Students discuss definition of Asian American at forum

Cathaleen Qiao Chen

The Asian NU Project hosted a discussion Tuesday night to present questions and issues dealing with Asian-American identity.

The event, titled “WTF is an Asian American?” was held in association with three other Northwestern student groups: Asian Pacific American Coalition, the Muslim-cultural Student Association and the South Asian Student Alliance.

The Asian NU Project formed last fall, said discussion organizer Derek Suen, a Weinberg senior.

“We wanted to create some kind of movement to unite Asian minority communities,” Suen said. “We wanted to address the common issues Asian Americans face and explore the reoccuring theme of shame and pride through storytelling.”

During last Winter Quarter, the project participants developed storytelling skills through workshops and visited various student venues to share their perspectives as Asians/Asian Americans.

The discussion drew the participation of approximately 40 students, many of whom identified as Asian American. The event began with an introduction from Prof. Jinah Kim, one of the core faculty members in the Asian American Studies program .

Kim spoke of the language of Asian labels, specifically those concerning South Asian Americans and Indians. She said that naming can be a “brutal enforcement of power,” as demonstrated by an incident at NU last week in which someone yelled “Fuck you, Asians” and hurled eggs at an Asian student and a recent alumna. Kim also talked about the label of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” which she said inadvertently “demonizes” blacks.

Finally, Kim emphasized the “sentimental longing for unity,” which minority students seek within their communities. After her speech, the audience broke into small discussion groups.

In tables of four to six, students talked about their respective racial identities and how racial labels can affect their lives. They attempted to answer questions such as why they identify themselves as Asian Americans, who has the authority to define the label “Asian American” and how various groups within the Asian American label can be unified.

Like Kim, the groups devoted special focus to South Asian labels such as Pacific Islander, Indian Americans and Indo-Aryans.

“Do Indians in India consider themselves Asian?” asked Junnie Kwon, a Medill freshman.

Many questions similar to Kwon’s unanswered inquiry were posed during the 40-minute discussions. In one group, the issue of the American “melting pot” versus the American “tossed salad” polarized the members.

In that group, Communication junior Jazzy Johnson supported the concept of a “tossed salad” of diverse communities in which minority integration does not have to mean assimilation.

“I think there is a parallel between the Asian-American identity and American black culture,” said Johnson, who was one of the two black participants at the event. “Every minority group should examine its history and heritage because history has a way of repeating itself. Just by looking at slavery, Jim Crow laws and now drug laws and mass incarceration, there’s something we’ve yet to learn about racism in America.”

After the group discussions ended, anthropology Prof. Shalini Shankar ended the event by reiterating the idea of unity and the importance to take action toward a common goal of promoting diversity.

“You have to build coalition, especially across minority groups on a campus like NU, because the administration won’t do it for you and the majority of the student body who aren’t interested in these issues won’t do it for you,” Shankar said. “You have to do it for yourselves.”

The Asian NU Project will hold a pride rally next Thursday to conclude Asian/Asian American Heritage Month, said Pamela Hung, a Weinberg senior and a member of the project.

“Going beyond the Asian community, there’s been a whole lot of talk on diversity on this campus,” Hung said. “The rally will be a postive way for us to celebrate that we do have these conversations and how we can continue to have them.”

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