Why the Shooting at UNC-Chapel Hill Is Different for Asian Americans

Flowers lay under a boarded up window at Caudill Labs on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, after a graduate student fatally shot his faculty adviser. A bullet hole could be seen earlier Tuesday in the bottom left corner of that window. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

By Leah Sherrell

September 6, 2023

When people of color are accused of committing high-profile crimes, their community tends to bear the blame for it too. It’s the same way in the UNC shooting.

UNC-Chapel Hill went into lockdown on Monday, Aug. 28.

At 1 p.m. a notification popped up on thousands of phones telling students and faculty to get inside and away from the windows.  

Emergency: Armed, dangerous person on or near campus. Go inside now; avoid windows. 

Sirens rang out across campus. The university—and surrounding K-12 schools—were frozen for hours as police swept the campus looking for the alleged shooter, Tailei Qui, who has since been charged with murdering his graduate advisor, Dr. Zijie Yan. 

@cardinalandpine

Muhsin Mahmud, a journalist, was at UNC for an unrelated story when sirens went off and told students there was an armed and dangerous individual on campus. He and other students ran inside and barricaded themselves in a classroom. #universityofnorthcarolinaatchapelhill #universityofnorthcarolina #breakingnews #ncnews #nc #northcarolina #uncchapelhill #activeshooter #activeshootertoday #Carrboro

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The continuous gun violence on school campuses is devastating. Students hiding in classrooms wondering if they will go home is devastating. Praying that your sibling, parent, or friend answers your text message while you wait at home is gut-wrenching. 

When you are Asian-American and you see the anti-Asian, anti-immigrant comments before the lockdown has even lifted, it is heartbreaking—and completely expected. 

“Democrat city welcoming illegal immigrants not knowing who they are or where they come from, what do you expect”

Facebook user Kami Shaw-Schulze in response to Dr. Zijie Yan’s murder. 

It’s one of many racist and xenophobic comments you can find in response to the shooting at UNC. This one was on Facebook when we reported the story. For some, their first reaction was to callously dismiss the fear of the entire campus—an entire generation—and place the fault and consequences of violence on all people of Asian descent. 

Seventeen percent of the student population at UNC is Asian or Asian American. They hid in those classrooms too. 

@cardinalandpine

🔥 Two days after a campus shooting rocked @uncchapelhill, the head of NC’s Democratic Party lit into GOP inaction on gun violence. Anderson Clayton, the chair of @ncdemparty, said young people needed to demand action from their legislators, and urged the large crowd to make sure they were registered to vote. Clayton was joined Wednesday by David Hogg, who survived the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school and became a leader of the national youth-movement against gun violence. UNC Democrats had registration forms at a nearby table. Organizers said they got more than double the number of registrations after the rally than they normally do at a given campus voting event. For more #NC news, views, and culture, follow this page! 🎥 Michael McElroy for @cardinalandpine #universityofnorthcarolinaatchapelhill #universityofnorthcarolina #breakingnews #Ncnews #nc #northcarolina #uncchapelhill #activeshooter #activeshootertoday #carrboro #parklandshooting

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The Melting Pot?

“But where are you really from?” 

A common question that, on its surface, could be read as well-meaning and curious. But go a touch deeper. The implication is that Asian Americans are not really Americans. No matter how long they or their family have been in the States, in some eyes, they will always be foreign. Always be other. 

That’s been the case since the first major wave of Asian immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1850s. After decades of anti-Chinese sentiment, the U.S. government passed the first federal immigration law based on race, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. and prevented them from becoming citizens until 1943. 

Until 1965, variations of laws preventing Asian immigration and naturalization were applied to people from India, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, and other Asian countries. The purpose of these laws, per the Department of State’s official historian, was to “preserve American homogeneity” and “protect” American communities. 

Here’s an (incomplete) list of the ways those communities—the ones needing “protection”— brutalized Asian and Asian American communities. 

If America is a melting pot, it became so reluctantly.  

The Weight of Violence

When a person of color commits a crime of the degree and publicity of Dr. Yan’s murder, those of the same race tend to bear the weight. 

Some politicians and bigots will imply it’s not just the perpetrator at fault. It’s the entire community. 

“…My bet is he’s a Chinese Nationalist stealing our intellectual property working for the CCP…. We need to decouple from the people who hate us.” 

Wayne County, NC principal, Wendy H Waters, in response to the Chapel Hill lockdown

This reaction is not a surprise–it is a tradition rooted in history refusing to be left there.  

In 2019, the COVID-19 outbreak began in China, leading to a new wave of anti-Asian sentiment in America. At the height of the pandemic, Asian Americans experienced an increased level of harassment, violations of civil liberties, and assault. 

Politicians used ostracizing, racially charged language to scapegoat Asian communities for the public health crisis, economic uncertainty, and fears about national security. 

“China Created a virus that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. America allows Communist Chinese ADULT students into our public colleges. This isn’t about race. THIS IS WAR.” 

Shelley Luther, 2022 candidate for Texas state representative

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is attempting to take over the USA across all industries– pushing spies into US Universities….”

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (2022)

“President Biden and Democrats in Congress are turning a blind eye to CCP spies abusing our visa system.”

U.S. Senator Jim Banks (2022)

 

According to Stop AAPI Hate, since March 2020, there have been 11,000 racially motivated acts of hate targeting Asian Americans.  

Asian American students also hid in the classrooms at UNC-Chapel Hill.  For some, the lingering impact of Dr. Yan’s murder will mean sidelong glances and comments that question their place in America. 

“But where are you really from?”

Is not always a well-meaning and curious question. 

Author

  • Leah Sherrell

    Leah Sherrell is a multimedia reporter for Cardinal & Pine. A graduate of UNC-Wilmington, she's a resident of Kernersville with a background in video production and communication. Leah uses many forms of media to explore the multifaceted lifestyles and cultures present in North Carolina.

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