In a Nov. 1 Daily Pennsylvanian guest column, Graduate School of Education student Dephanie Jao wrote of an encounter in which she claimed to have been approached by five people who said they were participating in a Drexel University sorority scavenger hunt. Jao wrote that after she and her two friends were separated, one of the group members tried to forcibly kiss her while another took a photo. Jao said “no” to the alleged advances, and after a short while, she wrote, the individuals left.
“Even though what happened may not have been the result of racial hatred, it was still racism. Racism occurs whenever people are viewed as less than full persons because of their race,” Jao wrote in her piece. “The group that night did not see us as people or as students — but as items who fit a convenient category on their scavenger hunt: three Asians.”
Since Jao’s column ran, groups from all over Philadelphia — such as Parents United for Public Education and the city’s chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association — have taken note of her account. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article about Jao last week.
Penn’s student organizations have also stepped up. A number of different groups — including the United Minorities Council and the Asian Pacific Student Coalition — wrote a collective response to Jao’s column on Nov. 8 in the DP. The groups are also planning several events in the near future to raise further awareness of the incident.
“The purpose of the letter was to just show that there is significant support and understanding for Dephanie,” College senior and UMC Co-Chair Lucia Xiong said. “This should not just be pushed aside as a minor incident.”
Jao and other campus leaders said they have been disturbed by the reactions of some to the column.
“I found [the online comments] very, very depressing,” Jao said. “People are treating these kinds of instances as a zero-sum game, by virtue of the fact that there are worse instances of these incidents out there.”
Engineering senior and APSC Chair Michelle Leong also expressed her concern over the fallout from Jao’s account.
“Just reading those comments was a little disappointing. A lot of them basically said, ‘Get over it,’” Leong said. “I don’t think people should be so quick to dismiss other people’s stories and expectations, because each person feels and reacts differently.”
UMC and APSC members said they are hoping to use this experience as an opportunity to encourage more people to speak out about similar incidents.
“We would like to empower individuals to feel like they have the right to speak up about anything that can happen,” Xiong said.
According to College junior and APSC Vice Chair of Political Affairs Nishat Shahabuddin, the two student organizations — along with the other minority umbrella groups — are planning to hold a workshop discussing how to deal with incidents like Jao’s, and how to react in these types of situations.
“We hope to have a testimonial section [in the workshop] where students and Dephanie come forward and share their experiences and how they’ve dealt with them,” she said. “If anything, the comments to her article were really a wake-up call. We weren’t expecting to see people challenge her decision to publicize her experience. That was unfortunate.”
Meanwhile, Jao’s case has still not been resolved. According to Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush, an investigation into the alleged incident is still ongoing.
“If they do it again, we would have to confirm with the Philadelphia Police Department,” she said. “[And] we would see if there was a match on the investigation.”