What Asian American Student Activists Want

These days, the leaders of Vanderbilt University’s Asian American Student Association meet on Tuesday nights over Zoom. They had all just signed off one night last month when a board member texted everyone else. Had they seen the news? A shooter had killed eight people in Atlanta, six of them women of Asian descent. This after months of news about Asian-looking people in America being harassed and beaten by those who blamed them for the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think I had time to process it,” said Valerie Kim, advocacy chair for the association. It was after 9 p.m. in Sylvania, Ohio, where she’s learning remotely for the term. She was getting ready for bed. “I read it and I was like: ‘Put the phone away. Look at this tomorrow.’ It was just a lot. It just compounded the stress we were feeling with the administration.”

The group’s leaders and other students and faculty members had been pushing Vanderbilt for more support for students feeling stress and fear, but they weren’t satisfied with the administration’s response and hadn’t talked publicly about the effort with their membership. Then, when Kim woke up the morning after the shootings, she saw upbeat messages from the administration about Founder’s Day, but no acknowledgement of what seemed like it might be the worst hate crime against Asian Americans in a generation. (Police haven’t yet revealed evidence of the shooter’s motive.)

“This was just a slap to the face,” Kim said.

The group quickly penned an open letter. The shootings “sent a reverberating message of fear to our Asian and Asian American communities,” read the statement, which the leaders posted on Instagram. “We call for administration to take these sustainable courses of action.”

They demanded Vanderbilt lead discussions about anti-Asian bias on campus. Create Asian American-studies courses and an Asian American and diaspora studies program. Start and staff an inter-Asian center that would run community events for Asian-identifying students. Hire an Asian American psychologist in the university’s counseling center.

When asked about the group’s demands and the timing of the university’s statement, a Vanderbilt spokesman, Damon Maida, replied over email. “While Vanderbilt has made progress over the years creating a campus environment in which all students can feel welcomed and included, we know we have more to do because this work is never finished,” he wrote. “We actively are meeting with students and faculty to work together to address the ongoing violence against Asians and Asian Americans.”

Meanwhile, across the country, student groups at other colleges are making similar demands. They say they’re tired of having to learn, and educate other students, about Asian American history on their own. “It’s outside of our studies,” said Stephanie Zhang, chief of staff for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Activists at Emory University. “We’re paying to go to college, but they keep using us as consultants or something.”

Often the letters outlined changes that student groups had been pushing for years. At Duke University, student-group leaders pointed to a petition, for an ethnic-studies department, dating to 2003. But the students knew the tragedy in Atlanta could create fresh urgency for administrators to act. “I was like, ‘All right, let’s go. Let’s do this,’” said Wesley Wei, president of Vanderbilt’s AASA chapter.

The Intercollegiate APIDA Coalition posted a letter with signatories from 40 four-year colleges, including allied groups like the Vanderbilt NAACP and the University of Notre Dame’s Latinx Student Alliance.

Some parts of the letters echoed those that Black student organizations and their supporters posted last summer, when protests erupted around the country over anti-Black racism in the United States. Some activists acknowledged their Black peers. “Much of our organizing follows the blueprint that Black activists have made for transformative justice,” Grace Bautista, historian for George Washington University’s Asian American Student Association, wrote in an email. “There is also no Asian American studies without Africana studies.”

In other ways, the students’ letters and work highlight Asian Americans’ unique racialized position in American society and within higher education. Many activists The Chronicle spoke to talked about feeling invisible to their universities. It seemed that some administrators didn’t think Asian American students needed additional support because of the numbers at which they enter and graduate from colleges as a whole. The model minority myth, the false perception that all Asian Americans are successful in contrast to other people of color in the United States, also rears its head. “It was always like, ‘They’re fine,’” said Sharon S. Lee, Ed.D. online program manager for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied the history of Asian American student activism at Illinois.

Lee, other researchers of Asian Americans in higher education, and Asian American students themselves contend that they’re not all fine. They pointed to studies in which Asian American college students report continuing to face racism at predominantly white institutions. At Duke University, students compiled a timeline of racist and homophobic incidents on campus, including acts in 2019 and 2013 that students of Asian descent found denigrating. So long as Asian American students face discrimination, administrators have a continued responsibility to provide supportive services, even when student numbers aren’t a concern, Lee argued. “Underrepresentation is really essential. We need to start there,” she said, “but we can’t end with overrepresentation.”

In addition, some Asian Americans continue to be underrepresented in higher education. Despite Asian Americans’ overall high college-going rates, Pacific Islander and certain Southeast Asian Americans remain significantly less likely to have college degrees than whites. To help counter that pattern, Duke student groups demanded administrators break out their data on Asian American admission rates by ethnic origin. And Asian Americans as a whole continue to be underrepresented in some college leadership teams and in doctoral programs in education, the humanities, and the social sciences. At Illinois, some faculty members have been petitioning the administration to count Southeast Asian Americans as underrepresented minorities in a diversity hiring initiative.

“There’s an assumption that Asian Americans are overrepresented everywhere because of the model minority stereotype,” said Sam Museus, a professor of education studies at the University of California at San Diego. “It’s just not true.”

The pandemic-related hate crimes and the Atlanta shootings challenged the stereotypes that Asian Americans don’t face life-threatening racism and that they are all wealthy, well educated, and well assimilated. Among the victims of the Atlanta shootings were low-wage workers who took on several jobs to stay afloat, and women who were marginalized because they worked in massage parlors.

These women’s deaths, and the way the public talked about them afterward, underscored the need for more Asian American studies on college campuses, Emory’s Zhang said. “A lot of anti-Asian violence occurs because people have these false narratives of Asian Americans as foreign/diseased/diminutive/hypersexual/etc.,” she wrote in an email. “The importance of Asian American studies and education around Asian American history is to demystify these narratives.”

Zhang had been following the news about attacks against people of Asian descent during the pandemic. Many of those stories came out of San Francisco and New York City, however. “I knew the violence was real, but it felt farther away,” she said. The spa shootings brought them home for Zhang, who grew up in a suburb outside of Atlanta. “Some of the women who were killed, their kids had gone to high schools in my district,” she said. Now, as a college student, she wants to see Emory hire more Asian American-studies professors in part so that students interested in studying Atlanta’s Asian American communities can have them as advisers.

Emory groups have not published a letter of demands, but student activists have been asking the university for several changes over the past few years. In addition to more hires in Asian American studies, they sought the creation of an Asian American alumni association and student center. They succeeded in the last ask: Emory is getting an Asian student center this coming fall.

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