences as being targets of racism. Probably they have experienced it, but they do not interpret it that way. The pandemic probably has changed this for many students.

I have done research and published a paper during the pandemic focused on mask wearing. Chinese international students were among the very first groups in America who started to wear masks before mask wearing was mandated or endorsed by CDC guidelines. I’ve interviewed students from California to the East Coast, and almost every single one of them struggled with this decision of wearing one. When they wear a mask to the classroom, they were even questioned by their dear professor who asked them, Are you sick? If you’re sick, please don’t come here. If you’re not sick, why do you wear a mask? Are you selfish? They were caught in these cross-cultural differences in responses to the public-health crisis. Sometimes when they wear a mask, they were yelled at on the street. And several people mentioned that this is actually the first time ever they have experienced racism in America. So yes, to answer your question, the pandemic has really made their experiences with racism more visible.

Read more from Karin’s interview with Yingyi Ma in this week’s latitude(s).

The Reading List

  • As a presidential candidate, Vice President Kamala Harris criticized a fake university the U.S. government set up as a student-visa sting. Now the Biden administration is trying to dismiss a lawsuit brought by former students in federal claims court.
  • Support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has dropped among both Republicans and Democrats since President Biden took office.
  • The Welsh government is planning a new international-exchange program for its universities after the U.K. pulled out of Erasmus.

Featured on

“If we have adequate vaccine in April, it seems that, given what we have seen over spring break, that it is a very reasonable request that states expand that eligibility to allow college students to get vaccines.”

—Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 Task Force, on whether policies that prioritized vaccinating college students would be good for public health.

Other experts warn that more progress needs to be made on vaccinating more-vulnerable populations before college students who are not otherwise eligible — because of their health conditions or work — get their shot. Read more from Francie Diep in The Chronicle: “Should College Students Be Prioritized for Covid-19 Vaccines Now?