Asian Students, Stand Up, but Watch Your Step
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 20:38

My uncle’s family and grandparents are pretty damn racist. I love them, but the inevitable fact is that most first-generation Asian immigrant families are. I remember being pulled away from my best friend in first grade: my parents accused her of stealing my pencil case, their logic being that she was Mexican, so she must be sneaky. I had probably just dropped it somewhere into the void that was the school playground.

As I grew older, I pushed back at my family’s racism and persistently told them to “stop judging people based on their race!” After 20 years of assimilating to the U.S., my grandparents finally conceded that I could date a black man, but only if he was “handsome like Denzel Washington,” and “successful like Obama.” Small victories, but progress nonetheless.

During the 2016 elections, my aunt voted for Trump. Ironically, despite being an immigrant just two decades ago, she wholehearted supported the proposed restrictions on immigration. This was after her parents had already gotten their citizenship, of course. Hypocrisy aside — wait, there is no aside. Conservative Asian families across America live in a perpetual cycle of political doublethink, where despite being minorities, they have the privilege to forget that they are not white. That’s not to say we don’t feel acts of racial prejudice acutely. When racial incidents happens to Asian people, we are offended, we are livid, we jeer at the injustice of it all. Being reminded of our status as people of color is painful, and to mitigate our shame, Asian Americans turn the discourse on race into a misguided one of merit-based dessert. We should be treated differently because we work harder, because we keep the peace, because we are not like “the blacks” or “the hispanics.” Where other immigrants should be kept out because they are inherently dangerous, we Asians are not. Consistently, the reasons for our social betterment is not based on a plea for our mutual humanity, but rather the fact we are simply not the “other.” Rather than argue for our inclusion as minorities on the topic of affirmative action, we would rather see it abandoned entirely, so as to not piss off our white buddies by leveling the playing field.

I thought I was woke, too. I thought I had transcended the racial biases rooted in my upbringing. I have a healthy sense of pride in my heritage, as much as I had respect for other cultures. Yet, the one thing that keeps me awake at night, even two years after I’ve graduated from Amherst, is my memory of filing a noise complaint on a room above mine my junior year. I wasn’t racist, but I was ignorant. I was the sole Asian person in Drew House, the black culture house on campus named in honor of Charles Drew. All my friends had squirreled themselves away in the Asian culture house in Moore. I had chosen a two-room double, hoping for a roommate. No one signed up to be my roommate. Even then, I felt the pinprick of racial sensitivity, an ugly ripple of rejection that begged the question, “Is it because I’m Asian?”

See, even then, I had that very typical disease of inward thinking. I understand now that yes, it was because I’m Asian, but not because the others were racist against me, but because they would rather share a room with someone who understood their plight, burdens and common struggle of being black in America. I, despite being a minority in America, was an outsider to that experience. Our struggles are similar in nature, but differ significantly in scope, the same way depression and blindness are both disabilities, but a depressed person doesn’t need that special parking space.

It was a Thursday night and the subwoofer speakers upstairs vibrated the metal legs of my bed. In an act of resentment at my isolation within the house, I called campus police to report the party upstairs. They were loud, yes. It was 11 p.m., yes. But I had absolutely made a mistake.

When I was five, my parents taught me that I could always rely on the police. If I was lost, find the police. If my sister had a medical emergency, call the police. If I see something suspicious around the neighborhood, call the police. Implanted into me was the notion that the police were dependable forces with good intentions, and with that came the assumption that I would not die from calling the police.

African Americans do not have that freedom to assume their lives are safe in the hands of those sworn to protect them. What I took for granted, they can’t fathom. And here is where the line is drawn, delineating two vastly different definitions of safe space.

The night passed without incident, but I am haunted by the “what if.” Recently, the various Asian affinity groups at Amherst came together to pen a call to action for exclusive “safe spaces” on campus in The Student. The article asked for more dedicated attention to the college’s Asian students and for more “institutional support,” which I can only assume refers to more resources and funding. As an Asian Amherst alum, I have two responses to this: one of empathy and one of criticism.

Firstly, I get it. I feel it too, even in the post-graduate adult world: that never-ending sense of repressed rage at a system designed to mitigate our existence. We are simultaneously lauded for our appearance as “model minorities” while silently suffering from chronic underrepresentation in discussions of poverty, socio-economic ceilings and media. There are barely any Hollywood movies starring Asian leads, a dearth of Asian-American politicians and yes, a lack of Asian-American studies. At Amherst, I studied philosophy and art, which, combined, could possibly be the whitest departments besides European studies. Even my class on Japanese tea bowls was taught by a white professor. Left and right, it’s hard not to feel the need to band together within our cultural affinity groups, where we can celebrate our holidays and customs without feeling like sideshow exotica for other people’s amusement.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong wanting a space for ourselves where we can host events and enjoy activities without needing to accommodate the rest of the college foot traffic. As a former officer for the Chinese Students Association, I am intimately aware of the inconvenience and vexation posed by a lack of dedicated space usable for hosting meetings and events. Yes, we deserve more attention from the college. Yes, we deserve more classes taught by Asian professors. Yes, we deserve to have instances of racism investigated and publicized, to make people understand that we hurt and we feel the pain of being a minority group just as badly as the others. And there are no buts — it is simply an affirmative, yes, we deserve all of that.

My criticism lies not in the contents of the request, but rather in the method requested. Instead of firmly asserting the respect you deserve as students of Amherst, respect that is and always will be relentlessly entrenched in our common humanity, you decided to support your argument with non sequiturs that reek of finger-pointing. Understand that by preferencing your demands by juxtaposing what other minority groups on campus have, you antagonize yourselves unnecessarily to our allies in this fight for our mutual empowerment. Any victories will become pyrrhic victories; you will have gained neither respect nor understanding, but rather reluctant assent to pacify petulant children. It is not because they have something that we should have something as well — such “us versus them” dichotomy threatens the spirit of allyship that we as minorities must fight to foster. By making examples of other culture groups on campus, we risk objectifying the achievements of others as no more than trivial treats to be handed out. We deserve to be represented equally in all things on campus because we are students of Amherst. That’s it.

The things we ask for should not be stipulated on everyone having something — conversely, everyone having the same things is not sufficient for the advancement of racial equality. Don’t simply pen an angry letter and submit to The Student. Do more. Learn from the minority groups that have won the same battles in their ongoing fight. Moreover, communicate with your Asian alumni and actively engage them to pressure the administration with their wallets. And when one of you math and economics double majors inevitably land that Goldman Sachs internship, in 20 years when you’re VP, fund a dormitory for a new Asian Culture House.