There are some things you expect to happen to other people — stuff you hear on the news and you think, “Man, that’s bizarre!”
It’s never supposed to happen to you.
On Sept. 28, when I saw two of my friends walking down Locust Walk, all I was expecting was an hour, perhaps two, when we could casually talk. We shared what was happening in our lives, our classes, our work. We were three Asian graduate students — two international, one American — sharing boring stories about our boring lives.
Then around 9:40 p.m., we found ourselves approached by a group of five people. There were three women and two men — all white. They introduced themselves, explaining that they were part of a Drexel sorority event. Some sort of relay. A scavenger hunt. In order to complete this event, they needed our help. The prize for completion was $300 and they wanted to win.
“We need to hook up with three Asians.”
For a moment the three of us looked blankly at each other. We were shocked, for one. Was this really happening? Had they just casually placed Asians as an item in a scavenger hunt?
“Are you guys drunk?” I asked. No, no, they said, eyes wide. Of course they weren’t drunk.
After that, things happened fast. Without asking for our permission, the group tried to separate my friends and me from each other. One woman had a camera. There was a flash. During this time we heard reassurances. Shouts. Don’t worry, we need to take pictures as proof, but it doesn’t have to be real. We aren’t going to post this anywhere.
One woman tried to instruct one of my friends to make poses. Put your hands across your chest. Turn this way. Smile. Another woman tried to pull the other friend away, but he resisted.
Suddenly, I found myself alone with somebody’s arm curled painfully around my neck, forcing me to face sideways. It took a second before I realized that the arm belonged to a man and while he forced my head closer to his, he slowly bent his head toward mine, mouth open, ready for a kiss. I could smell the beer on his breath.
That was when I realized. I flung my arms upwards, forcing his arm off me.
“No,” I said. “No, we’re not doing this. No.”
The group tried arguing with us for a bit. The man who had tried to kiss me even tried to grab another passing woman. But in the end, they finally left us alone.
Of all the possible things that could be said about what happened to us, one thing was certain: it should not have happened. Not just the fact that the group approached us, but the whole event itself. It was horribly dehumanizing. All of us felt like we had been treated like animals, like convenient pieces to be picked up as a part of a collection. Asians are not Pokémon to be collected.
Asians are stereotypically perceived to be less likely to fight back when faced with incidents of racism. That still doesn’t make it OK.
Even though what happened may not have been the result of racial hatred, it was still racism. Racism occurs whenever people are viewed as less than full persons because of their race. The group that night did not see us as people or as students — but as items who fit a convenient category on their scavenger hunt: three Asians.
It took us two days to gather enough courage to report the incident to the police.
Thinking back, I wonder: What would have happened if all of us had been international students? Would we have reported the incident?
There were many inconsistencies in the story the group told us that night. For one, why were there men at a sorority event? Which sorority, if there was indeed one, had created the event? Were they even from Drexel? Did they approach anyone else?
The perpetrators will probably never be caught. Though cameras caught parts of what happened, they only caught silhouettes. So where do we go from here? What will the Penn community do in response?
Dephanie Jao is a second-year Graduate School of Education student from Detroit, Mich. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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