Opinion: Unaccountability allows racism to persist

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Anissa Basnayake/The Occidental

Content warning: This article discusses recently emerged texts between two Occidental students that include genocidal, racist speech toward Asian people.

Consistent with The Occidental’s coverage of the recently emerged anti-Asian text messages, the students involved are referenced anonymously in this opinion piece. The student who writes, “That’s awfully racist but I am interested,” and “A pandemic is inevitable and you can’t blame an entire race for a Chinese mistake,” is referred to as Student B. She was also interviewed by the LA Times for a Feb. 10 article about the same text messages, which is referenced in this piece.

I woke up Feb. 10 not to my generic alarm clock but to the dings of message notifications from my friends at The Occidental. After a week of intense reporting by my colleagues covering the aftermath of the public release of anti-Asian text messages circulating around campus, I opened my phone to find that the LA Times had gotten a hold of the story as well. The headline reads, “A text message that ‘all Asian people need to die’ has Occidental College in an uproar.”

Suddenly I was awake, my eyes bulging to read the article as fast as I could. As an Asian person on this campus with many Asian friends and professors, I found the lack of immediate, appropriate action by Oxy’s administration and Kappa Alpha Theta disappointing; it fostered a culture of unaccountability. Such inadequate responses disregarded the pain and anger that these two students caused.

As I opened the article, I was filled with hope. The outrage and hurt that Oxy’s Asian community had gone through were not in vain, I thought to myself. Maybe with the LA Times was covering the story, the administration and the people involved would understand the severity of the situation.

But then I started to scroll. My eyebrows, initially raised and alert, twisted into confusion and shock.

I read the words of Student B,* who was on the receiving end of the texts that caused the uproar. Student B received the text message in 2020 and didn’t share them at the time because she wanted to give her friend a chance to “do better,” according to the LA Times.

“I tried to give her an opportunity to learn from it, and she never did,” Student B said in her one and only quote of the entire piece.

This statement angers me, and frankly it’s shocking that it even made the final edit.

A person without any prior knowledge of the incident reading the LA Times story would automatically assume Student B was an innocent recipient of the racist text messages, but that is far from the truth. Student B was an integral part in the exchange –– she encouraged the racist text messages of her friend and also engaged in racist behavior. Yet, one of the most seemingly reputable news sources in the nation completely ignored these facts. It takes two to text; in this case, it took two to perpetrate anti-Asian speech. The LA Times should have acknowledged this. But they didn’t, and they must do better.

If we become indifferent toward perpetrators of racial discrimination and hate speech, we neglect the pain that they cause communities. As a member of the Asian community, I found Student B’s words and the words of her friend extremely hurtful, upsetting and angering. I saw my friends’ pain and the shock on my Japanese-American mother’s face when I told her the contents of the texts. But, in light of the LA Times article and other events, it seems that the focus is not on the harmful effects of these actions, but rather on Student B herself.

When The Occidental reported on this story days after its occurrence, we were careful not to include the names of the students involved, to respect their privacy as students on campus. It seems as though these efforts were wasted on Student B, though, who chose to publicly identify herself to the LA Times, and in recent news, also posted an apology letter near the Cooler.

Student B became quite the public figure from this and it seems now that any pain, hurt or anger caused by the text messages is in the background of the increased attention on her. To me, her apology letter is worthless. When I read it, I see an attempt to reason that people should and can forgive her.

Here’s what she didn’t consider: it should not be on the backs of students, especially Asian students, to empathize with anyone who perpetuated racism against them. Though Student B mentions she is doing the work to better herself, I personally don’t find it completely genuine when a guilty person must advertise their penance.

Particularly upsetting was a line that read, “Had the statements been made about Bosnian Muslims (part of my family heritage) my reaction would have been different,” regarding her response to Student A’s* text messages. Our empathy for other human beings should not exist only in relation to our own experiences. Student B’s insertion of herself and her hypothetical reactions once again shifts the focus from the impacted Asian community to herself — in doing so, Student B has only further hurt and alienated the Asian community.

The fact of the matter is that Student B’s actions are just a single example of how racist behavior often goes unchecked. Without holding racist people accountable for their actions, how are we ever supposed to talk about race and the cruel racialized history of our country? Oxy advertises itself with the facade of inclusivity and growth in the face of adversity, but the only growth I’ve felt is in anger. Perpetrators will never be the hero of the story, but we keep pretending that they are.

The LA Times has just as much work to do as Student B does. They are the paper of record for California and therefore have a great responsibility to get it right. Their lack of critical awareness lets statements like hers go unchecked. If the LA Times has any integrity as a publication that upholds the values of truth telling and fact checking, then they must follow up and change course in the future, so the pain of the Asian community was not in vain and the consumers of these stories are not misled.

To the LA Times, stop letting the perpetrators control the narrative. And to Student B, stop typing and listen for a change.

*The names of Student A and Student B have been omitted from our coverage in accordance with The Occidental’s policy of protecting the privacy of students as private individuals on campus.