The past year has seen a steady escalation of anti-Asian hate and violence, most recently in the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta and the ongoing attacks against Asian elders around the country. Now, for what feels like the first time, the spotlight is directly trained upon the Asian American community and our struggles. This unprecedented attention sheds new light on the racist microaggressions the three of us experienced as Asian American women in Cornell in Washington.
As Fall 2020 participants in the Cornell in Washington program, we faced numerous accounts of implicit racism from CIW faculty and staff, namely their inability to recognize and distinguish between us and other Asian American women in the program. Professors and staff consistently mixed us up and forgot which one of us they were speaking to; we were often the only students not called on by name even months into the program. This happened in the classroom, the library, the mailroom and even while we took our COVID-19 surveillance tests. On one occasion, a professor blatantly mistaked Elisa for Katie in front of the whole class by asking Elisa about Katie’s final project for the class, even though Katie was in an entirely different class section and worked closely with this professor on her project. These are just a few examples of incidents that continued throughout the entire term and even up until the last day we were in D.C..
In a semester dominated by face masks, Covid-19 anxieties and overall increased stressors, these instances could be explained away as minor mistakes or isolated incidents deserving the benefit of the doubt. Yet, the Fall 2020 CIW program, capped at half capacity with a total of 20 students, was the smallest cohort in recent history. In-person class sessions were limited to 10 students and our names were always labeled on-screen in Zoom classes, making it painfully clear that the incidents couldn’t be blamed on masks or simply being forgetful. As we faced the indignity of not being recognized over and over again, we realized that this mistreatment came from a fundamental mistaking and conflation of our basic identities as distinct individuals.
There are real, material consequences growing from these seemingly harmless mistakes. The rapport we felt we had with professors was entirely hollow. We thought we were building the valuable professional connections CIW boasts of its program, but in reality we were each seen as just another faceless Asian woman in the class. Despite the conscious effort all three of us made to frequently speak in class and attend office hours, we were still rendered invisible and interchangeable. We had to expend triple the effort just to earn the basic respect of recognition that other classmates (some of whom were far less engaged) could take for granted.
Our story highlights a pattern of implicit bias that is often overlooked, one that, undoubtedly, many other Asian Americans have experienced. Too frequently, the feeling of marginalization our community suffers due to these microaggressions is dismissed — by ourselves and others — as overreactions to minor issues. The three of us were initially hesitant to speak up too; our experiences at CIW certainly weren’t the first time any of us had been mistaken for another Asian woman with little resemblance to us. But, we had always just explained it away — it must be because we don’t speak enough in class or because there are just too many students. Indeed, if not for the inexcusable fact that there were only 20 students in our entire CIW cohort, we may have remained silent this time too. Despite being dehumanized into facelessness and deprived of our individual identities, we did as we were prescribed by society and taught by our immigrant parents: work hard and keep out of trouble. We put the burden on ourselves to do more rather than on others to do better.
Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the violence done to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other victims of anti-Black hate, our experiences seemed even more insignificant. We knew we were privileged to not experience racism in the same way as our Black peers. We didn’t want to come across as jostling for space at a time when Black voices needed to be centered the most.
But this is exactly why our experiences must be highlighted. All too often, the model minority myth uses the notion of Asian American “success” as a way to dismiss the effects of racism on our community. The stereotype of Asian Americans as being monolithically passive and obedient only perpetuates the silence of our Asian American peers when confronted with implicit racism. Our community’s marginalization from mainstream consciousness is demonstrated starkly by the fact that CIW faculty and staff — spurred on by the racial reckoning of summer 2020 — were actively developing their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan at the same time they were overlooking their own implicit anti-Asian racism. Additionally, given white America’s history of using Asian Americans as a wedge to disrupt broader POC solidarity, vocally challenging the narratives that label us as white-adjacent becomes even more crucial to confronting white supremacy.
As a result of our experiences, we sent a letter in late January calling on CIW to publicly acknowledge the mistreatment we faced and to adopt meaningful, systemic changes that would expand financial accessibility, increase diversity in faculty and students, and foster a more inclusive and equitable culture. To CIW’s credit, they have been receptive to our call to action and sought our suggestions on the DEI Strategic Plan, which was originally anticipated to be finished by June 2021. According to the current CIW director, our experiences accelerated the development of the plan by three months.
While the DEI plan is still in draft form and awaits approval from higher administration officials, we believe that the plan — and how CIW handled this situation — should set an example for other departments, programs and institutions in addressing similar incidents: substantively, transparently and without making excuses. Rather than defensively justifying their intentions, CIW focused their response on addressing the impact of their implicit racism.
We hope that our experiences and CIW’s response can contribute to the ongoing conversations about anti-Asian racism here on campus. This wasn’t our first brush with implicit racism and unfortunately, it will not be the last. Now with the spotlight on Asian Americans, this is our moment to actively push back against the myths and stereotypes that hold us down, to center our experiences and claim our space and worth.
Members of the Cornell Community may consult with the Asian & Asian American Center by calling (607)255-9438. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. The Tompkins County-based Advocacy Center is available at 607.277.5000.
Angela Li, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, Elisa Zhang, an alumna of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Katie Zhang, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, were all students in the Cornell in Washington Program Fall 2020. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Rooms runs periodically throughout the semester.