Commentary: The Asian Pacific American Paradox

Every year there appears to be no shortage of celebrations. From food and dancers to conferences for the gay and Asian, U.S. campuses find the time for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month events from March through May — the official month designated by Congress. But an abundance of APA heritage events can be deceiving, masking real uncertainties about the state of Asian Americans in higher ed. After 33 years of APAH celebrations, it seems like we’re just marking time.

Although APAs make up just 5 percent of the nation’s population, they are often an overwhelming minority on college campuses, exceeding 40 percent at some schools. “Asian-ness” is an increasingly characteristic look and feel of the modern campus. But large numbers don’t always equal strength. The diversity fights of 40 years ago are not over. Asian Americans on campus remain on the margins.

Big school or small, it doesn’t matter. In the largest APA enclaves, academic and cultural programs face cutbacks. Where Asian Americans are no longer a novelty, schools still struggle to build a meaningful Asian American presence.

At Purdue, 1,700 Asian American undergrads represent 44 percent of all minority students there, making them the university’s single largest minority group. But therein lies the essential Asian American conundrum. When there’s so many, it’s hard to claim “underrepresentation,” leaving Asian Americans with crumbs compared to the institutional support other groups receive.

“Consequently, we are the largest minority and the least served,” says Kate Agathon, a graduate lecturer in the university’s Asian American studies program. As part of the wave of adoptions from her native Thailand to the U.S. in the 1970s, Agathon grew up in Colorado, “a child of White privilege.” She says she didn’t become Asian American till she came to Purdue.

Agathon has made it her “duty” to make Purdue more Asian-friendly. As part of the Council on Asian American Studies, she helped design Asian American courses in 2008 and taught classes in 2009 and 2010. Outside the classroom, she developed events for annual heritage celebrations. A photo exhibit, an art auction and a symposium all focused on Asian American identity. To fund it all, Agathon used her own fellowship money.

It’s a pattern often repeated on other campuses. Tenured staff or support is rarely provided, and the onus to create or keep alive Asian American studies is put on mostly unpaid graduate students and staff from other departments, all of whom are limited in what they can do. When they leave, it’s back to square one.

Before graduation, Agathon did serve on the committee that hired Purdue’s first tenured Asian American. To keep the momentum going, Agathon also established the APA Caucus, with the goal of establishing a full-service cultural center.

“(Purdue) has a Black, Latino and American Indian cultural center, but no Asian American cultural center,” says Agathon. She says she was extremely upset last September when a “welcome back” gathering featured every group on campus, but no Asians. “It’s not intentional,” she says. “But we are overlooked.”

The combination of a cultural center and academic department has been the best way to raise Asian American visibility beyond heritage month. The University of Connecticut shows it can be done. In 1987, UConn, like Purdue, had cultural centers for every group but Asian Americans. That changed after an ugly act of racial harassment involving a White UConn student who spit chewing tobacco into the face of a Chinese American student.

It was the spit that changed UConn. Soon after, the school established both a cultural center and an Asian American studies component within Asian studies.

Through the years, Asian Americans at UConn have grown to be more than 8 percent of the student population and the largest minority group on campus, with South Asian Indians by far the largest single Asian American group. And while Asian American studies is still offered only as a minor, the center has become a resource for both Asian and non-Asian students. “We serve all students and their educational, social and personal development,” says Angela Rola, the center’s first and only executive director.

The Wallace Effect

Rola and the center create real value by making every month seem like heritage month, with planned events starting in October. The events spark curiosity in the academic department. She’s also quick to address students’ immediate concerns. In March, when UCLA student Alexandra Wallace’s anti-Asian rant drew millions of YouTube views and upset APA students across the country, the center quickly hosted a widely attended “town hall” discussion.

The Wallace video, with its naked intolerance and stereotyping, comes when Asian American studies departments, especially in cash-strapped states like California, are constantly threatened with elimination.

“At a campus like UCLA, where Asian American students make up 40 percent of the student body, and also where there are significant local communities in the surrounding area, administrators may assume that there’s no real need,” says UCLA professor Lane Hirabayashi.

That the Wallace video could come out of the UCLA community reveals that diversity’s mission never ends and that much more is needed in Los Angeles and on campuses elsewhere — much more than just an annual heritage month. D

Emil Guillermo, a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” has covered diversity issues for 30 years. His column, “Amok,” is at www.aaldef.org/blog and at www.amok.com.