Allison Naughton knows what the sting of discrimination feels like.
As a Chinese-American student at UF, they’re concerned the likely appointment of Sen. Ben Sasse as the university’s next president will create a culture in which anti-Chinese hostility is normalized due to his past comments on China.
Naughton was a high schooler during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made them feel like an outsider in their own country.
Naughton, now an 18-year-old UF biology and behavioral cognitive neuroscience psychology freshman, was born in the U.S. to a Chinese mother and Canadian father. Part of their experience, they said, was watching people rush away from them in the grocery store if they were to cough — an experience they characterized as unique for Asian people.
“I think that was kind of a collective experience for a lot of my Asian friends and not so much for my white friends, even if they were hacking and coughing in their mask,” Naughton said.
As Sasse stands as the only finalist in the running to be UF’s next president, his comments about China are concerning for many Chinese community members on campus. Sasse has characterized himself as a staunch opponent of the Chinese government, but he’s also been criticized for hostile comments on China’s role in the pandemic.
In the spring of 2020, he blasted “the thugs in China” for dishonesty regarding COVID-19.
Sasse’s comment was part of a larger political culture created by the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, former President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”
The dangers of anti-Asian hate is something Naughton has grappled with personally, mentioning how one of their mother’s friends was killed in New York in an act of anti-Asian hate.
“It was really disgusting to see how racism in America could be just so cultivated,” they said.
Although Sasse’s Congressional office didn’t respond to requests for comment, he did address his rhetoric on the issue earlier this month during an Oct. 10 UF forum.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said anything that should create fear among Americans of Chinese descent or Chinese people,” he said. “I am an opponent of the Chinese Communist Party.”
In an article for The Atlantic published in January 2020, Sasse characterized the Chinese government as a “unique, long-term, and existential threat.” He argued the U.S. should not shift its attention away from what he termed “the defining national-security challenge of our age.”
In the article, Sasse cites China’s oppressive treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province and its internal surveillance system in characterizing the threat posed by the governing Communist Party.
Stephan Kory, a UF professor of ancient and medieval Chinese language, literature and culture, said he believes it’s important for a distinction to be made between the government of China and people of Chinese descent.
“As a Chinese professor here at UF, I try to tell my students that constantly,” he said. “The fact that we can not really agree with a lot of the things that the [People’s Republic of China]’s government is doing, but we can still absolutely love the Chinese people.”
Samantha Law, an 18-year-old UF finance freshman whose mother is from Vietnam and whose father is from China, said she has found a sense of community at UF through organizations such as the Chinese American Student Association. Although she didn’t personally experience pandemic-related discrimination, she and her family exercised caution.
“We definitely tried to be more careful just because we didn’t want to put ourselves in danger if we encountered someone who would maybe act violently against us just based on our race,” she said.
She would like Sasse to make a promise to promote inclusion and equality at UF, which she believes is an imperative in university settings, she said.
“You want that diversity and you want the people there to feel safe,” she said. “As a president, you should be able to ensure that.”
Christine Lin, a 19-year-old UF computer science junior, said she believes Sasse’s conduct toward Chinese and Asian Americans will be much more important than anything he can say on the matter.
“Actions speak louder than words,” she said. “With our concerns, he could very much say, ‘I do support the Chinese or the Asian community.’ In the future, if you put those words into action and actually participate…I think that would be much better than just verbal speeches.”
Contact Omar at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @OAteyah.
Omar Ateyah is a third-year journalism student and the Alligator's Race and Equity reporter. He previously served as the Alligator's crime reporter and as a news assistant on the Metro Desk. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks.