Include Asian-American voices in racial discourse
“Do you identify more as white or black?”
Michelle’s brother posed this question to her when she was 16, and it forced her to think about how much of her identity she could actually construct for herself. The obvious answer to the question was Not Applicable—she is an Asian American.
For Michelle’s brother and for many other people in this country, conversations about race mostly function on a black-and-white binary. What her brother was really asking was, “As an outsider, which team are you rooting for?”
But Michelle is not alone in her struggle to place herself within this constructed racial binary. As three individuals from different U.S. geographical regions and Asian ethnicities, we are connected by our feelings of otherness—of not belonging to either black or white identities.
On one hand, South and East Asian Americans’ relatively high educational achievements and family income levels are used by our society to call us “model minorities.” (Curiously, most Americans seem to forget that 40 percent of Hmong Americans and 38 percent of Laotian Americans drop out of high school.)
The “model minority” stereotype operates on the harmful assumption that merely with hard work, any ethnic or racial group can climb the social ladder out of poverty. It also has the unintended effect of pitting Asian Americans against African Americans and Latinos by positioning them as somehow different from other minority groups and as honorary whites.
And yet, the three of us have never felt fully white. We are never quite sure what people mean when they ask us, “Where are you from?” Even though Michelle and Wendy were born in America (and Paul immigrated when he was six), people assume that all three of us have a special familiarity and connection with our homelands and speak an Asian language fluently. This complicates our status as so-called honorary whites, and suggests that we may be forever foreigners under the gaze of society.
In high school, Wendy was excited when her teacher announced a new unit in the health curriculum centered on race and identity. It would be a rare public space for her and her peers to talk about race, a topic that was seldom discussed in her predominantly-white high school in New England.
But when she watched the movie that her teacher said was about race in America, she only learned about issues facing blacks and whites. When the movie was followed by a student panel that her teacher said was “comprised of all different cultures and backgrounds,” she was equally disappointed to not see a single Asian face in the panel.
Who would speak to her experiences as an Asian American? How did an educational space supposedly set on affirming her race instead affirm her feelings of otherness?
All three of us are privileged not to face the same systemic discrimination that many African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans face. But we also think that it can be all too easy for our communities and governments to neglect the critical issues affecting Asian Americans, such as the little-known fact that they have higher poverty rates than the national average.
Even at Bowdoin, we have felt culturally and socially slighted, and have found that many spaces on campus centered on race rarely seek to actively include and affirm the voices of Asian Americans.
“Growing up [as Filipina], I never learned about my history in textbooks or in school… My research has shown that history can be personal and [be] about you. It doesn’t have to be objective,” said Genevieve Clutario, a cultural historian at Harvard University.
Clutario spoke at the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) Conference earlier this year, which Paul attended. It was the first time in college when Paul had found a public space where conversations on race centered on his own Asian American identity and where he didn’t feel like the “other.” Curiously, that first experience was not at Bowdoin.
Whether through public spaces like ECAASU or private conversations with friends, we know that race for us does not operate on a black-white binary. We know that our experiences cannot be easily compartmentalized as white or black, and we know that our conversations on race are richer when we expand the dialogue.
Next Wednesday, Multicultural Student Programs will hold a discussion on Asian American race, identity, and activism. But we can do more. Petition the school to add more courses in Asian-American studies (there were none this school year), or ask the Women’s Resource Center and Health Services to follow up on Kristina Wong’s talk on the high rates of depression among Asian-American women. Whatever your cause, let’s show that Bowdoin values its Asian American students.
Wendy Dong is a member of the Class of 2018. Michelle Hong is a member of the Class of 2016. Paul Ngu is a member of the Class of 2017.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that no Asian Studies courses were taught this year. The College taught many Asian Studies courses, but no courses in Asian-American studies. The article has been updated to correct this error.