In the aftermath of the Atlanta-area spa shootings and a continued upsurge in anti-Asian violence, leaders of colleges and universities across the country have issued statements denouncing anti-Asian racism and extending support to members of the Asian American community.
Anyone who has been around academe for even a moderate amount of time has come to expect such statements in the wake of national tragedies, such as the death of George Floyd in police custody, the white supremacist mob violence in Charlottesville, Va., and the mass murders at Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.
Such statements can help to reassure members of historically marginalized communities that their concerns register with decision-makers and remind them of their commitment to inclusion. However, we have also come to expect that these statements will sadly be received by many as performative acts unless they are followed by transformative measures to redress long-standing problems of structural racism and other forms of inequity.
The breadth and scope of statements in the past few weeks addressed to Asian Americans seems unprecedented, signaling a possible watershed moment. A quick internet search turns up well over one hundred statements connected to institutions of higher education. The American Historical Association released the “Statement on Violence against Asians and Asian Americans” co-signed by 44 scholarly organizations.
Over the next few years, we will see how much that sentiment translates into action. For instance, institutions with Asian American Studies departments, majors and doctorate programs are few and far between. Students and scholars in the field generally need to find space for their work within traditional disciplines or interdisciplinary units. This usually means relying on non-specialists to recognize the significance of their work, which can often involve more interpersonal and emotional negotiation than cerebral academic pursuit. Expanded course offerings and tenured faculty hires in Asian American Studies would help to remedy that problem.
Indeed, many colleges and universities still have no more than a token number of Asian American Studies courses or, even more commonly, none at all. Dedicated cultural centers or counseling staffed by full-time experts in Asian American student affairs are also the exceptions rather than the norm. As such, for decades, Asian American students and advocates have been pushing for more resources and investments by their schools, including at some of the most prominent and wealthy institutions in the world.
We may also see a wave of new hires at all levels of Asians and Asian Americans within not only higher education but also within media, government and corporations. Some of these openings will provide opportunities for exceptional talents that have long been overlooked. History, however, cautions us to be wary of cynical and token hires. Arguably the most notorious Asian American hire in history was the appointment of S.I. Hayakawa, endorsed by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, as president of San Francisco State College during the Third World Liberation Front strike for Ethnic Studies in 1968-69. The conservative Hayakawa became the “model minority” symbol of state repression to end the strike with a brutal police crackdown that left hundreds of students beaten, bloodied and jailed — though not defeated.
The editors of the acclaimed 2012 anthology, “Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia,” warned to watch for the use of a woman of color “pet” or “mascot” whose purpose is to reinforce structures of oppression. The book says, “The pet may be a key administrator’s personal favorite, who serves as the official spokesperson for all faculty of color. She may be the ‘exceptional’ woman of color whose accomplishments (real or imagined) or compliant attitude put other faculty of color in a negative light. In public, the pet makes a dramatic display of her selfless efforts to support colleagues of color. In private, the pet is harshly critical of the teaching and scholarship of these same colleagues, thereby reinforcing the race- and gender-based presumption of incompetence.”
One of the immediate tests of sensitivity toward the concerns of Asian American workers and students is whether employers and schools will require in-person labor and instruction. Echoing concerns expressed by Black and Latinx parents, Asian Americans have been reluctant to send their K-12 children back to school in person, and these concerns cut across geography, class and ethnicity. It is not hard to see how many of the same factors identified in an eye-opening Washington Post article may also apply to college-level instruction, as well as employment more broadly.
First and foremost, Asian American parents and students have expressed alarm at the racial harassment and assault they and others have faced. The fear of such incidents extends from the classroom and playground to walking or taking public transportation to and from campus. In our mentoring of Asian American students, we have repeatedly heard reports of Asian American women being subjected to harassment and abuse especially when drinking and partying take place. Even college students who studiously avoid parties can be subjected to such attacks while walking home from the library or study group meetings.
Second, Asian Americans harbor fears of COVID-19 spread not only to themselves but also to vulnerable members of their families and communities. Nearly 30% of Asian Americans live in multigenerational households. Society often thinks of Asian Americans as the stereotypical “model minority” student going to an elite university. The reality is that most Asian Americans attend community colleges or state schools like those we have previously taught at, where students routinely commute to campus from homes with parents and grandparents. The concern is escalated at the colleges and universities that are not requiring students to be vaccinated, even as it becomes widely available.
Third, Asian Americans share the concerns of other groups who live with dependents or household members who are immunocompromised. For example, we are parents of a kindergartner with Down syndrome and one study has found that individuals with this condition are ten times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population. Further, assuming test trials go well, young children are not likely to be eligible for a vaccine prior to 2022. And even if K-12 children have the option of virtual learning, this won’t mean much if their parents and guardians are required to work in person and can’t be at home. Vaccinated adults may have a low risk of hospitalization, death and reduced risk of transmission, but new strains are challenging that. How much risk should be tolerable in a deadly pandemic? This is a decision that parents should have the right to determine in consultation with their medical providers.
Finally, Asian American employees and students deserve the option of virtual work and instruction on a full-time basis to alleviate mental illness. Otherwise, being forced to choose between undesirable options will only heighten the stress and anxiety that have already escalated for Asian Americans during the pandemic. Asian Americans have reported a higher level of concern for COVID-19 than the general U.S. population and heightened anxiety about racist harassment and attacks. As Dr. Tung Nguyen, director of the Asian American Research Center on Health at the University of California – San Francisco, has noted, Asian American mental health issues “tend to be under-diagnosed and under-discussed.”
Through the pandemic, many of us have normalized grocery shopping, dining out, watching movies and even attending parties and weddings through the internet. Instructors have gone to extraordinary lengths to develop pedagogical techniques over Zoom and through asynchronous learning. Why should anyone be forced to assume unnecessary risks when effective and viable forms of work and teaching can occur online?
The message to leaders of higher education and corporate employers should be clear. Asian Americans have heard your statements.
Now it’s time to listen to us in shaping the policies and priorities that will exemplify your true values.
Emily P. Lawsin is Lecturer IV in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Department of American Culture, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Kurashige is Professor and Chair in the Department of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University and Past-President of the American Studies Association. He can be contacted on Twitter: @scottkurashige.
Institutions are listed for identification only.