Ardsley Asian rally Edgemont woman photo

Mila Lopez of Ardsley points to a sign held by Junni Zheng of Edgemont at a rally in Ardsley March 20.

Vivian Guo was sitting in her room scrolling through social media when she heard about the shootings in Atlanta last Tuesday. At first, she didn’t quite comprehend the gravity of what had happened. With many people already posting about hate crimes committed against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the last couple of months, Guo was feeling desensitized.

She absolutely hated feeling that way. It made her question her own morality when too often she found herself scrolling past news about an incident in which people were killed, hurt or attacked, or posts about places to donate to help victims, or video footage and photos of people getting assaulted.

Unfortunately, the news of violence became too commonplace in her social media feed, so when she read about the attack in Atlanta, she had to focus and read through news articles and social media posts, and slowly she began to process the horror of what had happened.

“It was really shocking to see how so much racism could fester in one person that they would do something like that,” said Guo.

Though more than 800 miles away, the massacre in Atlanta has hit close to home for many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Scarsdale, who make up approximately 15% of the village’s population.

Many in Scarsdale’s Asian American community have been trying to process the attack by a 21-year-old shooter who targeted three massage parlors in the Atlanta area killing eight people, including six Asian women.

Authorities in Georgia were hesitant to label the shooting a hate crime and Cherokee County Capt. Jay Baker, a public information officer at the county sheriff’s office, drew criticism after he said the shooter claimed the attack wasn’t racially motivated and that his sex addiction was to blame. Baker said after speaking to investigators, the attacker was “pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope” and that it was “a really bad day for him.”

To honor the victims of the attack, the Scarsdale Chinese Association, in connection with Scarsdale High School’s Asian Conscientization and Empowerment Club, will hold a communitywide vigil in Chase Park on March 27.

The Atlanta massacre is the latest in a worrying uptick nationally in violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the past year. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks reported incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, there were nearly 3,800 incidents reported to the group between March 2020 and February 2021.

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 58% of Asian American adults said they thought it was more common now for people to express racist views against people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have also happened locally in New York State and Westchester County. In 2020, there were 29 anti-Asian American hate crimes reported to the New York City Police Department. In the first three months of 2021, there have been 10 reported incidents. On March 9, Nancy Toh, an 83-year-old Asian American woman, was attacked near the Westchester Mall in White Plains. According to the Westchester County district attorney’s office, the incident is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

“My grandma lives with me and [she] goes on walks two times a day,” said Guo, reflecting on the attack. “It could easily be her.”

Since the Atlanta incident, many groups in Scarsdale spoke out or issued statements condemning the attack, and expressed support for Scarsdale’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

Scarsdale Schools Superintendent Thomas Hagerman wrote in an email to Scarsdale families March 19 that the increased incidents of violence and racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders was “alarming” and that as educators the district had a responsibility to protect students from both physical and emotional harm.

“As a district, we believe all students deserve a safe and welcoming environment in which to learn and grow,” wrote Hagerman. “However, issues of racism and other forms of bias exist, and our students must be prepared to confront them. So, our curriculum and instructional practices must boldly address them in ways that honor multiple perspectives, analyze existing structures of bias, develop critical thinking and nurture empathy for others.”

During the Scarsdale Board of Education meeting March 22, board president Pam Fuehrer shared the board’s support for Scarsdale’s Asian American population and endorsed efforts “to make Scarsdale a more welcoming community.”

During public comment, Leanne Freda, president of Scarsdale High School’s PTA Executive Committee, read a statement the PTA sent to the Scarsdale community March 19, which expressed solidarity with Scarsdale’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community and encouraged parents to join a program on implicit or unconscious bias on April 13.

“This work is ongoing and transcends one tragedy or one program,” said Freda.

Though many feel safe in the village, Scarsdale High School students have been processing the attack and what it means to be an Asian American or Pacific Islander in America.

Thomas Kuo, a junior at Scarsdale High School, told the Inquirer he was angry about the attack, but wasn’t necessarily surprised by it.

“Asian American hate, as in these violent crimes, has been going on since before the pandemic even started,” said Kuo. “Then this pandemic happened and Trump was calling it the ‘China virus’ and ‘kung flu’ and … when you say those kind of things in a racially divided country and all these hate crimes start happening, I just kind of felt like it was a matter of time until something really big actually happened.”

While in Scarsdale, Kuo said he has experienced microaggressions with some students who have perpetuated Asian stereotypes and made racist remarks. He said he’s talked about the instances with his friends but hasn’t been active in reporting them.

“Historically, Asian Americans have been taught to just tolerate it rather than bring it up and have it be this whole big thing,” said Kuo.

Janmariz Deguia, a junior at Scarsdale High School, said she was devastated and overwhelmed by the attack, especially when she’s still expected to continue with her schoolwork while also processing the trauma of the news of the massacre. She said that although she wasn’t scared for her safety in Scarsdale she was worried about her parents’ general safety, since many attacks against Asian Americans have been against the elderly.

“My mom does not have an accent … but she does struggle with English grammar and I’m always correcting her,” said Deguia. “In the Atlanta shooting one of the women who was at the Gold Spa had called the 911 operator and [they] could not understand what she was saying. So, I always have this fear that if I’m in a situation separate from my mom, then nobody will be able to understand her.”

Deguia said she’s had her own learning struggles while in school and she’s shared her difficulties with teachers and guidance counselors since middle school. Many times, she said, teachers and counselors would tell her to “work harder,” and although it may have the same response other students were receiving, in the back of her mind she sometimes wondered if stereotypes played a role in the response to her call for assistance.

“I’ve always felt like sort of an outsider,” said Deguia. “I’ve heard people say ‘Oh, I got a lower grade than the rest of the class because the rest of the class is Asian. It’s just uneven because they’re all smart.’”

Tiffani Pan, a 2015 Scarsdale High School graduate, said that many Asians and other minorities feel a constant “umbrella of anxiety” when they go out in public — an immutable feeling that something bad might happen to them, a feeling that is not felt by majority populations.

The attack last week prompted her to order pepper spray online for protection, especially as she considers going to New York City for graduate school.

“Nationally, something needs to be done,” said Pan. “We see these incidents time and time and time again and I just think … something needs to change.”

Emily Gu, a junior at Scarsdale High School, said she was disgusted over the attack in Atlanta, especially because of the shooter’s fetishization of Asian women, who are often sexually stereotyped for being submissive and docile, a trope that’s often spread through movies and the media.

In September 2019, Guo and her friend Karen Lee co-founded Scarsdale High School’s Asian Conscientization and Empowerment Club. The club was created to act as a space for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the school to talk about their unique experiences. Topics have ranged from dealing with the communication barriers with parents and the model minority stereotype, to more lighthearted conversations like how they planned to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

In July 2020, an account on Instagram called “Scarsdale_Asians” began posting anonymous stories from students who experienced microaggressions and racial remarks in the school district. Students shared their own experiences of feeling ostracized by the community. One student reported being insulted by other students because of race. Another student stopped bringing food from home because other students would make fun of what they ate. The account hasn’t had any new stories posted since last August.

Although she hasn’t encountered any memorable microaggressions herself, Guo said she was aware of the Instagram and remembered reading the posts and feeling shocked that people were experiencing that in the schools.

Kuo said he also looked through the posts and thought it was great that people were stepping up to have their voices heard.

Two days after the massacre in Atlanta, the village released its own letter in response. The letter, signed by Mayor Marc Samwick, said Scarsdale sought “to build a community that is just, fair, welcoming and inclusive, where dignity is maintained” and called the shooting “another tragic event in a series of mass shootings that continue to plague our country with targeted attacks on specific groups of people.”

Scarsdale’s Chinese Association, which represents more than 300 families, also vehemently condemned the Atlanta attack and denounced all acts of hate and violence. The association supported Samwick’s letter and wrote that the group appreciated the village’s show of support for the local Asian American community.

Though many appreciated the letter, Scarsdale resident Sylvia Teng Dundon felt the village’s letter was “a tepid response at best” and it didn’t address or acknowledge the nationwide uptick in hateful incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Teng Dundon, who’s lived in Scarsdale since 2010, told the Inquirer she wanted the village’s letter to be more specific and to firmly address Asian American bias.

“It’s very easy to just say ‘we stand with you,’ but at the end of the day what … does that really ultimately accomplish?” said Teng Dundon. “Something that is actionable and impactful that can be done with immediacy is [to] just start the conversation. Talk about it.”

Samwick told the Inquirer he stood by the village’s letter and that Scarsdale’s elected officials try not to comment on national political issues, even when those are troubling or upsetting.

“It’s important for us to show our support for our Asian American community and to show that we stand firmly with them,” said Samwick. “We clearly support our local community but we’re not taking positions.”

When questioned if sharing national hate crime statistics was a “position” Samwick said the intent of the letter was similar to what was shown in letters to the community after the death of George Floyd in May.

“Certainly, our intent was to do the same thing, which is to not take a strong national political stand, but to take a very strong local stand in support of our community,” he said.

During the board of trustees meeting on March 23, Samwick said the Scarsdale community was “deeply troubled” by the national spike in hate crimes and violence against the AAPI community over the past year.

Also mentioned in the village’s letter was Scarsdale’s Ad hoc Council to Combat Racism and Bias, which was formed in July after several Scarsdale High School alumni organized a vigil for George Floyd. At the vigil, many students spoke about the microaggressions and racism they experienced in the village and school system.

Jennifer Fischman, the chairperson of the ad hoc council, told the Inquirer the group has been working with Scarsdale’s AAPI community and has held a number of listening sessions to allow residents to share their experiences, stories and perspectives. She also said the council includes representatives from the Scarsdale Chinese Association as members.

“Our mission this year was to act as a listening organization, to hear what issues members of our community are facing in order to educate those of us who may not have been as aware,” said Fischman.

The council is set to release a presentation to the board of trustees on their findings and recommendations next month.

Last March, Samwick and the board of trustees came under fire after inviting Dr. Harish Moorjani, an infectious disease physician affiliated with Westchester Medical Center to speak to the community about coronavirus. Moorjani made disparaging and offensive comments about people and customs in China, which caused an uproar among Scarsdale’s Chinese American community. No members of the board interrupted Moorjani’s hourlong presentation.

“I absolutely regret not cutting the doctor off,” Samwick told the Inquirer. “The overarching theme of all of that was regret and seeking to show the Chinese community in Scarsdale how important they are to us.”

Many in Scarsdale’s Asian American community said they were deeply bothered by the attack last week.

Linying Liu, who moved to Scarsdale in 2016 and has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, went to an anti-bias rally in Union Square on Sunday with her 12-year-old daughter.

When Liu asked for her reaction, her daughter said, “It’s good, it’s nice people are doing this, but it’s not enough.”

“This is a 12-year-old already having the realization of this. I told her that [she’s] right, but the change has to happen somewhere,” said Liu. “We have to start from not being the quiet bystander.”

Liu said she felt like her children were growing up in Scarsdale’s “beautiful bubble” and that although the community was inclusive, it lacked diversity. She said she always wanted to show her children “the real world” and “let them know that the world is not always as rosy and beautiful.”

“I’ve been very mindful of bringing them a slice of reality without exposing them to much of the brutality,” she said. “But as soon as the news [of the attack] happened I did have a conversation with them. I told them that this is the reality and there’s a lot of hatred out there in the world.”

Liu said that although education was an invaluable source for nurturing diversity and allowing kids to learn about other cultures, it’s a long-term solution that wouldn’t reap results until a generation was fully educated. For the short term, Liu said the community and village was doing what they could to be more inclusive and extend outreach.

Changqing Li, who moved from China to Scarsdale in 2017, said he knew America wouldn’t be crime free, but he felt heartsick over the innocent victims of the Atlanta shooting. On Tuesday, he said his wife asked him whether she could go to a museum in Manhattan with their daughter and Li recommended she wait to go when he could accompany her, because he worried about her safety in light of the recent spate of attacks again Asian women in New York City.

Li said he admired those who were able to demonstrate, but that it was difficult for him to get involved in that way. While growing up in China he never had that type of free expression and debate, he said. Though it’s something he may try to get used to in the future, he is happy to see many friends and neighbors getting involved.

“We need to communicate with other communities,” said Li. “I think when we get friends from all communities and we know each other better [then] it’s hard for the hate to grow.”

Sean Zhao, who also moved to Scarsdale in 2017, associated the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the derogatory comments made by politicians like former President Donald Trump whose rhetoric linked China to the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhao said that “puts Asian people [and] Chinese people in a very dangerous situation … I think it’s the trigger.”

Zhao said Asian Americans need to play a role in breaking the “model minority” stigma and unite with other minorities to voice their opinions.

“It is not just minorities’ responsibility to fight for minorities’ rights. It’s basically everyone’s responsibility to take care of all vulnerable groups,” said Zhao. “We need to voice up. We [can’t] keep silent.”

Voices from Edgemont

Residents in Edgemont have shared similar thoughts on the attack in Atlanta and relayed their perspective on the recent uptick in hate crimes against Asians. Like Scarsdale, Edgemont’s Asian American population is the district’s second largest, accounting for 27% of residents.

In a letter to the community March 20, Superintendent Victoria Kniewel wrote that the violence targeted at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders including the shooting in Atlanta and the assault in White Plains was “tragic and upsetting.” Kniewel went on to say that the district had reexamined and reconsidered its hiring practices, curriculum, special programs and professional development practices to honor all identities.

“I want to reassure you that in Edgemont, we all belong here. We stand up against injustice and we strive to be inclusive and equitable,” wrote Kniewel. “Our classrooms encourage students to continually question their assumptions about others, to view media, literature, and historical narrative with a thoughtful, critical eye and to see beyond superficial traits such as skin color and ethnicity to connect in meaningful ways with those around them.”

Jay Oh, president of Korean-American Families of Edgemont, said that although Asian Americans have become aware of the growing number of hate crimes against Asians, they were not seeing it reported in the mainstream press.

“People are not aware of it,” he said. “That is the general attitude, and it’s very hidden. The number of reported cases [of bias] is a huge increase. It may be becoming more visible.”

He also said microaggressions were commonplace, with people often asking Asian Americans “Where are you really from?”

“Non-Asians don't recognize that as racism or microaggressions,” said Oh. “There are so many incidents where Asians are made to feel like they don’t belong there. And I think it’s about time that non-Asians start to recognize that.”

Miho Nasu, a resident of Edgemont for 11 years, said the recent incidents of bias was “shocking for a lot of people,” especially the assault of the elderly woman in White Plains, but “there is a bit of fear” to say anything, because “to get along in a diverse community, you don't want to criticize others.”

“This community is very small and diverse and really embraces everyone. It’s not one group versus another,” said Nasu. “But there are implicit biases. It is a good idea for schools to recognize that and have an open discussion with students and parents.”

A five-year resident of Edgemont who wanted her name withheld said she heard from friends about their relatives in Brooklyn and Manhattan who encountered incidences of harassment and hate — one cousin was hit in the head by a water bottle while walking home, she said, and an elderly uncle was told to “go back to China.”

“If we are in a subway station [I tell my kids] your back should be next to the wall as a kind of precaution,” she said. “And [I tell them] not to use a cellphone when they are in public because they have to pay attention to what’s around them all the time.”

With the vigil scheduled for Saturday, Guo has been preparing. She hopes it will be an event where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will be able to share stories and personal experiences. She said she remembers leaving the Black Lives Matter vigil last year and feeling the profoundness of what was discussed.

“I hope people emerge [from] it with a sense of purpose,” said Guo. “And that they can contribute to something powerful.”

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