In the newly renovated rooms of the Asian American Cultural Center, hundreds of students gathered on Monday evening to voice their thoughts about race and diversity on campus.
After a few remarks from AACC Dean Saveena Dhall, the roughly 300 attendees, most of whom were Asian-American, split up and formed smaller discussion groups to address the role of Asian-Americans in ongoing racial dialogues at Yale. Titled SPEAK, the event encouraged students to share thoughts and experiences, listen to each other and respond to recent race-related developments on campus. Several attendees recounted personal stories of their own marginalization as Asian-American students at Yale, and many said they walked away more united — in fact, students said they were surprised that others in the Asian-American community also seek to express themselves politically. After SPEAK, students and staff began compiling a list of action steps, from creating an Asian-American solidarity GroupMe to retaining faculty of color, improving ethnic studies offerings on campus and demanding better mental health resources. To start, the AACC is planning its own teach-in next week to inform the larger Yale community of the issues facing Asian-Americans on campus.
“Many of you were speaking for the first time, many of you shared your disappointment at why Asian-Americans had not yet spoken, and many more listened, comforted and supported,” Dhall wrote in an email to the Asian-American community following the Monday night forum. “What we understood from the six conversations that took place during SPEAK is that there is a need for us to do more.”
Dhall identified several measures the community must take in the wake of Monday night’s conversations. These steps include creating opportunities for Asian-Americans to talk and learn about their identities as people of color, supporting the work of students at the other cultural centers, increasing the number of Asian-American faculty and Asian American Studies offerings, pushing for more mental health resources specific to Asian-American experiences and adding more professional staff to the AACC. It is important for Asian-American students not only to support each other but also to extend that support to their “sister communities” during these trying times, Dhall added, emphasizing that change results from a collective effort across the different cultural centers.
SILENCE AND THE MODEL MINORITY MYTH
Silence is a stereotype that confronts the Asian-American community, said Ho Kyeong Jang ’17, president of Korean American Students at Yale. Asian-Americans tend to work within a system as opposed to tackling it, and many are told by their families to simply work hard, overcome the challenges and achieve success in order to rise above the system, he said. Asian-Americans are very good at looking away, Jang added.
“The model minority myth is a myth — it’s a construction that very deliberately portrays Asian-Americans as a minority that does not fight,” said Isra Syed ’16, one of the AACC’s program series co-coordinators. “Through hard work and staying silent, we are told, you’ll be able to rise through.” Syed said because of that myth, society often does not view Asian-Americans as “people of color,” and the myth has been used as a tool to divide different minority communities.
According to Hiral Doshi ’17, the other AACC program series co-coordinator, there is a stereotype in the Asian-American community to “stay out of the fight,” especially since many are first-generation Americans in their Asian families. When students call their parents to explain the events that have shaken campus over the past two weeks, many parents tell their children that the practical solution is to keep their heads down and stay out of the conflict, Doshi said. One Asian-American woman who spoke during SPEAK said she had to use Google to find out whether Asian-Americans count as people of color and deserve to be part of the ongoing racial conversations, Doshi added.
Titania Nguyen ’18, political chair of the Vietnamese Students Association at Yale and co-chair of the Asian American Studies Task Force, said she and other Asian-Americans did not know what it meant to be people of color for a long time. Often, Asian-Americans are marginalized by those with relative power who seek to perpetuate the model minority myth and use it to hurt and shame other people of color, Nguyen added.
“This is why SPEAK was beautiful — we needed to come out and listen to each other and to all the narratives of people of color,” Nguyen said. “But SPEAK is just the beginning.”
Former AACC Peer Liaison Katherine Fang ’17 said she hopes SPEAK will lay the groundwork for what the community still has to accomplish. At the very least, Fang added, Asian-Americans do have a community that is trying to stand up for itself, and moving forward, that community hopes to build on the momentum that began at SPEAK.
INSIDE THE CLASSROOM
When Jang heard the news that Anthropology and East Asian Studies professor Karen Nakamura GRD ’01 plans to leave Yale for University of California, Berkeley at the end of the semester, he was incredibly upset. Jang said Nakamura is one of his favorite professors at Yale, and he had originally planned on asking her to be his senior thesis adviser.
“[Nakamura’s departure] is a failure on Yale’s part to retain one of the most prominent scholars of color and is a sign of the University’s arrogance that, given the chance, scholars will simply come and stay at Yale,” Jang said.
Crystal Kong ’18, co-community development chair for the Asian American Students Alliance, told the News in October that Yale’s biggest issue is with retaining diversity in its faculty, as opposed to attracting and hiring.
Jang said the University’s inability to retain faculty of color goes hand-in-hand with the shortage of ethnic studies courses and departments. Asian American Studies, for example, is not an official University department, nor is Ethnicity, Race and Migration. This means these programs cannot hire their own faculty.
“It’s a catch-22 cycle — if you don’t have the appropriate resources, students aren’t attracted [to Asian American Studies], and faculty sense a lack of interest among the students at Yale,” Doshi said. “At the end of the day, faculty retention and Asian American Studies are one thing.”
According to Syed, “Asian-American” is a term used to describe diverse group of people who can trace their ancestry back to a large geographical region. Not all Asian-Americans have had the opportunity to learn about their history and engage critically in their roles as people of color, she added.
The reason why one student had to rely on Google to discover that Asian-Americans are indeed considered people of color comes in part because of scarcity of Asian American Studies classes offered at Yale, Syed said. Increased funding for faculty and a department could be one important way to improve the status quo, she said.
Mary Lui, master of Timothy Dwight College and Yale’s first tenured Asian American Studies professor, said it is important to remember that the demand for increased ethnic studies is not a new struggle.
“Although Asian-Americans are currently the largest minority group at Yale, many clearly felt they were invisible on this campus and struggled with how to be heard [at SPEAK],” Lui said. “It was both frustrating and sobering to hear as the struggle by Asian-American students on campus to be heard has been ongoing since the early 1970s when Black, Asian, Latino and Native American students joined together to push for academic inclusion.”
The first journal in the field of Asian American Studies was founded by Yale students, Lui said, adding that it is unfortunate that students continue to feel marginalized on campus 40 years after the first calls for ethnic studies.
Additionally, Fang said efforts to redress erroneous ethnic perceptions should not be confined to just the ethnic studies departments.
“The next step would be for faculty [in all departments] to examine their syllabi and see how they have included or erased Asian-Americans in their presentation of the materials, especially in the social sciences and history,” she said.
MENTAL HEALTH AND BEYOND
Many Asian-Americans lack an understanding of what mental health means, Jang said, referring to both the community at Yale as well as to his family, friends and relatives at home. Because the community tends to stigmatize mental health issues, Jang added that Asian-Americans are more prone to confront problems like depression than members of other communities, especially when there is no outlet for what he called their “pain of displacement.” Even a small issue such as changing majors, Doshi said, could be especially mentally taxing for Asian-Americans, as those students often face cultural, personal and familial pressures against switching, especially when the jump is from STEM to the humanities.
One solution, Syed said, is for Mental Health and Counseling to hire more staff of color, as well as counselors trained in providing care for minority students. It would be even better to have one or two mental health professionals on staff in the cultural centers, she added.
Last week, the Black Student Alliance at Yale released a list of student demands for University administrators, including training for incoming freshmen about cultural sensitivity. Fang said such training would be important because Asian Americans and other people of color are often subjected to microagressions from other community members. Being mindful of the unique experiences of these students is essential to Asian American student wellness, she said.
“I think good mental health for Asian [American] students is conceptually similar to that for other students of color. Many aspects of clinical treatment are standard for all students, while cultural and ethnic sensitivity provide additional benefits,” Marvin Chun, psychology professor and Master of Berkeley College, told the News. “Mental health is not just about seeing clinicians. It is deeply important to have strong communities and family support.”
Currently, AASA is drafting a list of demands which correspond to those released by BSAY, though these will be more catered to the Asian-American community.