Distorting Asian American Identities

Campus institutions not re ecting needs of students

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Asian Americans, 27 percent of the UC Santa Cruz student body, are often viewed as model Americans — an idea partly rooted in anti-Blackness. This “model minority myth” ignores effects of structural racism on Asian American communities and demands perfection from Asian American students. High standards leave Asian American students with few institutional support services.

There are 6,504 Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, 44 AAPI faculty members and minimal courses offered on AAPI studies at UCSC.

To address this underrepresentation, UCSC could be receiving up to $350,000 a year in federal funding to increase institutional support for its Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander (AANAPI) students through a program called Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI).

Yet, the university isn’t doing its part to support AANAPI students, let alone other students of color, said Katherine Le, Student Union Assembly (SUA) vice president of diversity and inclusion.

“AANAPISI could be a way to […] shed light on the fact that oftentimes Asian Americans, specifically Southeast Asian Americans, are kind of [made invisible] in the process of looking at what educational equity means, especially from an institutional standpoint,” Le said.

The AANAPISI program is intended to address the academic constraints AANAPI students face through funding. At UCSC, funding could be used to hire more AAPI faculty and staff or create pipeline programs to recruit more South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students. It could even establish an Asian American studies minor, Le said.

UCSC has been eligible for AANAPISI status since the early 2000s, according to the requirements listed by the U.S. Department of Education. Le recently learned about UCSC’s eligibility for AANAPISI and is working on applying.

UCSC has delayed this opportunity to address issues AAPI students face such as the model minority myth, underrepresentation and lack of institutional support.

The Model Minority Myth

The term “model minority” was coined during the civil rights movement and the Immigration Act of 1965 where it functioned as a way for white America to scapegoat other marginalized communities for its own oppressive tactics, said Nancy Kim, director of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Resource Center (AAPIRC).

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

“It was used as a ‘Hey, look how this group is being so successful and they’re just working hard and doing well, why don’t you other communities of color just stop complaining and work hard like these Asians,’” Kim said. “So we were used as a wedge group.”

Pressures from the myth are rooted in colonial systems of thought and racist policies. They continue to create barriers to success, such as mental health issues, for AAPI students.

The 2010 National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS) found that 17.3 percent of Asian Americans experience a psychological disorder in their lifetime but are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white Americans, according to the American Psychological Association. Mental health is especially problematic for low-income AAPI students.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

There are many AAPI students, mainly from Southeast Asia, coming from low-income families who are treated as though they have the same privilege as wealthier East Asian American students simply because all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are categorized as one, said SUA Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Katherine Le.

East Asian Americans are also better institutionally represented at UCSC than South and Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander students. There is an East Asian studies department and language courses in Chinese and Japanese at UCSC, but no comparable options relating to South or Southeast Asian students. Pacific Islander students also exhibit lower retention rates than East Asian Americans in Californian higher education.

The model minority myth is also used by white America as a tool to divide people of color, said critical race and ethnic studies professor Christine Hong.

“The model minority is never about the group that it purports to describe,” Hong said. “It’s always a comparative claim, and it’s always one that disavows structural racism.”

“Model” Asian Americans were used as a symbol of the white American dream, that if individuals work hard enough they can achieve what they want, said Nancy Kim, director of the AAPIRC. The myth, largely pushed by white people, teaches Asian Americans they should strive for whiteness — something unattainable for other communities of color.

These constructions have dangerous consequences, pitting Asian Americans against other marginalized groups and increasing discrimination against those in the community who don’t fit white standards, Kim said.

As a Vietnamese American student, Katherine Le has seen the model minority myth contribute to marginalization of South and Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities on campus. The 48 countries in Asia and multiple ethnic groups in these countries are often lumped into the singular category “Asian.”

“There’s so many disparities that exist within that whole entire category — Asian,” Le said. “Oftentimes the narratives of Southeast Asian Americans are left out of it because Asians are assumed to have certain stereotypes where other people perceive that they are educationally more successful when that is not true.”

Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander students drop out of California community colleges at a rate 21 percent higher than other Asian Americans, according to a 2007-08 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity. Retention rates and income levels aren’t uniform across all Asian American communities, yet the pressure to be “model” students is applied to all Asian Americans.

Underrepresentation and Lack of Institutional Support

On a campus where the Asian American student body is underrepresented in its faculty and staff demographics and course offerings, it’s not surprising many AAPI students feel isolated.

“I feel like there isn’t a perfect place for me here,” said second-year Korean American student Clara Danbii Suh. “I don’t know if that’s because it’s the campus’ fault with not having a space for us. They don’t even have that many Asian history classes, they don’t have any Korean language classes.”

There are only 4 percent more white students than AAPI students at UCSC, yet there is a huge discrepancy in professor, staff and administrator representation. In fact, 8 percent of UCSC faculty are Asian American, 6 percent are Latinx, 3 percent are African American and 2 percent are American Indian while 53 percent are white. Scarce faculty of color is a pattern.

Specific ethnic groups under the “Asian” umbrella on campus are much less represented when they’re disaggregated. A Vietnamese American student is unlikely to take a class with a Vietnamese professor.

The East Asian studies department only offers courses relating to Chinese, Japanese and Korean history, and there are no courses dedicated specifically to Asian American history — much less an option for a minor.

Suh took the introductory critical race and ethnic studies course hoping to learn about her identity’s history. However, she was only assigned one reading concerning Asian issues and spent only one lecture discussing it. The insufficient education on Asian American issues Suh experienced dates back to her childhood.

“Growing up, when we would learn about civil rights issues in class, I’d always wonder: ‘What were the Asians doing? Where did they sit on the bus?’” Suh said. “I just wouldn’t know where Asian people lie in this equation because no one ever told me.”

Suh often feels pressure to conflate her Korean identity with her Asian identity and to assimilate to American notions of how Asian students should act.

“I have a really long and complicated relationship with my Korean identity,” Suh said. “I have to balance my Korean identity, my American identity and my Asian identity, because those are all kind of different.”

Nancy Kim, director of the AAPIRC, said that it is important to remember race is only one identity marker, and other factors contribute to students’ difficulty in finding community at UCSC.

“Because each ethnic or cultural group is so distinct, a sense of cultural isolation occurs […] It’s all really distinct experiences and identities, and that’s not even addressing intersecting identities: their class, gender identity, sexual orientation. All that makes our community so diverse,” Kim said.

It can be difficult for some Asian American students to feel at home on campus because there are so few opportunities for them to meet people with whom they share multiple identities, Kim said. Students like Katherine Le, and third-year Joshua Aldon, a first-generation Pilipinx American, have found their voice even without a robust community.

Misrepresentation is more than not having professors who look like you. It extends to lack of cultural aspects, including food.
Illustration by Lizzy Choi

Aldon was raised in the Portola District in San Francisco, a neighborhood with the largest concentrated Pilipinx population in the U.S. Last year, he found a community in Bayanihan, previously called the Filipino Student Association.

Bayanihan gives Aldon a place to discuss his experiences as a Pilipinx American student, a group that makes up about 5 percent of UCSC students. Bayanihan is one of the largest student-run organizations, as well as the largest ethnic organization, on campus and focuses on Pilipinx student retention.

“It’s like meeting old childhood friends again because we can really talk about things that we’ve experienced ourselves that they can relate to as well,” Aldon said. “That kind of thing is lost on other people who can just do that automatically. It’s so rare to find Filipino students outside of our organization.”

Bayanihan and other ethnicity-based organizations on campus are important resources for students, but they are meant to be supplements to institutional support, not substitutes.

When asked about administrative efforts to address Asian American students’ concerns, Linda Scholz, the campus diversity officer, had little information to offer.

“In the conversations I’ve been involved with, that hasn’t been necessarily a topic of conversation in terms of course offerings and so on,” Scholz said. “[It] is a good question to continue to ask.”

Students like Clara Danbii Suh and Katherine Le said the AANAPISI program has great potential for UCSC because there are currently not enough resources and community spaces for Asian American students on campus.

“Within our Asian American communities there still needs to be more work, whether it be addressing social justice issues, whether it be educational inequity, whether it be addressing issues of anti-Black racism within our communities,” Le said. “There’s still a lot to be done to reach the point of recognizing where we’re at as people of color.”