Yuh: On racism against Asians and Asian Americans at Northwestern

Ji-Yeon Yuh, Op-Ed Contributor

Asian American and Asian international students, welcome to Northwestern. The University leadership may not see you, but the Asian American Studies Program sees you and salutes you. We are here for you to learn your collective histories, share experiences and remind each other that we are not invisible. The problem is that other Americans do not see us. In their blindness, they perpetuate anti-Asian racism.

The University’s top leaders, for example, have demonstrated time and again that they do not see Asian Americans. Their blindness is illustrated by word and deed. When the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion held its first appreciation event for staff of color, it failed to invite Asian American staff. When Asian American staff protested, leaders at the OIDI told them that there wasn’t a venue big enough, or enough funds, to host all the staff of color, so the Asian Americans were left out. They also said that Asian Americans are not underrepresented minorities, so including them didn’t seem necessary. This same explanation was given to Asian American faculty, including this author, who supported the staff protest.

This year, the University’s leaders demonstrated their blindness in the Fall Welcome letter. In a paragraph boasting about increased diversity among incoming students, they conspicuously said nothing about Asian American students. The list of students they deemed “diverse” included Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Indigenous students, first-generation college students, Pell Grant recipients and Chicago Public Schools graduates. Not on the list were three groups that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions counts internally: Asian American, White and international. 

For the all-white leadership team of University President Morton Schapiro, Provost Kathleen Hagerty and Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson, diversity seems to be about lack. Racial minorities and socioeconomic groups deemed underprivileged and thus lacking are included in their list of “diverse” students, while those deemed a model minority (Asian Americans), the majority (Whites) or foreign (international students) are not. Their list of “diversity” reinforces harmful stereotypes about benevolent institutions “including” students despite their “lack” and providing opportunities for them to gain whatever it is these students are supposedly lacking. So what are they supposedly lacking? Middle class educated Whiteness, or its international equivalent.

The University Strategic Planning committee published a white paper in 2010 titled “Diversity and Inclusion” which  called on the University to create a culture of diversity rather than merely maintain a rhetoric focused on the inclusion of underrepresented and underprivileged peoples. But the University continues to conflate difference — especially racial difference — with “lack.” The rhetorical violence can damage our very souls if we internalize the message that we are lacking and therefore need institutions like NU to include us and rescue us from our state of lack. For Asian Americans — and by extension Asian international students — the message that we are not among those deemed lacking and therefore not included in diversity initiatives is equally damaging because it promotes the lie that anti-Asian racism doesn’t exist. That is, it promotes the lie that Asian Americans and Asians are just like White people.

The pandemic revealed the lie. Asian Americans and Asians around the country were subjected to a wave of racist violence spurred by yet another lie linking COVID-19 to China and to Asians generally. University leadership issued a Feb. 23 letter proclaiming “Solidarity with Asian and Asian American Communities,” and another letter on March 10 denouncing “This week’s Tragic Events in Georgia.” But that is the extent of the University’s acknowledgement of Asian Americans. Of the 68 University announcements posted under “Leadership Notes,” only these two had anything to say about Asian Americans. The other 66 announcements — including announcements about diversity and the University’s plans for social and racial justice — made no mention of Asian Americans. This failure to see Asian Americans outside of nationally recognized acts of anti-Asian violence demonstrates that the University sees diversity and racial difference as “lack.” Only when we can be depicted as victims, does the University see us.

Yet the University’s blindness is also situational. This year, NU applied for and received a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award for diversity in higher education. The application asks for statistics on student and faculty diversity, including Asian Americans. So, the University sees us when it benefits them.

The University’s inability to really see Asian Americans demonstrates the limits of “diversity and inclusion” in a society still dominated by White nationalism. We are not included in diversity initiatives because we are not deemed victims. Instead we are perceived to be a “model minority” that outperforms White Americans and therefore are a threat. The implication is that other racial minorities are included in diversity initiatives because they are seen as victims. That too is part of the racist blindness exhibited by both NU and our society at large. Yet as the award shows, Asian Americans are included in the stats when it can put a nice shine on the University’s image. They both use us and ignore us.

The reality is that racial minorities are neither model nor victims, and we are not available to be used and ignored. We are people forced to deal with racism, and the problem is not us. The problem is White-dominated institutions like NU that perpetuate racism by not seeing us — whether we are Asian American or Indigenous, Black or Latinx, Native American or Native Hawaiian — even as they use us to tout their “diversity and inclusion.” If you’re fed up with such racist nonsense, however you define your racial and ethnic identities, come to Asian American Studies. Take one of our classes. Attend one of our events. Learn for yourself what a culture of diversity can really look like. Join us in raising your voices and telling our University and American society: Stop your racist blindness and see us for who we are.

History Prof. Ji-Yeon Yuh is the Director of the Asian American Studies Program. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.