To put this into perspective, let me share with you some of the discomforting events I encountered this Halloween. The start of a problematic All Hallow’s Eve began when my Dad texted me a photo of a young toddler dressed as what I presumed to be a Native American. He justified the appropriation with the cuteness of the baby. “Oh it’s okay, the baby is really cute!” I received in a text afterwards. This Halloween, I also attended a bridal shower where some of the young children came dressed in their Halloween costumes with hopes of going trick or treating afterwards. I had two young cousin sisters dressed in kimonos. Apparently, they were Japanese women for Halloween. Later that day, I also came across an article about ASOS and how they were rightfully criticized for selling bindis in the Halloween section on their website.
Although somewhat unsuccessful with hair spraying half of my hair white, I was Cruella De Vil for Halloween last year. On my way to the New York City Halloween Parade, I ran into a friend who asked me what I was dressed up as (the failed hair dying was the root of my unidentifiable costume situation). I told him I was Cruella De Vil and he corrected me by saying that I was a “brown Cruella De Vil”. His remark caught me off-guard so I smiled and walked away. This got me thinking- Why did I not address his comment and just shrug if off? What I really should have said was – “Why is it that white people can dress up as people of color for one night out and evade repercussions, but we can never dress up as them without being reminded of our shaded skin tone, ultimately ruining the costume character in its original form? “
Cultural appropriation during Halloween allows people to be something from another culture that does not belong to them. This allows “cultural appropriators” to totally disregard histories of oppression that minority groups have faced. White people can get away scot-free with this “one-time-rule” that Halloween permits. White people can put on a “terrorist” costume for one night and the next morning, walk away from it as if it never happened and as if they will never be racially profiled or experience islamophobia based on their ethnic or religious dress or merely the color of their skin. Conflating how someone looks with terrorism is just a part of the bigger problem and feeds into islamophobia. Some people counter this occurrence by claiming that dressing like this is just for fun or is just a joke. However, these offensive costumes, justified by a petty holiday, manage to reproduce stigmas associated with minority groups.
In efforts to push the dialogue forward around this issue, Barnard and Columbia implemented several new initiatives. Columbia’s Office of Multicultural Affairs put together a photo campaign which included photos of students holding pictures of costumes that appropriated their culture. These posters read, “This is not my culture, and this is not okay” and “We are a culture, not a costume”. Barnard College’s Student Life also put together a “Cultures, Not Costumes” fashion show that aimed to deconstruct cultural appropriation and promote cultural appreciation. With increased attention placed on these issues, we can only hope that our campus community becomes better equipped in speaking out against and preventing cultural appropriation and offensive behavior.
Read more about cultural appropriation and how to check yourself: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/10/is-your-halloween-costume-racist/
While achievement- and merit-based admissions are all well and good in theory, complications arise when such systems negatively affect student diversity and demographic representation in the schools they serve. At Stuyvesant, 72.5 percent of the student body was Asian or Asian-American as of March 2014, despite the fact that the same demographic group comprises less than 14 percent of New York’s public school student population. While Hispanics make up over 40 percent of public school students, Stuyvesant only accepted twenty-one Hispanic students in 2014. The reality facing African American students is even more disconcerting: Black youth account for 32 percent of New York’s public school system, yet Stuyvesant admitted only seven last year.
The imbalance in demographic representation in New York’s specialized high schools disturbed Mayor Bill de Blasio to the point that, immediately following his assumption of office in 2014, he proposed an alteration to the schools’ admissions processes. De Blasio wanted to convert the system from a single test-based one into a more holistic review, much like the admissions processes at many colleges today.
The proposal was met with uproar from many New Yorkers, some of whom claimed the move would disproportionately benefit wealthy, predominantly white students who don’t adequately prepare for the test, but enjoy the privilege of extracurricular activities and other opportunities that might add to a ‘holistic’ application. The misconception on de Blasio’s part, though, was that the people gaining from the one-test system were wealthier families who could afford test-prep tutors, books, and programs. The reality for many, though, is quite different. Dennis Saffron, a former candidate for city council, pointed out that a large portion of the students doing well on the exam were from working class Asian immigrant families, whose focus on education, and not whose wealth (because most are not wealthy), was bringing success in the admissions process.
While many in the APIA and educational community agreed with Saffron’s premise, some took their arguments too far. In one article in the National Review, Stanford economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell argued that de Blasio was waging a ‘War on Achievement’ in order to solve an educational problem that “doesn’t exist.” But the fact is that the lack of racial diversity in New York’s specialized high schools highlights a very real, very existent problem in the city’s education system: that some minority groups, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, have disproportionate access to quality public education
The endeavor to shift the demographic imbalance in the city’s specialized high schools is often portrayed as racism against Asians. Some have compared the Mayor’s attempt to change the role of the SHSAT in high school admissions to attempts by certain Ivy League schools in the 1920’s to curtail the number of Jews entering top universities. In response to a large number of Jews receiving top grades in high school and thus being disproportionately admitted to colleges (when grades were the only consideration in an application), schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton pledged to admit any alumnus’ sons and added more ambiguous factors to their admissions processes, such as ‘character’ and extra-curricular activities.
There are many today who think that, just as holistic college admissions were predicated on anti-semitic notions of who should comprise a top school’s student body, a more well-rounded approach to specialized high school admissions would unfairly harm the APIA community. What is the issue with a merit-based system? If high school admissions are completely objective, then why should it be a problem that there are more Asians than non-Asians in some student bodies? After all, isn’t it a cultural thing? Asians work harder, so they should be more successful, right? These are many of the questions being asked in order to explain the disparity in racial representation at Stuyvesant and other schools. But to rationalize why Asian Americans are accepted to New York specialized high schools at a higher-than-average rate (particularly in comparison to other minority groups) involves a potentially insensitive discussion that is, quite frankly, not worth having.
In a sense, the whole issue harkens back to the concept of the ‘model minority.’ To argue that Asians’ cultural emphasis on education justifies their dominance over other minority groups in high school admissions is to amplify the social gap between APIA and other people of color. There is an almost indisputable stigma and, more importantly, a systematic lack of resources that work against Black and Hispanic youth in the education realm. Such misguided assumptions and understandings are frequently perpetuated by those who fight to keep the current application process. At the same time, though, it is inaccurate to presume that APIA students are more prevalent in Stuyvesant’s (for example) student body because they are wealthier and can more readily afford test preparation. Statistically speaking, Asians are the poorest minority group in New York City, and one third of APIA New Yorkers live below the poverty line. So, how do we solve the diversity problem without unintentionally tipping the scale away from those who already have to work against significant odds?
In my own opinion, the city should not focus on changing the admissions process itself, but rather improve accessibility to test preparation materials and programs in certain minority communities. And in the wider picture, there is immense room for improvement when it comes to public schools throughout the city, and specifically in poorer neighborhoods. Municipal officials should further emphasize early education and should introduce the idea of specialized high schools and even colleges to students from all backgrounds, in all communities. Without devaluing the efforts of low-income APIA immigrant families to obtain an education for their children, such changes might effectively balance the representation of Black, Hispanic, and White students in New York City’s specialized high schools. What do you think?
Some further reading:
I recently watched the PBS documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” in order to better understand Boggs and her ideas. What I didn’t know before was how ingrained she was in the African-American movement. As an Asian-American woman, I can’t help but think about how people perceived her. Even today, crossing racial lines can be seen as taboo. But she articulates that she was just Grace; she could see the troubles that the African-American community faced and wanted to do something about it. She ended up becoming one of the most prominent Black Power activists of the late 20th century.
So when the Asian-American movement started to bloom a few years later, Asian-Americans were “searching for an icon.” One of their icons took the form of Grace. In the documentary, Boggs notes her own ignorance about the Asian-American movement, as Asian-Americans attracted to her because of her prominence. It got me thinking about how an individual’s race has little to do with taking action, meaning that race doesn’t limit the amount of communities someone can strive to serve. It might’ve been perceived that because Grace Lee Boggs was Chinese-American, she would’ve served the Chinese-American/Asian-American community. And I think this idea is what is most comfortable to accept; we can understand why she would serve this community, she is Chinese-American. But it initially is difficult to understand why she took interest to serve the African-American community, when she wasn’t raised in it, or originally around it. Even today, we question why some people choose to get involved when they don’t have to. Grace Lee Boggs is the icon that really pushed what it means to be a person of color in the United States, and the responsibility that comes with belonging to this community. How do we continue to advocate for our own communities, while not being ignorant of the importance of others?
Boggs said, “Ideas have their power because they’re not fixed. Once they become fixed, they are already dead.” She said that we have to change ourselves in order to change the world. As reality and the times change, our ideas need to acknowledge this and evolve as well. As I start my college career, I want to keep this idea with me. I don’t know what kind of journey I will go through this first year, let alone the next three. I just know that as long as I keep my mind open to every thought, every opinion, every situation, and every person, I can become a change-maker for my community and the world. I don’t have to limit myself in one place. I don’t have to be afraid of challenges I will face, because I will grow from them. Thank you Grace Lee Boggs for teaching me this. Rest in power.
– Alani Fujii BC ’19
Further reading on the life of Grace Lee Boggs:
“Grace Lee Boggs, Activist and American Revolutionary, Turns 100” (NPR, June 27, 2015)
“Postscript: Grace Lee Boggs” (The New Yorker, October 8, 2015)]]>
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Now, however, Asian Americans are proving parents wrong by dominating the fashion industry. In 2010, all three of the prizes at the American fashion awards ceremony were presented to Asian-American designers: Richard Chai for men’s wear, Jason Wu for women’s wear and Alexander Wang for accessories. Not to mention that on the same night, three scholarships were awarded to students of Asian heritage, making it a surprising night for the fashion world, which never thought that Asian-American designers would rise so quickly. The designers themselves were both shocked and excited at the news, thinking back to the hardships they faced with family and society. Anna Sui, a Chinese-American designer, recalls being asked, “Why do you want to be a dressmaker when you could be a doctor?” Likewise, Jason Wu mentioned that his mother had never heard of Parsons when he decided to apply, but after his great success in the industry, fashion has now become an acceptable career choice in the eyes of Asian parents.
Even though Asian-American designers now hold spots in high fashion next to traditional houses like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, they are still the minority in the fashion industry. Are some Asian parents still holding their children back from pursuing a career in design, or is the fashion world still hesitant to accept the new wave of Asian-American designers who will be graduating from top design schools? Who knows, I might just ditch the Pre-Med track and major in fashion. Can we do that here at Columbia?
Read More: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/fashion/05asians.html]]>
I grew up in what I like to think of as a stereotypical Asian-American family. My parents started giving me math worksheets at the age of three, my mom rubbed smelly Chinese herbal medicine on my bruises, and both my immediate and extended family were extremely involved with the development of Boston’s Chinatown. We were also the stereotypical collectivist Asian-American family. Everyone supported each other, and with my whole mom’s side of the family living in Massachusetts, I was very close to my seven cousins. As the second oldest cousins, my aunts and uncles always told me to set a good example and be a role model for those who were younger. I was to be a good Chinese boy. This meant I had to get good grades so that I could get a stable, well paying job. Eventually, I would have to marry a beautiful wife and have a few children who would follow in my footsteps.
All of this seemed realistic to me except for the part about the wife. When I was about ten years old I came to the realization that I was attracted to guys rather than girls. I was extremely confused and afraid to confront whatever feeling that was stirring inside of me. As I grew older and gay couples started appearing on TV shows like Modern Family, I felt extremely uncomfortable watching these programs with my parents because they would make snide and derogatory comments without realizing what was coming out of their mouths. I hated being gay so much that each time I had the opportunity to make a wish, whether it was blowing out the candles on a cake, sneezing three times, or seeing the clock at 11:11, I would wish to like girls rather than guys. My family viewed homosexuality as a white person problem; it never had been a part of their lives and they never planned on it entering them.
A couple of years ago I came out to my parents. The first thing my mom said was, “No you’re not. It’s just a phase.” My dad sat in silence. I tried explaining to them that I was not in a phase, but my words went in one ear and out the other. My mom continued saying along the lines of, “Focus on your schoolwork. Don’t worry about that now.” Since that day, we have not spoken about the subject. Whenever we go out for dinner with extended family and someone asks me, “Who is this girl you’re in this picture with? Is she your girlfriend?,” my mom’s eyes turn to me telling my to stay silent about my sexuality. If my uncles and aunts were to find out about my sexuality, their perception of me as the role model for their own children would be crush; my grandma would be horrified, and this all would reflect poorly on my parents, breaking the family dynamic that has been established over decades. I would not be a good Chinese boy.
I wish I could end this post with a happy ending, but I’m still looking for it. Recently I’ve been in contact with some API LGBTQ organizations around New York City like PFLAG and GAPIMNY and am trying to figure out how to mix my two identities together. Breaking the barrier between the two involves creating awareness about homosexuality in Asian cultures and debunking the myths and stereotypes that people have about homosexuality. The task is daunting but is essential and will succeed with time.
An informative radio segment on the issue at hand: http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2014/06/25/38047/after-i-do-lgbt-asians-come-out-amid-cultural-and/?slide=5]]>
One impediment to expressing the Asian political voice is the fact that for a lot of us, English is not our first language. But a bigger problem is that this fact should not even poise an issue regarding voting. Under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, if a county has over 10,000 individuals or over 5% of its population who are members of a minority language group (with low literacy rate and English proficiency), translational services must be provided for ballots in during elections. However, this act is often overlooked and the aforementioned services fail to be provided, leaving many Asian American voters confused and unable to vote. An organization I volunteered for, BPSOS, had first hand experience with this injustice during our VietVote campaign to raise the number of Vietnamese voters in Philadelphia. Although the Vietnamese subgroup fulfilled all of the requirements that constituted the need for translational services, they were not provided in many places that we volunteered for the 2012 elections. Furthermore, it was difficult to document the lack of translational services since the police we called to the scene were not allowed to enter the building where the ballots were being cast due to the privacy of the election process. Even though we inspired a large number from the Vietnamese community to get out and vote, the system in place denied them representation, as it did in the past and may as well do so in the future.
Aside from slippery slope problems that the APIA community faces due to its lack of representation, there seems to be a lack of solidarity that the Asian American community possesses in respect to other ethnic groups. A relative recent example that showcases this is Asian American activist Suey Park’s response to Stephen Colbert’s tweet, “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever”. Outraged by this racist comment, Park began trending #CancelColbert on Twitter as a form of hashtag activism. While this movement gained rapid momentum, other Asian American activists thought that Park was over her head and was overthinking Colbert’s tweet. Juliet Shen, a fellow activist for Asian Americans formerly behind Suey Park’s actions, amounted Park’s response to cyber bullying and seriously called Park’s credibility into question. Many other Asian American activists followed Shen’s example and discredited Park. At the end of the day, the APIA activist community simply looked like a joke; there was no solidarity among Asian Americans as a whole, and as such, we continue to be neglected in politics.
Asians are a fast growing ethnic group in the American community, but it seems that the systems in place are not yet prepared to deal with us. Although we present plausible solutions to increase our political voice, such as to increase our voter turnout, there have been and will continue to be barriers in place to prevent our proper representation in government. We need to better achieve solidarity, and together, work as a community to break the system of inherent privilege that is holding us back. As we continue to grow as an activist community and better understand how to attain cohesion among the diversity of the APIA culture, we will undeniably be able to achieve our proper, righteous, and justified voice in the governing of the country.
As one of the co-directors of the Crossroads conference, it was especially rewarding to participate in the conference, alongside the participants. My favorite segment of the conference was the Tiger Mom workshop—an hour-long workshop exploring the clash of Eastern parenting styles in a Western society. Within the intimate space, the participants felt comfortable to share their own stories of their upbringing—both the moments of pure elation and the moments of weary difficulty. There was laughter. There were tears. There was also a profound moment of understanding, when the participants all came to realize that their parents were not only guardians, but also immigrants in an unknown land—strangers in their own communities, separated from their homelands and their cultural customs. It was astounding to be in that room during that time—to engage in the intensity of the discussion.
This is why we organize Crossroads each year. If we can help a single high school student better understand his or her own identity as an Asian American, then we have succeeded. I truly hope that the Crossroads participants left Columbia that day with sharper acuity into the unique issues that affect the Asian American community.]]>
Dad couldn’t speak Mandarin
And Mom never watched Taiwanese TV.
We ate braised pork for dinner, but as a family, attended
More bat mitsvahs than Chinese New Years
The divorce, his depression, our distance
There had always been too much that just wasn’t the same.
But we are more common than you may think.
We are not outliers, nor misfits.
We have been driven to the side and assumed, “atypical”, “nontraditional”, “nonexistent”
Exceptions to so many invisible rules
There is a loneliness, and sometimes, even shame, to those kinds of things.
But I know now.
I know, now, that I am not quite so
I know, now, that I am not in any way
My family, friends, likes, dislikes, none of these are
Measures of race
I defy what you may think the typical “me” has to be:
Tiger-mom, whipped into shape
I speak up
Failed my physics class,
And love art and film,
We are not outliers nor misfits
My story, this narrative, takes a little longer to explain than most
There are twists and turns that you may not expect
And that’ s okay
That’s pretty great.
– An original spoken word poem by Katie Lam]]>