Hate crimes against Asian people are not a recent phenomenon. Asians have been battling racism and discrimination ever since they first arrived in the United States. In 1854, the California Supreme Court “reinforced racism against Asian immigrants in People v. Hall, ruling that people of Asian descent could not testify against a White person in court.” In 1871, 500 White and Hispanic rioters lynched at least 17 Chinese males in Los Angeles. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration for 20 years. In 1989, a gunman opened fire on a Stockton, CA schoolyard full of Cambodian and Vietnamese American children, killing 5 and wounding 32. Most recently, 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents were reported in the past year, 68% of which were committed against women. And yet, the rampant Asian American racism has never been at the forefront of our nation’s conversation around discrimination and equal justice.
Positive stereotypes about Asian Americans built largely off of the model minority myth obscure the legacy of discrimination endured by Asians and allow their ethnic counterparts to diminish the racism that they experience. People conflate the fact that many Asian students are high-achieving with an assumption of privilege. However, these positive stereotypes do not shield the Asian American community from experiencing harassment online and in-person, institutional exclusion, and America’s longstanding problem with mass shootings. Moreover, no one speaks about the issues behind the high-achieving facade. The intense pressure to perform, the expectation to “advance the generation,” the guise of effortless perfection, and the inability to talk about being discriminated against because of the backlash and invalidation they will receive; it all takes a tremendous toll on a person. Suicide was the “8th leading cause of death for Asian-Americans, whereas it was the 11th leading cause of death for all racial groups combined.” Mental struggles are often discounted because they are invisible. Even worse, many Asian individuals have no outlet for their struggles due to lack of support and recognition of their experiences. How dare they talk about their own problems when other minorities seem to have it worse?
Duke itself has been reluctant to accommodate Asian Americans. Despite students advocating for an Asian American Studies major since 2002, Duke did not add this program to Trinity College until 2018. Duke has lagged behind other top universities in taking action; dozens of other comparable universities implemented Asian American studies programming years before Duke conceded. Although Asian Americans comprise 21% of Duke’s undergraduate population, the institution has not provided a specific cultural center for Asian students for its largest minority group on campus. Finally, members of the Duke community have also exhibited racism and carelessness towards Asian American students without the administration taking steps to reduce these incidents in the future. Two years ago, Duke faculty members complained about Chinese students being “impolite” by speaking Mandarin in the student lounge, causing Duke professor Megan Neely to send an email reading, “To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building.” More recently, two weeks ago, Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy also sent an email regarding the Atlanta shootings and left “(name all 8 victims)” instead of taking the time to send an email appropriately acknowledging the victims. Despite student backlash, the dean who sent the email attempted to ignore the mistake by pretending that leaving the names out was intentional. She acknowledged the mistake two days later, but this action was too little and too late. This lack of support for Asian American students and the disregard towards the struggles that Asian Americans face demonstrates Duke’s neglect of this part of the student body.
Duke’s disappointing history of discrimination against Asian students is a reflection of a larger, national pattern: the overlooking and minimization of discrimination against Asian Americans. For instance, the North Thurston Public Schools in Washington decided that Asians are not people of color by grouping Asians together with whites when measuring academic achievements. However, this is an inaccurate representation: White people have not experienced the same type of racism and discrimination that Asian Americans face, nor have they been violently blamed and attacked for supposedly starting a global pandemic. Asians and whites do not belong in the same group, for one simple reason: Asian people do not experience white privilege. However, people are also hesitant to group Asians with people of color under the notion that Asians don’t face the “same level” of oppression as other minorities. So if Asians aren’t white, but they also aren’t people of color, where does that leave them? Most of the time, it leaves them overlooked and forgotten.
This is why it is so important for Asian students at Duke to have their own cultural center where they can be supported by a community that knows what they are going through. This is why it is so important to engage in conversations about Asian American racism instead of invalidating these experiences under the guise of their being “model minorities.” Recently, several student organizations on campus have spoken up about Duke’s lack of action to support Asian students. Their demands include pushing Duke to establish Asian/American and Diaspora Studies programs, provide a Cultural Center for Asian students, revisit past demands for Asian ethnic group data disaggregation, and establish a hate and bias policy. These are the first steps toward recognizing and finally prioritizing the needs of Asians.
It shouldn’t have taken a mass shooting to garner attention towards the rampant discrimination that Asian Americans face. However, now that these issues are spotlighted, pay attention. Ask questions. Learn about the history of Asian Americans in the United States. And finally, advocate on behalf of this population–their struggles have been discounted for too long. Read Asian Students’ Demands, and hold Duke responsible for providing Asian students with the resources they need.
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