Than Htwe’s Tragic Death: A Wake-Up Call on Understanding Systemic Racism

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On July 17th, a Burmese immigrant, Than Htwe (58), was taking the subway in Chinatown with her son when an attacker, David Robinson (52), tried to steal a book bag off them–causing both Than and her son to fall backward. Than then hit her head and was rushed to Bellevue Hospital where she underwent brain surgery. Eleven days later, Than fell into a coma and eventually succumbed to her injuries. During her battle in the hospital, Than’s family set up a GoFundMe page which grossed $47,000, but after her tragic death, closed the page and updated it with the following message: “An update on her condition, our mother/wife won’t make it out of this. So we have decided to donate her organs for those who are in need. I want to say thank you again to all the people who supported us through this very hard time.” Than’s attacker has not yet been found, but his image can be seen swarming news outlets and social media platforms.

 Than’s murder is just one of many examples of anti-Asian-American hate crimes that have taken place since the start of the pandemic. And, similar to these other cases, Than’s murder has sparked outrage among the Asian-American community in New York City–particularly because her story has not received adequate coverage. Her tragic death raises questions as to whether the city has done its due diligence to ensure that fellow New Yorkers, especially people of color, are safe on the subways. 

Among the many New Yorkers passionate about raising awareness for neglected communities is Queens College (QC) associate professor of Urban Studies and director of the school’s Asian/American Center, Madhulika S. Khandelwal. Upon hearing about Than’s story, professor Khandelwal noted: “For Asians far and wide, one of the basic commonalities is that they are seen as aliens and foreigners here (in the USA).” Professor Khandelwal added that even if Robinson knew that Than Htwe was of Burmese descent, it probably would not have made a difference, as his actions “come from a place of hate and acceptance that you are not welcome here.”

Professor Khandelwal continued: “This is unacceptable in a place like Queens and NYC. In 2021, we must revise our ways of looking at immigrants. How are we treating these people in times of crisis? When these situations arise, what are the values of  social justice and equality?” Upon reflecting on Than Htwe’s death and Professor Khandelwal’s words, as a woman of South-Asian, Muslim-American, and Hindu-American heritage — I feel that we must challenge this hatred that has been normalized for years. The Asian-American community, like other communities of color, has suffered great losses at the cost of ignorance. An innocent mother was robbed of her life due to deep-rooted hatred that many have yet to understand. Action must be taken.

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