May 2, 2008

Racism and the Asian Community at Cornell

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On April Fools’ Day, I published a fake news piece (in the style of The Onion) titled “Asian Community Center to be Built Adjacent to Uris Library” on my blog CornellWatch. The post envisioned the Center as the cartoonish embodiment of the full spectrum of Asian and Asian American (A3) stereotypes, replete with a Pokémon Card Trading Arena, a Mi-So Slipi Lounge, and a Chinese restaurant selling cat for consumption.
After members of the Asian and Asian American Center (A3C) Student Committee read the post, they were understandably offended and enraged. As damage control, I issued an apology, which attempted to pass the piece off as a “bad joke.” I wanted people to just let it go, because I really didn’t see it as that big of a deal. In essence, I rehashed tired old stereotypes—guilty as charged—but I didn’t really mean them.
I will not attempt to defend my piece anymore or try to assert that calling me racist is a misinterpretation of my work—that it was “satire.” In all honesty, I am unsure as to why I wrote the post in the first place. But I think that original intent is unimportant compared to what I have learned in the wake of the situation.
In speaking with a wide variety of people I encountered a number of attitudes toward the post. To speak generally, there were two major categories of responses: one from the multicultural crowd and another from the “who cares?” crowd.
Multiculturalists are on an unending crusade for diversity. They bandy about the lexicon of Oppression, Marginalization and Gentrification (what I term “OMG”) with stunning precision. They gather in meetings about racism on campus and discuss how white privilege, among other forms of “power,” has created a new breed of latent racism that is harder to fight but perhaps more dire than ever.
The apathetic crowd, on the other hand, sees diversity as something that’s good and all, but just “not really their thing.” When presented with the OMG lexicon, apathetics sometimes recoil and say, “Oh my god.” As much as the apathetic crowd hears about racism, most seem to think that racism is only embodied in clearly racist actions. Apathetics believe it’s okay to use stereotypes in jokes—as long as you don’t really mean them.
I realize that in characterizing the different “crowds” I have begun another round of stereotyping. But this time, it serves to underscore how desperately the Cornell community needs to find a middle ground on issues of race, racism, and power and to engage in some sort of dialogue.
Personally, I find myself somewhere between the two crowds. I realize that the multiculturalists present many compelling arguments about the existence of white privilege and the pervasiveness of racism in America. On the other hand, I didn’t ask for my white privilege, and what, honestly, can I (or anyone, for that matter) do to prevent racism if it’s so ingrained that it can’t even be detected?
In the end, I’ve learned to remember that race is a very emotional and sensitive issue. No, seriously, I know. But sometimes it’s easy to forget that, living in these ten square miles surrounded by reality. What’s most important at this juncture, however, is to try to find some middle ground that both crowds can agree on. The middle ground realizes that issues of race and racism are important, and that respectful dialogue and willful education are needed in order to address these issues as well as to bridge the gap between the apathetic and the radical.
As such, it is important that the Cornell community be informed about the planning of the Asian and Asian American Center, because its existence solves only half of the problem of racism; the other half requires education about the issues facing the A3 community. A major part of the problem, as identified by a 2004 task force (A3TF) investigating A3 issues at Cornell, is “lack of recognition and awareness of the reality, experience, and impact of racism and stereotyping as they relate to Asians and Asian Americans.” This task force recommended the implementation of a cultural center for the A3 community, which eventually became known as the A3C.
Most Cornellians conceive of Asians as the “model minority,” a belief epitomized in the 2005 Antman controversy. On the same day that the Sun ran an article on A3 mental health, including findings from the A3TF, the “Adventures of Antman” cartoonist depicted them as “over-achieving, curve-busting” villains who, along with the precipitous hills and frigid weather, embodied Cornell’s “terrible things.”
Although there is no doubt that family pressures can play a role in unrealistic ideas of academic achievement, pushing the model minority stereotype off onto pushy parents fails to take into account the entire story. In the A3TF report, researchers found that professors and classmates often held A3 students up to higher academic standards, sometimes causing A3 students to choke under the pressure.
In the world of Antman, the majority of the Cornell community remains at odds with robotic, dehumanized Asians who are incapable of socialization. This stereotype blinds many people from seeing A3 students as anything other than soulless study hogs. Instead of bemoaning the supposed “curve-buster,” try to befriend him or her—you will find that, deep down inside, their hearts are not made of gears and chains.
One of the severe issues facing A3 individuals at Cornell is the alarmingly disproportionate suicide rate among students of Asian descent, in comparison with other ethnicities. Though the factors that influence this issue are complex, we, the Cornell community, should try to support the A3 community in this issue in every way imaginable while still realizing that, at its heart, this is a problem that will need to be solved within the community itself. On the surface, jokes such as my post may not seem to be a major cause for depression or mental health issues, but they are symptomatic of a general disinterest in working together. In addition, as one blogger pointed out to me, isolation is often a major factor in suicide, and jokes such as mine can further alienate at-risk individuals.
Although the suicide issue is, in all honesty, likely to be the most salient reason for the greater community to pay attention to the center, a view of the center as an antidote to A3 suicide is myopic. Another major problem the A3TF identified was that the A3 community lacked a real sense of actual community. The center will create a place where A3 students feel they can build a community and a so-called “safe space” from the stereotypes that are likely to exist throughout the foreseeable future.
The A3C is one of the first steps in finding a middle ground between apathy and radicalism, and, in my opinion, it is a very important first step. Jokes like the one I made are a step backwards. These types of jokes are not the biggest threat to the A3 community, but they affirm a system that does nothing to support them.
Most people are tactful enough to make these jokes behind closed doors, but it doesn’t change the fact that they exist on a large scale. I used to tell myself that there was nothing behind such comments, but once they are mentally unwrapped, such jokes are not as harmless as they may first appear.