A faculty member shares how violence against Asian American and Pacific Islanders has impacted her as a Vietnamese-American, and actionable steps that we can all take to stand in solidarity.
Verbal harassment, shunning, brutal physical attacks – these are just some examples of discrimination and prejudice the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has experienced over the past year, with politicization and conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus escalating the long-standing issue of anti-AAPI violence in the United States and compounding the toll of the pandemic.
On the same day that a report detailing nearly 3,800 incidents that occurred just in the past year was released, eight people – six of them belonging to the AAPI community – were fatally shot in Atlanta. The horrific tragedy has sparked a nation-wide conversation about AAPI hate crimes, with many in the community who are living with daily trauma and fear of more violence, speaking out and calling for action.
Lina Byrne-Dugan, an adjunct professor of anatomy and physiology in Jefferson’s College of Life Sciences, penned an open letter to her community at Jefferson and beyond. Below, you’ll find excerpts of Byrne-Dugan’s letter in italicized text, as well as her interview with The Nexus, reflecting on her experience as a Vietnamese-American and living through anti-AAPI backlash, how she tries to build an inclusive environment for her students, and actionable steps allies can take to support the AAPI community.
“My name is Lina Byrne-Dugan and I am a Vietnamese refugee along with my parents, Khổng Minh Vân and Vô Liên Hồng, and my siblings, Khổng Anh Mai and and Khổng Anh Phượng*.
As a natural consequence of my life’s experience, I have come to know fear intimately. And yet it is that intimacy that allows me to sit with fear. I know her nature because she reveals herself to me at the peak of my stillness. She hurts the way I hurt. She aches to be felt the way I wish to be seen.
In saying this, please understand that my relative silence on the rise of anti-Asian violence has not been out of negligence. Rather, I have clarity when I step beyond a situation, and I have depth because I have lived through it. Both have been necessary to my leadership. In building my stamina for stillness, I can move from a place of clarity, responsive to the turmoil, but free from its oppression.”
*Names have been anonymized to protect the identity of individuals.
Q: What compelled you and gave you the courage to write this letter?
What compelled me in the immediate aftermath of these attacks was anger. As a Vietnamese daughter, my young adulthood was spent protecting and caring for my parents. So, to witness the attacks that are aimed at our elders is beyond troublesome. I was enraged.
But clearly, you can’t solve violence with more violence. So the challenge became, “How do I harness this anger, this sense of injustice, to help me move to a place of clarity and drive impact?” I wanted to reach as many people as possible to mobilize the community rather than create a further divide. I looked towards the change-makers and the social justice advocates to learn about what has happened historically and what is going on currently, so that I had both insight and foresight into the situation. Simultaneously, the active and ongoing support of faculty at Jefferson has been instrumental to having the strength to speak up. It’s the small, impactful gestures from observant faculty. It’s the large, momentous S.H.I.F.T. conversations led by La’Verne Webb, the director of diversity and inclusion in Jefferson’s College of life Sciences. She created a powerful space to hold these dialogues and to honor our lived experiences. The more I learned and shared, the more I recognized the duality of creating solutions for systemic change – we can take responsibility to educate ourselves and be supported by our communities.
“Some of us are beginning to do this deep, introspective work to process our fear, our rage, and our sorrow. Some of us have been at this for decades, perhaps for generations. We have inherited stories from our elders, both living and passed, and we draw upon their strength and wisdom. To quote the poet, Rupi Kaur, “Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry.” To this latter group, I honor your inheritance. To the former group, welcome back home.
To all groups, I caution against inheriting narratives that are deeply antithetical to the human spirit. The repetitions of extremism are a butchering of the English language. Even if you get to the meat of the story, you still must feel for the shards of bone. I ask that we guard against the poverty of hate and be rich with our words, generous with our assumptions, but never frivolous with our boundaries.”
Q: In your letter you talk about the concept of “Home”. What does it feel like to not feel safe in your own home, in your own community?
It’s the intersectionality of my two cultures and experiences that makes me feel vulnerable as an Asian-American. When we were in Vietnam, we were an upper middle class family. My father was a pharmacist. But by being educated, and well to do, we were targeted by the communists; my father was sent to labor camps multiple times. My mother and brother were captured and jailed for trying to escape. My sister was with them, but had gotten separated in the up swell of refugees who were jumping off the boat. We found out she was alive after she swam towards land and spent more than two weeks in the woods. It took us 26 times for one of us to make it out. And every time we would try to escape, people recognized that we were carrying with us our most valuable possessions, and so we were targeted then too. By the time we did come to America, we were poor. Being rich in Vietnam made us vulnerable, being poor in America makes us vulnerable. And so in both aspects, it’s like…where is home? Where do you feel safe? Where can you thrive? Where do you have a community that will actually support you and see you and cultivate your potential?
Q: Many of the attacks have been on elders in the AAPI community. Can you speak about the concern you have for elders in your community?
It is just so sad to see our elders being targeted because all their lives, all they were trying to do was to keep their heads down, to not be an inconvenience to anyone. That was very much the mentality that I was raised on too – ‘Don’t be an inconvenience.’ And yet that doesn’t protect us, especially against the violent mentality of targeting vulnerable groups.
I’m also worried about the long-term emotional impact it’s going to have. My dad has severe PTSD and he has never gotten treatment for it. As it is, there are so many barriers to getting care that is affordable, accessible by public transportation and that accepts our insurance. On top of it, I have tried my hardest to get a Vietnamese-speaking psychologist. It’s so important to have people who look like ourselves and speak the language in health care. And when that representation is not there, it compounds the trauma.
“To my students, I am so proud of your work ethic and I am deeply grateful for your kindness, curiosity, and authenticity. I am met with joy every time we connect. In your inspiring pursuit of “becoming,” please also remember to simply be. Rest is revolutionary. Savor it and invest in it. You are deeply valued and remember that your wholeness and growth are not mutually exclusive.”
Q: How do you try to build an inclusive environment in your classroom and make space for issues like this that might be affecting students?
I establish boundaries and expectations in my classroom at the very beginning. I literally start the class with a word document called “Boundaries” and it lists things I welcome, things I tolerate and things I absolutely do not tolerate. The first thing I welcome is questions – questions to further your knowledge, questions to clarify, questions to ask me to repeat the information. I think this can be a real hurdle for students, especially for those who have suffered trauma or for those who come from backgrounds or cultures where they are taught to stay quiet.
I also try to create space for issues that might be impacting my students – whether it’s the current violence against the AAPI community or the brutality and injustices experienced by the Black community that we witnessed so much of last summer. I want to make sure my students feel safe and heard.
In terms of things I won’t tolerate, I put a very clear foot down when it comes to disrespect and ignorance. Those behaviors go against the values I stand by, and don’t have a place in my classroom.
“To the leadership at Thomas Jefferson University, this is a continued call to action. At the intersectionality of being female, Asian and a refugee, I come with cultural wealth and yet I lack cultural capital to continue this work. I ask that you invest in us now and always. Invest in our ideas. Invest in our ability to pivot to the changing landscape. Invest in us as human beings. We are force multipliers, and our safety and growth are exponentially beneficial to the community at large.”
Q: How can allies – friends, family, co-workers, and colleagues – show support for the AAPI community? How have you felt supported?
Please, we can’t be the only ones to speak up. Celebrate AAPI contributions without using us as “the model minority” to further divide BIPOC communities. Invite your social circles to AAPI events. Show up to the conversations when invited. Do not dismiss our stories. Stand up with us when we speak up and stand up to discriminatory language and behavior. Social cues are incredibly powerful when applied directly and consistently.
I feel most supported through the daily actions taken by my husband, friends and colleagues. It’s simple but direct language like, “We can retire that joke,” “That’s counter-productive,” “You’re dismissing me. Let’s continue this conversation when you’re ready to listen.” It’s friends and colleagues showing up and supporting my projects and ideas, and throwing in some insights of their own.
One of the best things you can do is to learn to take care of yourself. Learn your own triggers. Set up your own boundaries. If you need to vent, reach out to your support network but ask them if it’s the right time and place to vent. We need to be each other’s wellness teams.
“To my community at large, I leave you with this. The words “trở về” in Vietnamese mean “to return home.” Those same letters in English spell, “trove,” which is defined as a place of valuable and delightful things. Thus, my intentions are two-fold. May you return to a home of valuable and delightful things, and may you find a home in the things that have value.
My best dumplings to you,