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Event for U of T’s Asian community disrupted by racist, threatening incidents

Unidentified attendees held gun during call, said n-word, wrote racist comments
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The event was an hour-long open forum for community members to discuss a culturally offensive incident that occurred during the Lunar New Year. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
The event was an hour-long open forum for community members to discuss a culturally offensive incident that occurred during the Lunar New Year. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses the incident of anti-Asian racism in detail.

On February 7, the Asian Student Alliance (ASA) club at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) held an online Zoom event that was interrupted by racist and threatening disturbances from several unidentified attendees. 

According to multiple people who attended the event, a man turned on his video feed and showed himself holding a large gun. An unidentified speaker also said the n-word aloud. Further unidentified users added racist comments in the chat, including one who wrote, “Chinese” followed by “fuck you.”

After the incident, Mary Reid, an assistant professor at OISE who helped organize this event, said, “I was shaking.” 

The event itself was an hour-long open forum for community members to discuss a culturally offensive incident that occurred the previous week, where the Graduate House student residence distributed fake bills printed with the words “HELL BANK NOTE” to mark the Lunar New Year. These notes are traditionally reserved for sacrificial offerings for the dead and deities, and it is therefore considered culturally offensive to give them to people who are alive, as it implies that they are being cursed or that the giver wishes for their death. 

OISE Interim Dean Normand Labrie released a statement the same day, writing that the faculty was “appalled that such incidents continue to occur in [U of T] community spaces” and that they “emphatically condemn anti-Asian discrimination and racism, and all forms of hate and racial violence.” Labrie also wrote that the incident had been reported to the Provost’s Office, Community Safety Office, and Campus Safety.

In another statement, a U of T spokesperson wrote that the university is “supporting [the ASA] and continuing to promote the use of appropriate security measures for Zoom meetings and events, particularly those open to members of the public.” They also noted that the incident had been reported to the Toronto Police Service.

Multiple racist and threatening disturbances during the call

The ASA advertised their event as a chance for Asian community members to come together after the incident at Graduate House. During the call, which had over 90 attendees, Reid helped facilitate conversation about the Graduate House incident and steps that community members wanted the university to take, such as giving a comprehensive apology and an explanation for how the culturally offensive act occurred. 

However, disturbances began in the last 15 minutes of the call, Reid remembers, and occurred in quick succession.

Reid, along with two graduate students at OISE, Jasmine Pham and Susan He, heard a user say the n-word. Pham alleged that she later heard somebody say “terrorist,” and He also claimed to hear another person say “yellow people.” 

Reid, Pham, and He then all saw a man holding a large gun after he turned on his video feed. He described the man as, “Late teens to maybe early 30s, white male.” 

She added that the man didn’t unmute himself. He held his gun and stared at the screen. “My heart was pounding,” she said. 

“​​It all happened so fast,” said Reid. “We had the most amazing meeting — the most empowering meeting. We had people from different backgrounds, different racial identities.” 

The Zoom link for the event was posted publicly and there were no security measures in place to restrict attendees other than Zoom’s waiting room feature. The call was not recorded, either, to protect the identities of attendees. “We’ve done these kinds of sessions before, and we’ve never been Zoom bombed,” said Reid.

Since the perpetrators likely used pseudonyms, The Varsity was unable to verify precisely how many people were involved in these disturbances, although some attendees estimate there were potentially four individuals, including the two users in the chat box. Reid and He remembered the usernames of the perpetrators, including the man with the gun and the person who said the n-word. 

Looking at the Zoom report, the documented IP addresses of these individuals were traced back to the United States. However, Reid added that this information alone cannot confirm the location of the perpetrators because people are able to mask their IP addresses. 

After the disturbances, the perpetrators were immediately removed from the call and people in the waiting room were not allowed to join for the remainder of the event. When the call ended, Reid went to another Zoom meeting to report the incident to the chair of her department — Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning — and two associate chairs at OISE. “I was in tears,” she said.

The event’s aftermath

Reid couldn’t sleep for two nights after the incident. “My email inbox was inundated by students with words of support, but also fear,” she said. “I felt that I let students down by not making the session more secure.” She has pledged to add extra protections like preregistration for future events.

Pham said that although she knows Reid regrets the lack of Zoom security, “she did not need to feel apologetic because she did not have to take responsibility for the actions of those people.” 

Reid said OISE has offered resources so that people who witnessed the incident can attend culturally responsive therapy. She is also in contact with the police about the event’s disturbances. 

Pham noted that although it may be difficult for the police to find these perpetrators, this incident, coupled with the Lunar New Year incident at Graduate House, highlighted how institutions have failed to keep minoritized individuals safe. “For people to feel entitled to even come into an event and to say [these remarks] shows that we are miles and miles off from holding people accountable,” she said. “The event really showed me that there is a very strong ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality when it should be just a ‘we.’ ” 

Reid emphasized the critical role that education can play in response to racist or threatening actions. “For anti-Asian racism, a lot of people just think that it’s not that serious, that we’re so adjacent to whiteness, and we’re not,” she said. “Oppression impacts different groups in unique ways.”

She also pointed to the racist remarks made against multiple racialized groups during the call. “This is not just about anti-Asian racism, although there was a lot of anti-Asian hate,” she explained. “This is about oppression, and a dominant group who wants to silence us. And we’re not going to be silenced.”

Campus Safety did not reply to requests for comment.