Cathy Xu ’21

Photo by Katharine Cabot ’22

While Davidson College has a 5.2 percent Asian student population—congruent with America’s 5.8 percent Asian population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—and offers East Asian, South Asian, and even Chinese Studies, an important distinction between Asian and Asian American needs to be made.

The Asian American experience is one that is, by nature, bound to diaspora and citizenship. Its specificities include the reception of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners—the idea that they are not American no matter how many generations removed—and/or as the model minority: quiet, hard-working, and apolitical. 

The Asian American identity is one that has been allowed to “pass” by assimilating into American society and by fitting American notions of “good citizenship.” 

However, assimilation entails losing one’s own culture and identity to the dominant culture and reinforces the idea of hierarchical cultures, with that of America as more superior to others. Even being allowed to pass as the model minority or not is contingent upon how it benefits oppressors. 

Asian Americans are considered the model minority when said status can be manipulated to pit them against other marginalized identities; at the same time, they remain a minority and are discriminated against, systematically oppressed, and excluded from the American narrative. 

Asian American is also a pan-ethnic identity and diverse in its range of experiences. It admittedly has its own inter-ethnic differences, like wealth disparities and colorism.

Asian American Studies addresses these specificities, out of the many others, and their day-to-day manifestations. It illuminates the often-neglected collective past of Asians in America, such as Chinese indentured servitude, Japanese-American internment, the Vietnam War, and post-1965 South Asian immigration. 

By historicizing Asian American injustices, it opens up new understandings of the contemporary Asian American experience and equips Asian Americans with the tools to comprehend and vocalize their own personal politics, as well as those of other Asian ethnicities. 

Additionally, it counteracts the deep internalization, and therefore trivialization, of Asian American discrimination, and reminds us all that Asian American issues are issues.

Of course, Asian American Studies does not serve Asian Americans alone. It is naturally interdisciplinary and involves the Anthropology, Arts, Dance, English, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Political Science, Sociology, and Theatre departments, as well as Diasporic, Queer, and Transnational Studies, to name a few. 

It informs the deepened understanding of not only Asian Americans but also of other marginalized and/or fluid identities. 

As Edlie L. Wong demonstrated in last month’s “Slavery and Violence in the Archive” panel, Asian American Studies invites the examination of Afro-Asian relations—for example, between Chinese indentured servants and transatlantic slaves.

As spectacular of a job as East Asian, South Asian, and Chinese Studies do with their disciplines, their focus is on continental Asia. These departments are not equipped enough to address so much of the Asian American experience and are also too regionally specific to encompass the pan-ethnic identities and inter-ethnic relations included in Asian American Studies. 

Granted, while we do have some Asian American faculty members, we must question how many are tenured and permanently available to students. 

More importantly, as much as they can offer through their personal experiences, being of the identity does not make one a specialist in the studies of it.

The need for Asian American Studies on our campus has driven students to demand it, just as many waves of students before have.The efforts of the most recent wave, including students from the classes of ’16 to ’18, took the form of administrative demands and an independent study that culminated in the website “ExpectAsian.” 

Now, demands have manifested once again in the newly established Asian American Initiative (AAI), whose goals are twofold.

First, AAI seeks to introduce Asian American Studies to all students and to demonstrate student interest and a model for an Asian American course through our Dialogue Series with reading discussions, film screenings, and visiting lecturers. The last discussion hosted thirty-three students, making up more than a full class at Davidson. 

The Dialogue Series speaks to AAI’s second and ultimate goal of establishing Asian American Studies through hiring tenure-track Asian American Studies specialists, including the college’s only Asian American Studies specialist and two-year contracted visiting professor of Davidson’s only Asian American Studies course, Dr. Yurika Tamura.

Especially prior to AAI, Asian American students have expressed sentiments of not knowing other Asian American students, of only being able to feel the strongest sense of belonging and affinity within other communities of people of color, of the lack of education about themselves, and/or of political passivity on their parts. 

Thus, the introduction of AAI is not only about Asian American social justice but also the strengthening of the Asian American identity and community at Davidson. 

Yet, regardless of the formation of AAI and student commitment to Asian American Studies, it is not the responsibility of students to take on the time commitment and emotional labor of educating ourselves and others outside of our regular coursework and full-time role as students. 

Our institution needs to begin compensating for its lack of a unified Asian American community, knowledgeable Asian American role models, and support in academic and personal resources that are catered to Asian American needs. 

Cathy Xu ’21 is undeclared from Shanghai, China. Contact her at caxu@davidson.edu.