Yang: Northwestern Asian Studies courses can marginalize students through microaggressions

Mira Yang, Op-Ed Contributor

Racism and discrimination aren’t always overt and loud. They can manifest in more subtle ways, ways that are often ignored or deemed “not hateful enough” to cause emotional damage. The recipient of these blows, or microaggressions, may recognize comments or actions as racist, but may not speak out about them in fear of seeming too sensitive. Other times, microaggressions aren’t even recognized as racism at all.

But they add up — they’re constant, and because they’re ignored, they often continue throughout one’s lifetime. No matter how confident people from marginalized or underrepresented communities feel about their identities, microaggressions create unsafe spaces and make individuals feel like perpetual outsiders.

Growing up as one of the only Asian Americans in predominantly white elementary and middle schools, I often experienced microaggressions and teasing. My peers would laugh at my Chinese middle name and the lunches I brought, and I was often mistaken for the only other Asian female students. The list went on, but I didn’t truly reflect on microaggressions and their impact until this year when I enrolled in my first class in the Department of Asian Languages and Culture.

I had always wanted to take a course in Asian American studies at Northwestern, so I was excited to enroll in Modern Chinese Popular Culture II, a course that promised discussion on Chinese literature and film and asked questions about the role of popular culture in Chinese identity. I was initially a bit skeptical about the professor being white, but I decided to enroll regardless and even convinced a friend to take it with me.

There were many red flags beginning on day one, when the professor struggled to tell my friend and I apart. Even by week four, he still mistook Asian students for one another and was unsure of the names of some Asian students but not students of other ethnicities. He invalidated the backgrounds and experiences of Chinese and Chinese-American students by being nonchalant about their experiences and the experiences of their family members, people who actually lived during the periods of Chinese history we discussed in class. He didn’t want us to include historical perspectives or translation notes, yet at the same time we could ask him for sources and references about Chinese history and language. When students of non-Asian backgrounds referred to elements in movies as “weird” or didn’t understand some of the cultural references in the Chinese films, the professor failed to help them understand, instead shifting the focus to the films “innuendos” or romantic plot lines.

My experience in this class was reminiscent of the Intro to Buddhism class I took last winter, where the white professor rarely deferred to the perspectives of Asian Buddhists and classified a lot of traditional elements as “hocus pocus” rather than recognizing the religion’s personal and cultural value. My friend and I agreed the course seemed to focus on the religion in a white, Western, scholarly way. It essentially othered and ignored Buddhist cultures and people.

My Asian literature class was taught similarly. After the fourth week, I dropped the class after a particularly harrowing class where the professor made an insensitive joke about the coronavirus, called elements in a Chinese film “exotic,” and commented that the dress that the female protagonist was wearing in the film was “tight” and “left nothing for the imagination.”

I don’t intend to identify or target specific perpetrators of microaggressions, but simply help everyone recognize microaggressions as being harmful and discriminatory. Students of all backgrounds have important stories to share, and these stories cannot continue to be brushed off or invalidated. This is especially true when the perpetrators making these discriminatory remarks are people in power. Without any negative feedback or backlash, they will continue to hurt students of color without consequence and regard.

Since many racist stereotypes have been normalized in American culture, marginalized students are sometimes fearful or unable to recognize microaggressions towards them until they have been worn down. When speaking to my friends of color on this issue — both from Northwestern and from other colleges in the U.S. — they all had long lists of stories to share. Being mistaken for another student, having your name shortened or changed without permission or being deemed a “model minority” who couldn’t possibly face oppression are just a handful of the microaggressions that people of color face.

In order to protect marginalized individuals growing up, in college and in the workplace, we must allow our culture to see how ignoring “smaller” acts of racism can prevent accountability of people in power, can create environments that completely invalidate the ideas and identities of certain individuals and continue to normalize racism and perpetuate potentially dangerous stereotypes.

Being affected by microaggressions doesn’t make you sensitive: It gives you the tools to help others recognize them and create a safer culture of inclusivity for all.

Mira Yang is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.