Carnegie Mellon University
May 17, 2023

Fighting Back Against Anti-Asian Hate Crime Through New Virtual Reality Experience

By Stephan Caspar

Virtual reality (VR) immerses users in new stories and experiences that speak to some of society's most important issues.

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, instances of anti-Asian hate crime rose by 339% last year, surpassing record numbers in 2020. Concerns peaked after eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed in Atlanta in 2021. During this time, many people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have suffered from hateful incidents, ranging from verbal abuse to physical acts of violence and harm.

When California resident Hong Lee was abused and threatened, she responded by founding Seniors Fight Back, a group dedicated to teaching straightforward self-defense skills and raising awareness about anti-Asian hate crimes. The organization empowers the AAPI community with tools and resources to defend themselves against acts of violence and racism.

To showcase Lee's story and the work of Seniors Fight Back, Jaehee Cho, an alumnus of the Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), created the virtual reality film "We Belong Here." The film, which was co-produced by ETC associate teaching professor Ralph Vituccio, combines found audio, illustration and 360° video that immerses the viewer and displays through a virtual reality headset.

The film recently debuted in the Askwith Kenner Global Languages & Cultures Room, a dedicated space in Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences that explores how new immersive technologies can be used to teach and learn about language and culture. 

"We jumped at the opportunity to bring Jaehee's film to new audiences and collaborate with Seniors Fight Back. This is an important issue and one that is faced by our students, staff, and faculty here at CMU and in Pittsburgh," said Stephan Caspar, Director of the Kenner Room. "VR is an important medium for telling social and cultural stories, often dealing with difficult subjects in an intimate and immersive setting. This is a powerful film, and Jaehee captures Hong's story sensitively and engagingly."

As part of the premiere, Seniors Fight Back instructors Julia Hoang and Ron Scolesdang hosted a self-defense workshop for CMU students on the Cut. Hoang and Scolesdang led participants through a series of moves designed to call for help, defend against violent actions and neutralize attackers. "It is surprising how learning a few simple moves can mean you might be able to repel and attack," said one participant.

Seniors Fight Back is growing as an organization; they have run hundreds of self-defense sessions across the United States to support communities throughout the country. In a deeply divided nation, with acts of violence and incidents of hate crime increasing, their work is vital and invaluable. Lee believes her mission starts with education. She takes her work into schools, breaking down barriers, challenging prejudice and celebrating the lives of those who suffer from intolerance, abuse and violence. "We're looking forward to returning to CMU," she said.

Moving forward, the Askwith Kenner Global Languages Room plans to collaborate with student organizations to set up future workshops at Carnegie Mellon. Caspar also hopes to connect with Pittsburgh's AAPI community through the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean language programs in Department of Modern Languages.

"We are so grateful to the team at Seniors Fight Back," said Caspar. "We feel very privileged to be able to share this story. Hong Lee's courage inspires us, and we can't wait to invite the team back here soon."

The VR film "We Belong Here" is now available for visitors to experience in the Askwith Kenner Global Languages and Cultures Room.