In his May 2 email to the Bowdoin community, President Clayton Rose outlined five bias incidents that have occurred on or around our campus since early April, four of them occurring over the past week or so. As faculty, we strongly condemn these acts of bias and stand in full support of all the students of color who have been targets of racial and religious harassment on our campus.
As faculty who teach classes on Asian America, we want to call out especially the incidents against Asian and Asian American students. This is not to downplay the seriousness of the other bias incidents. But as scholars and teachers of Asian American history, society, literature and culture, we know especially well the tendency in this country for anti-Asian racism to be dismissed—as trivial, as not significant enough to merit the name of discrimination, as not worthy of serious political or ethical address—and for this dismissive attitude to be validated by the mainstream. To combat that trivialization and silencing, both on the part of Bowdoin’s majoritarian culture and on the part of Asian students here who may have internalized an expectation for self-silencing, we say: anti-Asian racism is racism, and we condemn it as such.
In a 2017 article entitled “How the Rules of Racism Are Different For Asian Americans,” Matthew Salesses writes powerfully about how “racism toward Asians is treated differently in America than racism toward other ethnic groups. This is a truth all Asian Americans know. While the same racist may hold back terms he sees as off-limits toward other minorities, he will often not hesitate to call an Asian person a chink … or talk about that Asian person as if he must know karate, or call him Bruce Lee, or consider him weak or effeminate, or so on.”¹ At the heart of much anti-Asian racism is a perception that all Asians are the same, what writer Lisa Ko calls “the myth of the interchangeable Asian,” which treats Asians as “lacking individuality, and by extension, humanity.”² And as Salesses emphasizes, one real effect of our country’s deep cultural tolerance for anti-Asian racism is that “Asian American students are bullied in American schools much more than students belonging to any other ethnic group.”³
It is that lack of hesitation, and the publicness of the bullying and name calling, that typifies and distinguishes anti-Asian racism in America. These acts of racial bias often do not take place under the cloak of darkness or as drive-by incidents where the perpetrators stay anonymous and unknown. Instead, they often take place in broad daylight and in common spaces precisely because the perpetrators expect to get away with it: they feel protected by a cultural norm of apathy and dismissiveness toward Asians, and they feel assured that anti-Asian taunting will not incur the same level of public scorn that other forms of racism do. In submitting this op-ed, we hope that students of Asian descent at Bowdoin will know that there are faculty members who will stand up for and speak alongside you. Asians are not acceptable objects of racial ridicule, and we will denounce any campus act of such racial dehumanization and mockery.
¹ Matthew Salesses, “How the Rules of Racism Are Different For Asian Americans,” The Good Men Project, Aug. 6, 2017, https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/how-the-rules-of-racism-are-different-for-asian-americans.
² Lisa Ko, “Harvard and the Myth of the Interchangeable Asian,” New York Times, Oct. 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/13/opinion/sunday/harvard-and-the-myth-of-the-interchangeable-asian.html.
³ “School Bullying: Overall Victimization Declines, NCES Reports, Asian Students Most Bullied,” HuffPost, Nov. 4, 2011, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/school-bullying-overall-v_n_1076986.
Connie Chiang is a professor of history and environmental studies; Belinda Kong is the John F. and Dorothy H. Magee associate professor of Asian Studies and English; Nancy Riley is the A. Myrick Freeman professor of social sciences; and Shu-chin Tsui is a professor of Asian Studies and cinema studies.