Navigating matters of race and identity during COVID-19

April 26, 2021

Photo: Jason Leung on Unsplash

Julia Lee Cunningham

Developing Global Competency is a course that all undergraduate students take as part of Ross’ study abroad curriculum. The course was created by Dr. Julia Lee Cunningham and PhD Candidate Laura Sonday as a way to help students transition to, then reflect upon, their lives abroad. The course includes a series of podcast interviews with experts in cross-cultural issues.

In April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe, all Ross study abroad programs were suspended and students were asked to return home. It was during Lee Cunningham’s check-ins with her newly state-side students that she learned about the COVID-related racism her Asian and Asian American students endured both abroad and in the United States. She was compelled to help them.

So Lee Cunningham reached out to Dr. Jennifer Ho, a Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, to talk about issues of identity, race, and culture—especially as they apply to the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community.

We asked Lee Cunningham to reflect on the interview and help us understand its importance in today’s climate.

Q: Why was it important for your students to learn about matters of race and identity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: I felt a deep sense of responsibility to support my students who were suffering. All students found themselves abruptly cutting their study abroad experiences short. But my Asian and Asian American students were also suffering from targeted pandemic-related hate.

My course is fundamentally about making the case for why we should care about people who may not share the same cultural background as us, and why we should care about what’s happening around the world.

In addition to validating and giving voice to these experiences, I wanted this to be a collective learning experience in which all students are informed about the suffering of marginalized groups, and come to understand the historical context of anti-Asian racism. Most importantly, I wanted to provide specific guidelines for practicing allyship.

Q: Why did you feel that Dr. Jennifer Ho was the best person to lead this discussion?

A: I was introduced to Dr. Jennifer Ho by a colleague and quickly discovered her passion toward the combating of racism as a basic human right. Jennifer has developed resources to better educate people about the history of racism in the United States, often through her own experience of being Asian American.

I grew up in Seoul, and not as an Asian American, and therefore know very little about what it is like to grow up in the U.S. I therefore am grateful to Jennifer, as I have personally learned so much from her and have great respect for the courage that she embodies as an anti-racism educator.

Q: You recorded this interview last year, in April 2020. How would you compare the United States’ anti-Asian sentiment between 2020 and 2021?

A: Although the recent rise of anti-Asian racism and hatred was quite predictable, I don’t think it has garnered the level of attention that it deserves, especially during the early onset of COVID-19 in 2020.

Since the Atlanta shooting, I have seen more vocal support for the AAPI community, and I am proud of what our students are doing to tell their story, stand in solidarity, and fight against hatred. However, as Jennifer noted during our interview, there seems to be a general lack of public understanding when it comes to the history of anti-Asian racism and the experience of the AAPI community.

Q: Even though all University of Michigan study abroad programs were cancelled for the current year, were you still able to teach this important course?

A: Thankfully, yes. Given the struggles and uncertainties my students faced during the pandemic, I wanted to empower students by teaching a leadership craft that transcends different cultural contexts. Public narrative is a specific form of storytelling that links our own calling to the shared purpose of our community and also to a call to action.

During the course, my teaching staff and I worked with students to identify, articulate, and communicate their story of self, story of us, and story of now. At the end of the course, my students shared their deeply personal, yet commonly held human experiences (e.g., moments of feeling hurt, feeling hopeful, etc.) to mobilize others towards a collective action.

Julia Lee Cunningham is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at Michigan Ross, a National Geographic Fellow for the Making the Case for Nature program, and a Core Faculty member at the Center for Positive Organizations. She studies the psychology of narratives and how they can be leveraged to yield more ethical, sustainable, and adaptive behavior in the workplace.

Jennifer Ho is a Professor of Ethnic Studies and the director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts (CHA) at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research interests include Asian American literary and cultural studies and anti-racist theory and practice, among other topics.