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UW responds to racist incidents, COVID-19 pandemic through Zoom town hall

UW responds to racist incidents, COVID-19 pandemic through Zoom town hall


Twenty-five bias incident reports came in response to two anti-Chinese messages written in chalk, one outside the Walgreens on State and Lake Streets.

Over 400 people tuned into a virtual town hall Thursday to hear University of Wisconsin-Madison administrators discuss responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably a recent rise in hate and racist incidents.

The university has seen a high number — 81 — of bias incident reports this semester, 47 of which have involved Asian or international students, said Jenna Friedman, assistant director of bias response at the Dean of Students Office. Twenty-five reports came in response to two anti-Chinese messages written in chalk, one outside the Walgreens on State and Lake Streets and another near the Humanities Building.

In a letter to Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s office, a group of Chinese faculty members asked the university to investigate and condemn the incident and said it is “faced with a grave challenge to our daily life, while carrying on our academic duties to the best of our abilities in such trying times.” It was signed by over 1,000 people.

“COVID-19 has affected all of us personally, academically and professionally, as well as physically, mentally, and socially,” Blank said in a statement Wednesday. “Even so, it’s important to remember: No one person, country, or ethnicity created this pandemic — disease does not discriminate.”

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Friedman said that the graffiti has been removed and the university is working with city police to find video footage. 

Town hall participants submitted text questions to panelists from the Multicultural Student Center, International Student Services and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement. Panelists said recent incidents have involved people coughing on individuals wearing masks or gloves, increasing stigma about wearing protective equipment in public, which Dean of Students Christina Olstad called “disgusting” and “unacceptable.”

The graffiti is no isolated incident. Despite much earlier calls from groups from the World Health Organization and the Asian American Association of Journalists to describe COVID-19 with scientific and neutral language, analyses show increased racist rhetoric online. Earlier in March, the term “Chinese virus,” which was used in the graffiti, was widely circulated online after a tweet by President Donald Trump.

A new online reporting forum, Stop AAPI Hate, received over 650 direct reports in just one week, according to NBC Asian America. 

One of the faculty who drafted the letter, who asked to remain anonymous, said they have experienced cases of discrimination over their past decade at UW-Madison, amid a largely welcoming environment. The recent pandemic, however, has "triggered and fanned this racial hatred and intolerance, and made it more publicly visible," they said.

When asked how students could better organize against racism and bias, professor Cindy I-fen Cheng advised students to fight isolation from a place of connection and community.

“There’s places for hurt and anger … but how do we bring out the best values, the kind of world that we would like to live in?” said Cheng, director of the Asian American Studies Program. “Remember your student groups, remember who your safety people are and, when you feel hurt, go to them.”

Chinese faculty and students have generally found support from their peers this week, the faculty member said. Immediately following the incident, they found themselves crying and shaking for a couple of hours, though "great families and supportive colleagues" calmed them down.

Samantha McCabe, interim director of International Student Services, extended a message of encouragement to international students, who she said make up about 15% of UW-Madison’s student population.

“You are not voiceless in this,” McCabe said. She added that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected international students “in a way that their domestic peers will simply never understand, being so far away from home.”

Another forum will be held Friday featuring Asian and Asian American faculty.

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