Photo Courtesy the PASA Instagram.

by Kevin Xavier Garcia-Galindo ’24 (he/him), staff writer

In a letter directed at the Davidson College community and signed by Asian American student organizations on campus, including the Pan Asian Student Association (PASA), the Asian American Initiative (AAI), the Korean Students Association, the Chinese Culture Club, and the South Asian Students Association, as well as select faculty, campus community members asked whether Davidson really considers Asian and Asian American students a part of its community or simply “placeholders to increase the college’s numbers for diversity.”

The letter continued, “Within the last year, Asian bodies have been made synonymous with disease due to hateful rhetoric spewed by racist national leaders, scapegoating Asia and Asian people for the COVID-19 outbreak[…] This rhetorical violence, coupled with silence from mainstream media and local and national leaders, have fueled the verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans since March 2020.”

According to data from Stop AAPI Hate, since March, about 3,800 Asian hate related incidents have been reported in all 50 states, victimizing both the elderly and the young. From physical assault and discrimination like being coughed or spat at to vandalism and refusal to be served, to non-physical forms of violence like shunning and avoidance and online harassment, the Asian and AsianAmerican community has withstood many attacks against their identity and relationship to this country. 

As part of an event scheduled before the tragic Tuesday March 16th attack on Asian female workers in Atlanta area spas, the Pan Asian Student Association (PASA), the Asian American Initiative (AAI), students leaders, faculty, and peers all gathered around to show support for the appropriately titled event “Why Davidson Needs Asian Studies Now More Than Ever.”

Dr. Heidi Kim, Director of the Asian American Center and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill, and Dr. Diego Luis, Visiting Professor in the Humanities and history departments at Davidson College, were the guest speakers in this event centered around a discussion on what the Asian American experience has meant for students at Davidson and how that could potentially evolve in the future. 

Dr. Kim recalled her past experiences regarding Asian American racism not just centered around herself but also on the many other waves of anti-Asian racism that she has witnessed, from the post-9/11 violence that was incurred by the Muslim Asian American and Sikh populations, to the events of last week. She poignantly stated that this history of discrimination “goes back centuries” and was very much codified into law since the 19th century when Chinese Americans were not granted citizenship rights, allowed to own land, or even testify in court against whites. 

The most common forms of discrimination toward Asian Americans haved stemmed from the dual-contradictory beliefs of the model minority and perpetual foreigner myth. These stereotypes are hurtful because of how they create a sense of limited acceptance in tight conditions that especially restrict the opportunities of first and second generation Asian Americans. The perpetual foreigner myth excludes Asians from acceptance or support because of the idea that Asians or Asian Americans can never truly adapt to America or even claim full citizenship, even if they have lived their entire life in this country. The model minority myth on the other hand offers a limited form of acceptance and embrace on the condition of obedience and silence; fitting into a pre-designed mold is the only way to gain acceptance in a society that does not encourage your individuality if it contradicts with your “model minority status.”  

Dr. Luis highlighted the importance of having a movement on campus that is able to harness the “intersectionality and solidarity building surrounding this event.” Connecting the essence of other important movements like that of BLM with this one will be part of the challenges to come but will lead to a stronger campaign for freedom from discrimination. Part of the objective of the Asian American community on campus is thus to be able to create an Asian Studies department with both a major and minor option. Fighting for this privilege has been part of the mission of the Asian American Initiative since 2019.

Dr. Kim herself witnessed one of the first student-led protests for Asian American studies while in graduate school at Northwestern University in 1995 when students organized a hunger strike for the creation of an Asian American Studies program. It would not be until four years later in 1999 that Asian American Studies would be offered as a minor and it would take another sixteen years for it to officially become a major during the 2016-2017 academic year at Northwestern. 

During her time at Chapel Hill, Dr. Kim has had the opportunity to direct the founding of Chapel Hill’s Asian American Center in 2020 and learn about the various advantages that can come from the foundation of a center, as opposed to a program or initiative. Because Chapel Hill does not currently offer a major or a minor in Asian American Studies, the center carries the heavy burden of being expected to achieve the goals of both a center and an academic department.

Centers, like clubs, can only do so much in their mission to inform students about the deep critical theory of Asian American history and culture when most students only show a shallow interest. Furthermore, fostering growth in a center is difficult without the ability to hire permanent faculty who are the main actors in making sure that the program does not just survive for one generation but continues onto the next. 

Concerning AAI’s push for an eventual major and minor in Asian American studies, Khôi Nguyên Trinh ‘22, member of AAI and co-moderator at the event, added, “if we want Asian American Studies to develop and grow on campus, we need faculty, especially tenure/tenure track professors. It’s important to point out, as we have in our demands, that currently our only Asian American specialists are all visiting assistant professors.”

Student co-moderator and founding member of AAI, Raven Hudson ‘21, added that hiring professors for Asian American Studies preserves the institutional memory of student’s activism: “the student body and its social clubs have turnover every four years, but permanent, tenure-track faculty would provide much more consistent support to students.” 

Another co-moderator Nade Bai reflected that “The event went very well. We were surprised and ecstatic about the participation and interest – to my knowledge, there has been no such event regarding Asian American affairs that have created such a school-wide impact.” 

Trinh expressed the importance of continuing discussions about Asian American studies as an issue on campus outside of the context of violence against Asians and Asian Americans: “I’m still glad that many people attended Monday’s talk, but supporting Asian Americans and Asian American Studies need to happen without the harm and death of individuals.”  

AAI is currently in the process of redrafting their demands published since October of 2019 in order to accommodate more of the goals they seek to accomplish. Currently, Dr. Sarah Waheed, Assistant Professor of History, is the only South Asian specialist on campus and is in danger of having her contract terminated at the end of Spring 2021.