Commentary: Toward More Meaningful Campus Celebrations of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Here we are at the end of May and most places of higher learning have completed finals and convened their graduation ceremonies.

Earlier this month, people had already started to check out. Not a good time for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on campus. To overcome the logistics issue, some campuses celebrate Asian-Americans as early as October, while other campuses with large numbers of Asian and Asian-American students tend to treat every day as a heritage month day. Few seem to be addressing the real need: to go beyond the simple food festivals and make APA Heritage Month a more meaningful engagement between the campus and America’s diverse Asian cultures. You can always bring in a speaker.

Show a movie. Have a sushi demonstration.

But that’s old school.

What sort of thing could build the kind of awareness that will stop the Internet meme from becoming a new virulent form of 21st century racism? If you haven’t seen a meme, it’s a viral image with text, like a cartoon or graphic that is spread on the Web. Too often, the theme is racist, ugly and specifically anti-Asian. It’s the new Internet irritant, a forum for racist jokes. And, on campuses, the target seems to be Asian-Americans, focusing on their culture, their intelligence, their sexuality.

An example of a meme shows the actor Leonardo Di Caprio from the movie “Inception.” Only his eyes have been slanted.

Another mocks Asian-American sexuality. A stack of books has this text: “My idea of a one night stand.” Benign? Good clean fun? People used to tell Polish jokes at the water-cooler. Now they’re Tweeting and sending racist memes over the Internet. The impact on the targeted group is clear.

In April, as Purdue celebrated its early heritage month with its annual Miss Asia contest, the big event was marred by an ongoing spate of such memes through campus and on a fake Twitter account that mocked Asian-Americans.

One Asian-American user commented on Twitter in response to the slurs: “It’s disheartening because Purdue has an enormous number of international Asian students, as well as a significant Asian-American population. Clearly, there’s a disconnect here. It’s also scary that these are young and supposedly educated people about to enter the workforce, and they will bring their prejudices … with them.”

But it took some time to see a response from the university in the campus newspaper. “If you’re offended, you should encourage people to stop paying attention to them, re-Tweeting, or following them,” one college official says in the campus paper. “If they don’t get any attention, they’ll probably just stop.”

It was a passive, unenlightened response, but typical of the mentality that comes out of years of ineffectual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebrations. Good food, but no food for thought. Ergo, nothing much seems to sink in.

And when the month is done, there’s nothing ongoing that assures Asian-American students get the support and services they deserve.

“How do these universities with no cultural centers address these issues?” asks Dr. Kate Agathon, who received her master’s and Ph.D. from Purdue University. The former campus leader helped form Purdue’s Asian Pacific American Caucus. She had returned to show support and be part of the campus celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by being a judge of the student-run Miss Asia Pageant, but she found herself pressed into service, meeting with current Purdue students on how to best fight the incident. She was appalled to find no one from the university vigorously backing up the Asian-American students and condemning the Twitter slurs.

“What would happen if there had been a formal advocate in place to speak out on their behalf, or to talk to them about ways to protest?” asked Agathon rhetorically, pointing to the effectiveness of cultural centers in big campus environments to make sure the impact of an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is ongoing.

She admits that a cultural center may not have stopped the racist Twitter accounts on campus. But cultural centers are landmarks on campus that bring diversity into focus by providing a place for constructive, meaningful dialogue and engagement. They also signal a commitment by the university to promote a comfortable and tolerant environment. “No one is doing that” at Purdue, said Agathon.

The cultural center model exists at universities like at UConn, where the center was a response to a racial incident at a college dance. The meme incident at Purdue could be the impetus to birth a center there. The campus has clearly outgrown the standard approaches to diversity.

At Purdue and on other campuses, serving up a perfunctory once-a-year Asian Pacific American Heritage month as lip service to diversity is no longer enough.

— Emil Guillermo is an award-winning author and journalist in Northern California. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund www.aaldef.org/blog and at www.amok.com.