On sensitivity, diversity and “political correctness”: on studying Asia in America

Monday, December 10, 2018 - 5:42pm

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When registration for fall classes opened, I eagerly signed up for a course on Asia as it was something I was keen in exploring, given that I was an Asian student here at the University of Michigan on my study abroad. The thought of studying Asia in the United States – located 20 hours by plane away from home – was intriguing to me as I had only learned about Asia through studying it extensively at home. I was looking forward to gaining a new perspective, or at least get a glimpse of how people abroad viewed Asia. Studying Asia and Asians in America appeared counterintuitive when I had all the opportunities in the world to do so in my own university at home, but I’d thought it could be a necessary cultural experience and exchange of sorts.

Throughout the course of the semester, I can confidently say I have learned a lot in these classes, not just about the subject matter and such content knowledge, but about ethnicity and diversity in the classroom and possibly, in America. In the classroom, I was exposed to multiple personalities, points of view and perspectives, some of which made me uncomfortable as they challenged my own knowledge and perspective on culture that I already carried with me here to America. For instance, when discussing colonialism in lecture, it was brought up that while colonial governments were racist, equality of all people was essential to colonial discourse. This directly challenged my understanding of colonialism as an inherently racist and Orientalist institution. In the spirit of academic thought, however, I reminded myself that it was critical to take note of these alternative, albeit uncomfortable, perspectives to strengthen and refine the perspective I already had. An unpopular opinion may not always be wrong, just as a popular opinion may not always be right. 

 

On a separate occasion, we were also asked to debate whether colonialism was good or bad. These conversations frustrated me to no end, as it went against all that I and most of my peers at home knew and felt, coming from a region that had been colonized until several decades ago, and one that is still suffering some of colonialism’s long-term consequences. Though I had expressed my concerns, it was explained to me that “political correctness” was not something our professor believed in. Though I believe academia should not shy away from difficult discussions, I had believed — and still believe — that my discomfort with this issue does not concern “political correctness” at all, but rather the apparent insensitivity, albeit unintentional, towards people in the classroom who may hail from countries that were former colonies (that are still contending with colonialism’s legacy) or have had family members who had experienced life under colonialism before, as I have. To me, the issue of colonialism framed in a good or bad dichotomy would polarize rather than unify the classroom, which is counterproductive to meaningful discussions and should not be relegated to just “political correctness.”

 

There were also instances when I thought someone was being ignorant or insensitive. When talking about some old Asian traditions, like animist worship and spiritual superstitions, I had witnessed some students around me giggling and exchanging looks of amusement, as if our professor had told us a witty joke. This struck me as insensitive primarily because I have been taught never to laugh or poke fun at another culture, as each culture is different. Every culture has its own superstitions, traditions and idiosyncrasies, and it is only right to respect them, rather than take them as something to laugh about.

 

On another occasion, I overheard someone labeling one of my country’s founding members as “arrogant” and worse, a “dick.” While one could overlook the former incident as just naïve ignorance, the latter term struck a chord with me in a bad way as it was in some ways, a personal attack on where I came from, from someone who did not necessarily have the experience of living in my country nor had conducted any extensive reading or study in this area. A great sense of indignation welled up in me, but after I had cooled down, I realized how easy it is for anyone, me included, to be guilty of making comments that are hurtful or insensitive to others without us even realizing it ourselves.

 

More than just ignorance?

 

Perhaps this casual insensitivity or ignorance towards not just people of color but people from other nations and cultures is something I should have expected traveling to a country where race relations can be troubled, to say the least. However, I had not expected it to penetrate into academia and into this class specifically, as it aims to educate — not miseducate —  people on a whole new culture and region. Instead, what I had gained from taking this class is a deep sense of frustration and agitation on several occasions as mentioned above. On these occasions, I had felt quite indignant, but feared speaking up because I did not know the person directly and was afraid of looking like I overreacted. Time and again some people have argued that students here do not necessarily know much about Asia as it is geographically too far away from them, and they advise me to be more understanding and forgiving when someone makes a seemingly insensitive or ignorant remark. But where does and when should this tolerance end?

 

While it is hard to look at and listen to judgments of the region and country I was born in by people who have likely not traveled there before, it is also sometimes uncomfortable to sit through a class that indirectly promotes a Eurocentric view of Asia despite purporting not to. (Here, I take Eurocentrism to basically mean essentially a worldview centered around Western civilization.) One example of this point would be the lack of diversity in reading material. In the twenty-first century, most countries — developed and developing — would have several homegrown academics who are not just knowledgeable but also credible and reliable in their field. Yet, my class on Asian history had only three sources produced by academics of Asian descent, while the rest were Western. While we certainly should not discount the work produced by renowned academics just because they do not come from the region they study, it is important to complement these voices with fresh voices of the people who come from the region themselves as they have a unique lived experience that others might not have. To put things in perspective, a history of, say, politics in India written by a non-Indian expert can and should be read alongside works from Indian experts. It is this diversity of opinion and perspective that elevates academia and enhances a students’ learning experience. This is much more preferable to reading from just one group of authors or worse, just one author.

 

The history of any given region should not be presented as static and even more so, should not have been viewed solely through a single dominant lens. Instead, history courses should encapsulate the diversity of the region by including voices from that region and views that may run contrary to the professor’s own opinions, which would add diversity to how we treat another country’s history. This allows us to make more informed opinions, rather than base our opinions from a singular perspective that was dictated to us in a lecture.

 

I have been informed that the history course I took is structured the way it is given that it is an introduction of a region that students do not know much about. This, however, does not excuse oversimplification and generalization of a region by presenting it only with one or two voices. Doing so would be a miseducation, rather than an education, of history. We are, after all, college students who have the bandwidth to weigh the veracity of different sources and come to our own decisions. It isunfair to assume anything foreign is “too complicated” for college students. That decision should be for us to make, rather than anyone else.

 

What, then? 

 

In the process of this course, I have learned that we often fall into the trap of being casually complacent and ignorant of other nations and cultures. What I have experienced in my history class could easily happen in any other class, particularly those focusing on different nations, ethnicities or cultures. What should be learned from this is the importance of recognizing and allowing for multiple perspectives to ensure that as students, we are allowed to formulate our own thoughts after our own critical analysis of a diverse range of opinions, rather than have our opinions shaped by professors who may either assign only their own research only or reading material from only one school of thought, demographics of writers, publication company, etc. This also means that we, as students, owe it to ourselves to read up on whatever we are learning to gather more points-of-views should we realize that a class is not offering us the multiple perspectives we need.

 

There is also a need for educators to be more mindful when talking about sensitive and controversial topics. They should be aware of the demographics of their class, and tailor the content appropriately such that everyone can undergo a meaningful learning process. That is not to say that tough discussions should be simplified or avoided on account of “political correctness,” but that discussions and debates should be framed in a thoughtful way that allows for the integration and unity of people with different views, rather than the unnecessary polarization of a classroom and the potential marginalization of students who come from a variety of different backgrounds.