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Sacramento teacher uses offensive slant-eyes to depict Asians during online class

A Grant High School teacher was recorded using slant eyes — an offensive racist stereotype of Asians — to depict Chinese and Japanese people during a lesson Thursday.

In a video obtained by The Sacramento Bee, the Grant High teacher identified by multiple sources as Nicole Burkett stretches her fingers to pull her eyes up and down during a Zoom lesson. Burkett is a Spanish teacher and class of 2022 student advisor.

In the video, Burkett appears to be depicting a version of the racist school-yard taunt, “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees,” although she does not recite the chant.

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“If your eyes go up, you’re Chinese,” Burkett said, stretching her eyes out and upwards. “If they go down, they’re Japanese. If they’re just straight, you don’t know.”

Twin Rivers Unified School District spokesperson Zenobia Gerald said in a statement that the video was “shocking” and “disappointing.” The district has opened an investigation into the incident.

“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.”

Grant High Principal Darris Hinson sent out a similar statement to the school’s staff Friday morning.

Michelle Rivas, president of the Twin Rivers Unified Board of Trustees, said in a statement that the board was “stunned and appalled” by the video, adding that the video was “prompting understandable outrage” in the community.

“On behalf of the entire Board and District administration, I want our community to know that this matter has our full attention and is being taken very seriously,” Rivas said. “The Board of Trustees will do everything within its authority to address the situation.”

Burkett declined to comment. A response from an email address associated with Burkett said: “I have been advised to not make any statements until my union representative gets back to me.”

Violence and discrimination against Asians on the rise

The “slant-eyes” stereotype is widely considered a racist and derogatory slur used to depict East Asians. The racist stereotype has roots in late 19th-century Western propaganda, when Asian immigrants were often depicted in drawings with yellow skin, buck teeth and slit eyes.

During that time, phrases such as “Yellow Peril” were commonly used to depict Asian immigrants as a threat to the United States, and anti-Asian laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were enacted to block Asian immigration.

In a statement, Sacramento City Council Member Mai Vang condemned the teacher’s actions, saying the usage of such stereotypes can contribute to an unsafe learning environment.

“Perpetuating racist stereotypes of Asian Americans is harmful under any circumstance, but they are particularly egregious at a time when anti-Asian racism and violence is at an all-time high,” Vang said in the statement. “Students should feel safe in their learning environments and the actions of this teacher violates that safety and creates a climate that excuses hateful acts. The leaders of the Twin Rivers USD must take immediate action to investigate the situation.”

Reports of violence and discrimination against Asians have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic began, especially in the Bay Area where elderly Asians have been assaulted in Oakland and San Francisco. Stop AAPI Hate reported last September that the organization received 2,583 self-reported incidents of anti-Asian discrimination nationwide between March and August last year, with more than 40% of those reports from California.

And on Monday, a dead cat was left in the parking lot of a Chinese-owned butcher store, which police are investigating as a hate-related crime. The rise in anti-Asian incidents has prompted legislators to call for state funding to boost reporting efforts and establish a hate crime reporting hotline.

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