For many students of Asian descent, the initial confusion in identifying and apprehending the wrong person in Monday’s fatal shooting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dredged up ever-present fears of racial profiling.
Before the arrest of suspect Tailei Qi, who is Chinese, another person who matched his description was briefly detained, UNC Police Chief Brian James told reporters that evening. The shooting resulted in the death of a faculty member.
James said the person’s close proximity and “the description that we were given of the suspect” led to the error. Local media outlets showed coverage and shared accounts of an Asian man in handcuffs who was later let go.
“We determined very quickly that that was not, in fact, the suspect,” James said.
UNC police did not respond to a request for comment.
Asian male students say they fear going outside
"I was a little bit afraid the police couldn’t differentiate me with the killer. If I came outside, I [could] also get handcuffed.”
Johnson Wei, a senior at UNC
Qi, a graduate student at the school, was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder and possession of a gun on educational property. UNC police identified Zijie Yan, an associate professor of applied physical sciences, as the faculty member who was killed.
Before police arrested Qi after an hour-and-a-half search, those of Asian descent, particularly men, said they had already been grappling with multiple layers of fear — worried not only for their safety from the gunman but also about being profiled as the suspect by authorities. Many others wondered whether the shooting would misdirect blame from their peers to them. Johnson Wei, a 21-year-old Chinese international student, said he and his Asian male friends on campus were terrified to step outside in public.
“We are all international Chinese. Sometimes I wear contacts, but the other day I wore glasses. So I was a little bit afraid the police couldn’t differentiate me with the killer. If I came outside, I [could] also get handcuffed,” Wei said.
Wei was eating lunch at a dining hall in UNC’s business school, not far from the main campus, when news of the gunman appeared on the TV screens. Unsure where the shooter was, Wei said, he began to feel the first rush of fear. A teacher managed to direct students into a classroom, where, Wei said, they remained for more than two hours in silence. But fears around racial profiling began to surface with the release of the Qi’s photo and news of the person who had been mistakenly detained. The anxieties, Wei said, only grew after the lockdown was lifted.
“When I walked outside, I was worried. I was afraid that people would stare at me, look at me in different ways,” Wei said.
Mai Nguyen, a former faculty member at the university, said text exchanges with faculty staff members who were barricaded revealed fears of being racially profiled by authorities, as well. That prompted Nguyen to warn anyone in the area of Asian descent of the possibility.
“Please stay safe and if you are an Asian male, do not go outside until this is over. The suspect is an Asian male and you don’t want to be mistaken,” Nguyen posted on social media.
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Some Asian students feel anxiety about racial profiling and returning to class
Michael Zhang, a 21-year-old junior at UNC’s undergraduate school, said that even though he felt supported by those he was in lockdown with, he wondered whether the shooting would lead to more hostile tensions and increased discrimination when school resumes.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when we go back to classes and I’m more out into the public,” Zhang said.
Zhang said he and a few friends were eating lunch at the student union, at the center of campus, when alerts went off about a person of interest. As images of the first person who was detained, an Asian American man, made the rounds on local media, Zhang said he instinctually felt a deep sense of worry.
“I made eye contact with one of my friends who’s also Asian, but a woman, when we were behind that curtain, and neither of us spoke,” Zhang said. “But we understood a little bit about what this might mean for how folks like us are viewed around campus.”
“I made eye contact with one of my friends who’s also Asian. ... We understood a little bit about what this might mean for how folks like us are viewed around campus.”
Michael zhang, A UNC JUNIOR ON THE MOMENT HE LEARNED OF THE SUSPECT'S ASIAN IDENTITY
UNC has a sizable Asian American population, making up roughly 17% of the student body. It also enrolled more than 2,500 international students in fall 2022. However, the students of Asian descent said the campus environment still is not completely inclusive.
“There’s a gap between how people perceive Asians and how Asians really are,” Wei said, underscoring that he has enjoyed his time at the school. “Some people definitely have some misunderstandings about that, because they come in from the environment with not many Asians around them.”
The university did not respond to a request for comment about the campus environment for its Asian and Asian American students.
Sean Nguyen, a UNC alum who graduated in 2021 and was active in establishing the school’s Asian American Center, said that while many Asian Americans have reported feeling “othered” in the past, international students have long felt they were being further marginalized.
“There was a pattern I noticed in my conversations. The folks I spoke to felt a really deep sense of alienation from the university and from campus life, because they were not engaged and integrated into campus life,” said Nguyen, 25. “I’m sure that exacerbates mental health issues, feelings of isolation, feelings of alienation, of loneliness.”
Racist Covid-19 and 'Wuhan-educated' comments on X inflame tensions
Zhang said he has felt disappointed looking through X, formerly known as Twitter, and seeing social media users try to connect the shooting with coronavirus conspiracy theories and the Asian community. Headlines have spotlighted Qi’s previous stint at Wuhan University, referring to him as “Wuhan-educated.” And the night of the shooting, the word “Wuhan” was trending on the site, with tens of thousands of posts.
Wei said he is nervous not only that innocent Asian students could be wrongfully blamed for the tragedy, but also that they could be associated with violence. And those perceptions are not easy to change, he said.
“I want to tell other people around me to unite together. I want us to make friends, especially with the local people, and tell them we’re not associated with a killer,” Wei said. “The killer doesn’t represent Chinese international students.”
Backlash against the Asian American community at the height of Covid, Zhang said, showing how quickly tensions can morph into misplaced anger and rampant profiling.
“My mom had told me this whole story about how I should be careful about going outside, because what if people associate us with the virus,” Zhang said. “And I think I hear her voice right now telling me to be a little bit more careful, because I understand now.”