To begin, I never really talked about myself, just my topics, so here’s a belated introduction. I’m a junior in Mather house, and my name is Deb. I’ve done various fun things on campus like Expressions, BachSoc, Summer Science (SUP) and Strong Women Strong Girls; offcampus, I’ve volunteered as a translator for Sharewood, a free health clinic in Malden, MA, and I worked this past summer for Physicians for Human Rights. Last spring, I founded the Asian American Women’s Association (AAWA) with Catherine Chang ’07 and Meghan Tieu ’07.
In my previous post on fetishization/Asian American issues, an anonymous commenter raised some interesting questions about various kinds of oppression of Asian Americans, and how the context of our overrepresentation at places like Harvard changes the nature of this repression, or at least the way it is seen. I think the best way to address these questions is to begin at what for me is the root of Asian American issues on campus, which is closely tied to the reasons why I founded AAWA, and what I hope this organization will do. (more in extended post)
The lack of cohesion is an understandable phenomenon. As a very immigrant/first/second-generation-heavy population, ties to cultures and home countries are very strong. Most Asians at Harvard don’t identify as “Asian-American” but rather as Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese… and in general I think that Asian cultures are very nationalistic, and take international beef very seriously and personally. Last year there was a little tension when CSA (Chinese Student’s Association) wanted to do a dumpling workshop, which TCS (Taiwanese Cultural Society) traditionally does. Dumplings are both Chinese and Taiwanese (and in various other forms, Japanese and Korean…) but the problem is that the two have a very similar membership demographic, and share similar cultures, but with the very large dividing force of political tension. In addition, there is no real “Asian American” identity that contributes to the lack of cohesion or sense of unity; it is even more essential, then, that we create one ourselves before the one that has been imposed upon us by external views becomes an impossibly removed reality that is yet impossible to remove.
This is why AAWA was begun. Cat, Meg & I believe that though we may identify first and foremost with our culture and ethnicity and not as Asian-Americans (and thus may be active in a cultural organization instead of a politically active on such as AAA), we do identify strongly as women. In the belief that uniting Asian American women in our shared and unique experience as Asian American women, or Asian women in the west, we can take a step towards bridging the fragmentation and create a community that is Asian American, supportive, involved and aware.
A cohesive community of Asian Americans is essential. While there are entire countries full of people who perpetuate their own cultures and concern themselves with their politics along with many Asians in America who do the same, who’s advocating for Asian Americans and speaking out about Asian American issues? That is our responsibility, and one of the reasons why AAA exists and why AAWA was created. I think the comments on my last post highlight these big questions: what are Asian American issues? Are there any, given the apparent success of Asian Americans? The prevalence of these kinds of questions is the very reason why I believe that organizations such as AAA and AAWA are different from cultural or social organizations and why they are so essential. Particuarly at an institution as powerful and as privileged as Harvard, it is imperative that we, as Asian Americans at Harvard, educate ourselves about the greater community of which we are a part but are not representative of, so we may in turn increase awareness in those who are not directly involved.
It is always a dangerous thing to judge by appearances only, and this is even more significant when it comes to a population such as Asian Americans that is loaded with stereotypes, stigma and the myth of the model minority (which Professor Vivian S. Louie has written about). The 19% of Harvard that is labeled “Asian American” is far from representative of Asian Americans in the US, not only in that nationally, Asian Americans are only 4%, but most significantly in that Asian Americans at Harvard are overwhelmingly East Asian, and not representative of the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity that really exists. Asian Americans are not a homogenous group, but are too often treated as such. While most people view Asian Americans as the non-minority because of how well Asian Americans seem to be doing as far as enrollment in higher education goes for example, significant proportions of Asian Americans in the US are doing very, very poorly. Populations from in particular Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, but also poor immigrants from China etc. actually have higher rates of dropping out than African-Americans, who are traditionally viewed as a more “at-risk” population. But because the most often seen face of the community is the successful one, those who fight to live on the poverty line, and those who never make it through highschool are forgotten and written off because of their more successful, more affluent counterparts, who are entirely different from them.
So in response to the suggestion made by a commenter on my last post, yes, it may be more difficult for people at Harvard, especially with their perception of Asian Americans in the US as the unrepresentative Asian American population seen here at Harvard, to see Asian American issues as newsworthy because it seems unlikely serious repression or oppression would happen to such a “dominant” minority. But it is because of this very fact that these issues seem unnewsworthy that makes it all the more important to talk about them; if appearances were consistent with the truth, then there would be no issues. But the fact is that there is a lot about Asian Americans that is never spoken of, and because of strong lingering nationalistic views, has fewer activists to give voice to those who can’t be heard.
My thoughtful commenter also wrote:
In fact, I’ll even hide behind my anonymity and ask a more provocative question: Because Asian-Americans have been among the most successful minority groups to reach the upper echelons of American society, should we give their claims of oppression less weight?
Though understandable, it’s very dangerous to belittle the “meaningfulness” of certain forms of oppression on the basis of appearances, especially since Asian Americans are a such a mis-stereotyped group. Moreover, repression does not necessarily involve one huge population oppressing fewer people, or one race oppressing another. It can happen within racial lines, and regardless of the size of the populations involved, and it can happen to a “successful” population, in a non-traditional but just as serious way.
As for proof of “systematic oppression of Asian Americans on campus,” I don’t have any. Because I never claimed that systematic oppression of Asian Americans on campus exists; in fact, the kinds of subtle repression or suppression such as being written off and pigeonholed, or expected to conform to unrealistic standards or stereotypes are not systematic, but subconscious, and likely inadvertent. I see it every time I tell someone I am a premed BioChem concentrator, play the piano and the violin, did ballet, was good at math… Before I can tell them about my passion for poetry and human rights and little kids, I’ve been written off as an academic, uninteresting, hardcore Asian premed who “sold out” into the sciences, or whose choices have been made by her parents. I see it when a Final club has a party that casually claims to be celebrating one rebel group in Chinese history, but includes Japanese lettering from a memorial for Japanese soldiers that died fighting those Chinese rebels, and the cultural insensitivity or ignorance in both the idea and the careless mixing two very distinct cultures. I see it even when Asian Americans themselves capitalize on the Asian fetish, using it to their advantage in a small situation but simultaneously and unintentionally contributing to its legitimization. It’s not systematic oppression; it’s widespread ignorance that quietly represses. It’s ignorance of these issues that lets people (both Asian and not) think it’s okay to make jokes that reaffirm negative stereotypes of Asian Americans. It’s ignorance that makes people think that previous silence and the fact that nobody has ever mentioned to them anything about these issues means nothing is wrong and that these issues don’t exist. It’s ignorance that lets subtle racism perpetuate. It’s ignorance that makes it easy to dismiss this kind of “oppression” as not oppression, when it is simply different from the kind of oppression we are so familiar with, one that involves black and white. It’s ignorance that allows these issues and these ideas that are so quiet but so pervasive to to creep into even the most educated and thoughtful of minds. But it is also dialogue that allows this ignorance to be erased, that allows these issues to be aired, to be considered, to be addressed, and to one day, be resolved.