Letter to the Editor: Yang’s truth is not my truth

In her op-ed titled, “Northwestern Asian Studies courses can marginalize students through microaggressions,” Mira Yang addresses some important issues. Two of these are microaggressions and the role that professors, specifically Northwestern professors teaching Asian Studies courses, may contribute to creating microaggressions. Yang writes that she has experienced microaggressions in the courses. I, on the other hand, have had a different experience.

My background is similar to Yang in that I am also an Asian-American who grew up and went to school with primarily white students. Growing up, I did feel marginalized for my identity for the same reasons as she mentions. Adults mistook me for other Asian students. I was teased for having a different lunch, and for my Chinese last name.

I am also enrolled in one of the classes that Yang cites in her op-ed. I acknowledge that her experience is her truth, but I want to bring to notice that it is not everyone’s truth. It is not mine, for example. I also want to emphasize that I am just another student with a perspective on this. Everyone has their own experience and perspective on this which is why I felt I personally did not perceive any of the professor’s comments to be prejudiced or ever feel that the class was an unsafe space.

Additionally, I have a critique of the internal logic of Yang’s op-ed. Yang states “I don’t intend to identify or target specific perpetrators of microaggressions,” but she specifically names the courses in her piece. This effectively targets the two courses, and it is not difficult to then identify the two individuals teaching those courses. Further, when Yang writes that although she was excited to take a course on Chinese culture, she says, “I was initially a bit skeptical because the professor was white.” The race of the professor makes Yang question whether the course would be conducted appropriately. I can see where Yang is coming from, but I think it is problematic to reduce the professor to only his race.

Some initial questions come to mind. Would someone in the same way question the credentials of a Chinese professor teaching a course on Western culture at a Chinese university? I would argue no one has a direct relationship to 8th century Tang dynasty poetry, but can people still teach it? And who would be the best person? Or what about Medieval European history? Thinking about the role of the personal identity of a professor leaves me with more questions than answers.

Ultimately, I do think Yang addresses important issues that should be brought out to the open. She questions how personal identity, such as race, can play into the role of a professor, particularly for a department where race is a core dimension of the discipline, such as Asian studies? How, then, do we address diversity in academia and how does Western influence complicate Asian studies? How might some professors contribute to creating microaggressions, and what can be done?

I want to note that I am open to discussing with the original op-ed author further, or anyone else for that matter. I invite more of these difficult yet crucial conversations — about the power dynamic between students and professors, about personal identity in academia, about racism and microaggressions. I think the more time and space we invest in bringing these ideas out to the open and discussing them, the better.

Michael Ma, WCAS ‘21
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