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Heidi Kim, director of Carolina’s new Asian American Center, discusses how the center’s first few months went during the pandemic, the rise in anti-Asian racism and violence nationally and locally, and a resulting “silver lining” for the center.

Heidi Kim in the library stacks peers around the corner. (photo by Steve Exum)
Heidi Kim (photo by Steve Exum)

As Carolina’s new Asian American Center celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and looks ahead to opening its doors, Director Heidi Kim answered The Well’s questions about anti-Asian racism and violence, the center’s plans and how its themes of celebration, community and curiosity will engage students, faculty and staff.

Kim, an associate professor in the English and comparative literature department in the College of Arts & Sciences, was named director in July 2020 when the University’s largest ethnic community established the center, a website and online programming. The University’s Board of Trustees approved the center, which operates under the provost’s office, in January 2020.

A member of the provost’s committee that formed the plan for the center, Kim brought to the job a knowledge of campus units that are open to partnerships with the center, training in Asian American studies and experience working in the Asian American community.

“Considering the challenges of the past year and that we were all virtual, there’s been fantastic interest, engagement and great conversation, which I think is the most important thing,” Kim said.

With the increase in racism aimed at and violence against Asian Americans, what should people know about the origins and background of the racist behavior and attitudes?

The sad fact is that this undercurrent is always present. It flares up into the public consciousness, usually at some kind of crisis point, when the volume of attacks becomes more concentrated and more reported. But there have been anti-Asian attacks like this going back to the 19th century. Often, there’s an external motivating factor, often economic, intertwined with foreign policy or foreign relations. It can be some kind of conflict between the United States and Asia, or it can be domestic.

Today, we see a kind of trifecta. The pandemic is associated with China and its biological origins. We’re also in a moment of tension over trade with China as well as economic hardship at home due to the pandemic and, of course, we have this general fear about the pandemic. That’s backed by all the conflict over immigration in the last several years. It all snowballs.

There have been spates of this, often targeting particular ethnicities or people who are perceived to look like those ethnicities. For example, most of the anger now is against China, but it’s being expressed against anyone who is perceived to look Chinese, including Southeast Asians. After 9/11, there was a wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. But in the lashing out, it encompassed a lot of our South Asian American communities.

I’m also hearing anecdotally of incidents in our own community on or near campus, so we’re not immune. The fact that there hadn’t been any public reports of local attacks wasn’t making people feel any safer. Then a former Carolina basketball player, Kane Ma, recently spoke out about a terrible assault on him that happened in 2019. That confirms publicly that it is here.

What was it like to have horrible crimes such as the Atlanta shootings happen so soon after launching the center?

It gave a further urgency to the founding of the center. We already had a lot of energy and desire for a center like this for educational and community purposes — to build community, to create more inclusion on campus — but I didn’t know that we would be operating in such a climate of fear and urgency. That’s affected the type of programs people are interested in, the way that people look to the center for different things and the way community partners and campus partners look at the center.

In the last few months, there certainly has been a heightened interest and also heightened stress in the community. The center issued a letter to the community a couple of months ago, and our most active students curated and led an open forum where people could come together and talk about and process these incidents. So we had already been talking about this as the media coverage and the incidents rose.

When the Atlanta shootings happened, that was a turning point. After the Atlanta shootings, statements by the chancellor and the provost linked to the Asian American Center and its resources. Pretty much every statement that units and departments put out after the Atlanta shootings linked to us. The visibility of the center went way up. It’s terrible, but such a tragedy is a kind of silver lining for a growing center. We’re being approached by campus units that it might have taken me months or years to build a relationship and create programming with.

It’s like a tidal wave. It’s all come at once. And now we’ve rolled right into Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so it’s a doubly busy time.

You referred to the center’s establishment as a “moment of expansion.” With that moment over, what do you have planned for next year?

My two biggest priorities right now are space and staff. The physical space is under renovation, and I want that to be finished and set up for the first day of classes in fall 2021. There’ll be a main public room, with a lovely vaulted ceiling, for meetings and small events. I hope it can be a comfortable and welcoming space for everyone; I would love to have regular open houses. We’re going to have a coffee maker because to create community, free coffee is always the way to go.

We are in the process of hiring staff, which is crucial because I’m a half-time faculty director. I’m still teaching, still advising, still doing all of my other things, so when something like the post-Atlanta tidal wave comes, the only way I can increase my hours is to cut out sleep. Having more staff will help with that type of immediate response as well as daily operations.

Once we have our space all set and some staff, I want to focus on the center’s long-term health. That means creating exciting and sustainable programs, and also fundraising to grow those programs.

You’ve written about the center’s themes of celebration, community and curiosity. What do those themes mean for students, staff and faculty as the center will address them?

You could say that the fourth invisible value in that list has been “crisis” for this year. It’s been community, celebration, curiosity and crisis, especially for communities of color. We don’t want all the attention to be on us as victims. It is also important to celebrate and to educate about the strength, richness and history of our community. I set out those values in a hopeful spirit.

Celebration to me expresses the full vision of Asian America that we wanted people to see, a well-rounded version of who Asian Americans are. Community is at the heart of the center’s mission. I think that the students who worked so hard to get a center launched wanted a place where the Asian American community could come together. For the center, that also means creating a diverse community that is more aware of Asian American interests and issues, and it also means serving the wider community.

Curiosity represents intellectual curiosity to me, people coming together to learn to ask questions, to find out more about their friends and neighbors who are Asian American and their culture writ large. As we gain staff, the center will be able to add programing that encourages that curiosity through grants, fellowships and more community partnerships.

By Scott Jared, The Well

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