According to The Sacramento Bee, Burkett is a Spanish teacher and student adviser. During a class lesson on Thursday, she used her fingers to stretch her eyelids up and down. The gesture she portrayed depicts a version of a racist school-yard taunt known as “ “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees.”
The video was recorded on a cellphone by one of the students in the class, NBC News affiliate KCRA 3 reported. Since then it was shared multiple times across social media. The incident was brought to the school’s attention when the student who recorded the video notified another teacher, a source close to the matter told KCRA 3. “We need to teach the younger generation to understand racism, and that when they see something that is not right, if it doesn’t feel right, they need to feel comfortable to find a trusted adult to talk to,” the source, who wished to remain anonymous, told KCRA 3.
Since the video surfaced, many have rightfully criticized her actions. Those of Asian descent especially condemned the racism associated with such stereotypical gestures. “For many of us who are Asian, the gestures that were made in that video are not unfamiliar to us,” said state Sen. Dr. Richard Pan. “We’ve seen it repeatedly, unfortunately, throughout our lives.” Pan, who chairs the API Legislative Caucus, is at the frontlines of the fight to enforce legislation to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans. “While we can’t stop individuals from expressing prejudice and hate, we can as a community say, this is not acceptable for us as a community,” Pan said.
In response, a spokesperson for the Twin Rivers Unified School District, Zenobia Gerald, noted that the video was not only “shocking” but “disappointing.”
“The video … does not represent the values held by Twin Rivers and the community,” Gerald said in the statement. “An investigation was immediately launched when we were notified about the video. Please know that Twin Rivers is committed to providing all students with a safe and civil learning environment in which all members of the school community are treated with dignity and respect. We do not tolerate any form of racism from any member of our school community.”
The video is the latest attack against Asians across the country. While Asians have been subject to hate crimes for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to an increase in crimes nationwide. Multiple incidents have been reported throughout the past year, citing COVID-19-related hysteria as the motive. Between March and December 2020, more than 2,800 cases of anti-Asian crimes were reported across the U.S. According to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, a majority of these incidents involved Asian Americans over the age of 60.
The use of language like “Kung Flu” and “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19 by some individuals, including former president Donald Trump, has also contributed to further hate. Multiple reports examining the link between political rhetoric and anti-Asian bias found that discrimination against the Asian American community increased after the use of such terms, as Daily Kos previously reported.
The “slant-eyes” stereotype the teacher used is considered a racial slur, with roots in late 19th-century Western propaganda, in which Asians were often depicted in drawings with yellow skin, buck teeth, and slit eyes. Such gestures have been compared with the racist use of Blackface, because of its similar way of demeaning and dehumanizing individuals of color. The stereotype can be traced to what scholars call the “yellow peril,” an ideology where white folks claimed things from Asia were a great threat to the white world.
Historians and other academics found that this ideology, amongst other xenophobia, influenced U.S. policies on the basis “that Chinese people as a race, no matter where they are, are disease carriers.” As a result, anti-Asian laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were enacted to block Asian immigration. Additionally, Chinese migrants have historically faced invasive and humiliating medical inspections that other immigrants were not subjected to. During the bubonic plague and severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, Chinese people faced similar xenophobia, as several were unable to go to work or considered “unclean,” as Daily Kos has reported.
Sacramento City Council Member Mai Vang condemned the teacher’s actions and noted that the use of such stereotypes can contribute to an unsafe learning environment. “Anti-Asian hate and violence are not new in our community,” Vang said in a statement. “In the midst of so much trauma facing our community already, an anti-Asian incident from this afternoon was brought to my attention that occurred at a high school in the heart of North Sac. This is Sacramento, we must do better.”
According to ABC News, as a result of her actions, Burkett is now receiving attacks via her personal social media accounts. While this is unfortunate and no one should be subjected to hate, whether in person or online, it does not excuse her actions. Racism should not be tolerated anywhere, especially in schools. These actions and stereotypical gestures not only create an unsafe environment for Asians and other students, but contribute to harmful ideology.
Now more than ever the Asian American community needs our support. We cannot stand for hate whether it be in our schools, neighborhoods, or any part of the country.