Why Asian American Issues Are Issues

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)

I have spent a lot of time at Harvard observing different communities. Until AAWA began last spring, I was not an active member of any Asian/Asian-American groups on campus. In that time, I came to feel that the Asian population at Harvard, though it is a whopping 16-19% per class, is incredibly fragmented. Though it may seem like we all know each other, it’s really more like a group of small circles who are only very tangentially related. I personally didn’t feel that there was an all-encompassing “Asian” community; there was most certainly a Taiwanese, or a Vietnamese one, but not one that encompassed all of us. And South Asians were very segregated from the East Asian or even Asian American organizations, which I think is more or less unique to Harvard, but may have understandable roots in the fact that, to put it simply, most East Asians can be mistaken for one another but I’ll never be mistaken as being from India. I was most struck by the lack of cohesion among Asians at Harvard this last spring during UC elections, when candidates were fighting for BSA, BMF, Fuerza endorsements, when Latinos and Blacks at Harvard are each about 10%. No mention was made (or I didn’t hear of one) of getting Asian American endorsement. Unlike other minority groups, the strength does not lie visibly in an umbrella organzation like the BSA (so Asian American Associaion, AAA, for us) but rather in many strong culturally-focused groups. With simply so little unity of the community, less activity/vocalization of Asian Americans in recent years, and the tendency of Asian Americans to be a more apathetic and very personal goal-oriented group who might participate less in voting, it made sense that the “Asian” vote, or the “Asian” endorsement wasn’t worth it. (I’m going to refer to all Asians at Harvard as Asian Americans, becuase I believe that though I was born in Taiwan and lived there for a significant part of my life, I will likely live and work and have a family in the West, as is likely the case for most Asians at Harvard, and thus it seems to make sense that we are really Asian American, or will be perceived as such).

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.

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12 responses to “Why Asian American Issues Are Issues

  1. soulcalligraphy

    Mitsuye Yamada writes about the invisibility of middle-class, upper-middle class Asian American women in This Bridge Called My Back. It’s an interesting read for those who’d like to follow up on the nature of invisibility.

    In terms of systematic nature of oppression and giving AA’s grievances less weight, I don’t find it useful to play the Oppression Olympics. It’s a way of questioning the legitimacy of someone else’s experience. however, I will say that if you factor class into the situation, there may be a reason that one doesn’t “see” blatant racism against Asian American students on campus. if you factor class into your analysis of the situation, perhaps the fact that a lot of the APA students on campus come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds (in fact, most Harvard students come from similar SE backgrounds), that might be able to get at why it’s hard to see social injustice towards APAs. however, where is the faculty support for Asian American students? I’d also like to point out that the role of Asian Americans in history, in cultural production, etc. however, is marginalized in our education here at Harvard (i.e. VERY few classes on Asian American Studies), and that in other institutions, such as Princeton and Columbia, students had to resort to hunger-strikes and sit-ins to get more AAS classes or get a program.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments, soulcalligraphy.

    I just wanted to add as a side note that while I was writing this, I debated the use of the word “oppression” for the very reason you bring up–I agree that it isn’t useful to compete or compare experiences, as historically and now, also, they are all very different; I hoped, though, that by using the word in a less common context, it would get people thinking about what the idea of oppression/suppression/repression might mean, and whether it might exist in some form for Asian Americans.

  3. Asian-American here, and I get a laugh at at the title of this post:
    Why Asian-American Issues are Issues

    *shakes head* This is the position we’re starting from? Having to tell people why we’re relavent in the first place?

    I think there is an Asian-American identity and community forming, but it will not be one that encompasses all the people of Asian descent in America. There will be ethnic enclaves that have their first loyalty back to their home country and they will not identify themselves as Asian-American. And there’ll be the second and third generationers who meet in school and at work, coming together as we share a common upbringing, Asian family but American community. I look forward to its development.

  4. Even though your post is long, it fails to even scratch the surface of the multiple dimensions of Asian American issues on Harvard’s campus. I would recommend you speak with Asian leaders on our campus who have spent more than half a year serving in this community to gain a more realistic perspective on the underlying social chasms that exist. The assumption that organizations like AAA and AAWA can create cohesion are idealistic and miss-informed. It takes much more than just a well-intentioned organization, or some passionate board-members to change our social constructs. AAA has been on this campus for 30 years and has initiated plenty of progress, but I don’t believe their foundational ideology seeks to represent all Asians all the time. AAWA has yet to prove that it can make a difference, and that’s understandable because its history is so short. But directing this organization as something “different from [other] cultural or social organizations” with the purpose of uniting an entire sector of our community under one banner is not only pretentious and arrogant, but also impossible. Again I suggest that you should seek to be better informed by speaking with other student leaders with much more experience than yourself and hopefully in the future, AAWA will learn to co-operate with all the other “cultural and social organizations” to defragment our community.

  5. anonymous above, I find the fact that you criticize without offering advice, that you mistake ambition and idealism for pretention and arrogance, shows you to be a mean-spirited and cowardly person. I doubt Deb would claim to have all the answers, but at least she’s trying to offer solutions…

  6. I believe I offered the best advice I could, and that is for Deb to speak with other leaders on this campus. I respect that she is trying to offer solutions, but unfortunately she is doing so with little or no hindsight. The fact that Deb was never involved in the Asian American community at Harvard before spear-heading such a tacit venture (AAWA) troubles many. She took a bold step forward under the assumption that no one had ever tried what she was hoping to do, and that there were no continuing efforts already in place that were worthy of her time. Asian students at Harvard have tried for decades to unite this community and make the administration and the student body aware that Asian American issues are relevant to our society. They have pushed down walls and blazed new roads, and their efforts are continued each day by the many cultural and ethnic organizations on this campus. As a community, we understand now that idealism is nothing without realistic action, and each step we take is a response to the successes and failures of our past. Stepping into this ring and taking strides without knowledge of what has come before is not only irresponsible, but could easily stretch the already existing rifts in our community, which is something (as I’m sure you know) AAWA has already managed in its short history. Don’t get me wrong, I dearly want AAWA to succeed; I want to see a strong community of Asian American Women at Harvard. But if AAWA continues to think that moving forward in its initiatives without consulting the greater community who bear witness to this campus’ history and struggles, I fear the worst for both the organization and our community. I biggest problem with Deb’s post is exactly that; her summary of Harvard’s problems are mostly surface assumptions and I believe that is a consequence of her separation from the extended Asian community and its leaders.

  7. Hi Anonymous–thank you for your comments.

    The purpose of my post was to give a glimpse into the fact that Asian American issues exist for those who might not be familiar at all with Asian American issues on and off campus, and thus, yes, it was in many ways only touching the surface. I don’t pretend to know everything or to have all the answers; I think this long string of comments has shown that there are indeed Asian American issues, and that was the goal of my post.

    It seems to me that this has become more of an anti-AAWA post, which I will address, but with the disclaimer that what I post on Cambridge Common is my own opinion as a person, and are not reflective of the organization as a whole, nor are they necessarily the opinions of my co-founders. A person should not be defined solely by their organizations.

    It sounds to me that you are an Asian-American who is a leader on campus who I have not spoken to. Perhaps I haven’t spoken to enough leaders, but it’s unfair and inaccurate to say I haven’t spoken or had extensive dialogue with many leaders on campus, both past and present. I would love to speak with you in person if there are concrete issues you have that you feel could be handled a better way, and you are very welcome to send me an email. I would like to say, though, that AAWA’s purpose is not solely to create better cohesion among Asians at Harvard. While this is one part of my greater vision for the organization, as well as being a greater part of the Harvard community in general (hence the Women’s Cultural Community Leaders Network, WCCLN), we are first and foremost the Asian American Women’s Association, and as such, our focus is on creating a community of active, involved and suppportive women. It is undeniable that a community of women has a very different focus and dynamic than one that involves both genders. There was a very noticible lack of an Asian women’s community at Harvard, and that was first and foremost the need we wished to address with AAWA. As for proving that we can do something, it’s difficult, and we are doing our best, especially with efforts to involve those not normally involved in Asian organizations; as you said, it’s taken AAA 30 years to get as far as they have. AAWA has barely been around for 3 months of a school year.

    I also disagree with the point made in your comments that my opinion is invalid because I was not a part of Asian organizations. A very large proportion of Asian Americans on campus are not involved in Asian organizations and yet aware of things that are going on, or even looking for different kinds of efforts–does this make their opinions invalid also? I responded to a significant lack that I felt personally of an Asian women’s community. What I saw and what I felt were my opinions, but opinions shared by others.

    AAWA, as the name suggests, is first and foremost an organization for creating a community of women. I mentioned it tangentially because creating dialogue and awareness is a part of our goal; however, it is in no way the only goal of AAWA, nor is it the primary one. There was a significant and felt lack of an Asian women’s community at Harvard, and that is first and foremost the sentiment we were created to address. If AAWA is the wrong way to go, and is so disruptive to the Asian community, then I am sure it will die out soon, after the dedicated board that currently devotes its time to making AAWA happen graduates. While I respect your point of view and your right to your own opinion, I’m not sure what you are suggesting, as we have made an effort to work closely with AAA and to maintain open opportunitites for dialogue, particularly this year. Should AAWA disband, though there is a need for a women’s community? Should I retract that element from my personal vision for the organization, though I don’t claim that cohesion has been established simply with the founding of AAWA (or expect this any time soon)? I really would love to speak more about this, because AAWA is something dear to my heart, and I think important for Asian American women on campus, and I hope that it does succeed. But if these sentiments are as widespread as you claim, they are things that I would like to address, and I’d appreciate the opportunity to do so.

  8. When I interviewed for admission to Harvard, my interviewer told me that there was an Asian American quota. Remember how, back in the dark ages, there was a quota to limit the number of Jewish students at Harvard? Today there’s an Asian American one. Just tossing that out there to see if people have comments.

  9. Your interviewer doesn’t know anything about Harvard policy. There are absolutely no set quotas for any ethnic group, geographical region, or any other such variable. Harvard does want to assemble a diverse class, which sets soft, variable bounds on the numbers of every variable.

  10. Here is an interesting article about Harvard admissions that briefly touches on the concept of “quotas” in the admissions process.

    http://www.newyorker.com/printables/critics/051010crat_atlarge

    p.s. just in general– to leave your name on your comment without having an acount, simply click “other”

  11. I think one of the reasons that racism against Asians is so easy to ignore is that in practice it’s fundamentally different from racism against African-Americans or Latino-Americans; for instance, in the example you cited about being Pre-med or biznazz, it’s easier for the other party to write off his stereotyping because being hardcore into academics/”selling out to science” doesn’t carry the same normative weight as laziness, dishonesty, etc. However, it’s still the same logic, and I’m glad you’re pointing that shit out. Furthermore, the fact that Orientalism has recently fallen out of favor with the Academy doesn’t mean it’s any less true than it was in 1979, so yeah. Marginalization of Asians is still important.

    Funny story; a couple months ago my girlfriend (Mom from Japan, Dad from Bangladesh, long story) and I (a honky) were going to this lecture thing on the history of the Asian fetish because that shit is interesting and relevant. Later I got pulled over by one of the organizers of the event, an Asian girl, and she said “It’s so greeeeat to see you guys there togetherrr” in the kind of tone you would use to say that exact shit to people going to AA. I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that, but still. Good times.

    This is a solid blog too, propers

  12. This post might be a little late. I had to really think about what has been said so far, particularly the issue regarding AAWA’s existence. What troubles me most is the claim that the founding of AAWA occurred with a lack of consideration for the history of Asian Americans students’ experiences at Harvard and without input from student leaders of Asian American organizations on campus. From what I recall last spring, there were a number meetings held in order to get input from as many people as possible about their thoughts on having a student organization for Asian American women. I attended a few of those meetings and I remember that there was overwhelming support for the creation of AAWA. The number of people who signed up to be on AAWA’s membership testifies to the recognized need of this organization.

    There are many flaws in the logic of “anonymous” argument regarding the misguided motivations and intentions of AAWA’s founders. First is the assumption that input from “Asian leaders” on campus was unsolicited. As I mentioned above, a general invitation was extended to all members of the Asian American community on campus to express their opinions about AAWA. If there were indeed leaders who were apprehensive (and unsupportive) of AAWA, as anonymous claims, then why didn’t these leaders speak up? The responsibility of having a dialogue around this issue falls on both sides – the founders of AAWA and the leaders who saw potential problems and challenges to this proposal. In fact, I think AAWA founders took this suggestion a step further by asking members of the general Asian American population to join in the dialogue. I think what we fail to consider sometimes is the disconnect between leaders and members of organizations.

    Second, I strongly disagree with the idea that someone who has not been “involved with the Asian American community” is unqualified to implement an initiative that addresses an obvious need on campus. I would also like to ask how the idea of involvement is defined. In this case, the implied definition seems to be formal membership in an organization. This is a limited definition of involvement and instead, we need to consider “informal” types of involvement with the community.

    Third, what evidence exists to support the claim that AAWA has created rifts in the Asian American community? Membership in one organization does not necessarily preclude membership in another. Moreover, the existence of different Asian cultural groups on campus does not mean that we are not united, but rather we are proud of our unique ethnic heritage. We should celebrate this diversity instead of seeing this as a problem or obstacle that we need to overcome.

    Finally, there is nothing wrong with a little (or a lot) of idealism. The most significant changes in society that have occurred throughout history have been guided by idealistic minds. However, I do agree that idealism needs to be balanced with practicality.

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