What Most Bothered Me About Howard University

For a decade, I was a professor at Howard University Law School. I was the first Asian American on the faculty there. Howard is historically black, even today predominantly black, and proudly so. My time there changed me for the better. Every now and then, especially in an argument about civil rights with an Asian American who made no effort to conceal their contempt for blacks, I was accused of being traitor to what was assumed to be “my people” inexplicably in favor of our inferiors.

Even more than questions such as what it was like to work where I did, if black students were any good, or why I hadn’t found a job someplace else, all of which I was asked more than once, the suggestion — the outright statement — that my relationships with African Americans had made me biased toward them was infuriating. I do not mean merely for its crude bigotry toward blacks. That is inexcusable in itself.

But what baffled me was the acceptance on the part of Asian Americans, who are neither black nor white and most of whom are immigrants, of a hierarchy that established whites as the standard. My Asian American adversaries, for that is what they were, wished to partake of privilege, rather than challenge it. 

They seemed oblivious. By their own reasoning, if my affiliation with blacks compromised my position, their assimilation toward whites had the same effect. They did not notice, not negatively anyway, that they were employed by, even married to, whites. Guilt by association is wrong, but selective guilt by association is worse.

Yet they were proving a point despite themselves. Their thought was not quite explicit. It was submerged in the subconscious.

Here is what they implied. To aspire to whiteness was normal. To integrate with blacks was deviant.

I have to say I was ignorant of the asymmetry until I had crossed the color line. In casual conversation with a senior colleague who was African American, I made a remark that caused him to laugh and correct me gently. Speaking about someone who was Asian and married to a famous spouse who happened to be black, I observed that the Asian woman, who had paid our campus a visit that day, could “pass.” The response was incredulous, so I added, “I mean pass as black.”

“No, that’s not what ‘pass,’ means,” my friend said. “You only ever ‘pass’ as white. Nobody tries to pass as black.”

I realized then that black and white were not mirror images. It is true that in an appropriation of culture, or more accurately, a caricature, there are white (and Asian American) youth who will mimic black peers, and in a handful of outré instances that have become urban legend, a white individual believes she can attain benefits by pretending to be black.

By and large, however, to be upwardly mobile is to be white, and vice versa. Asian Americans learn immediately, if they have not been taught by popular culture exported overseas, that the better neighborhoods to live in are white. They want to buy their houses there. In a literal sense, they desire to be close to whites; the corollary is that they try to stay away from blacks.

Each of us is, invariably I suppose, better able to see our own faults in others. In that regard, prejudice is part of the human condition. We protest the derogatory stereotypes applied to us, even as we rationalize as true the roles we impose on others. No doubt I am blind in my own manner. 

I am not alone though in my awareness of the awkward part played by Asian Americans. There is a whole world of Afro-Asian interaction that whites, and Asian Americans who prefer whites, would not care to be exposed to. 

The addition of Asian Americans to the dialogue on race illuminates the conflict between blacks and whites. It provides a new perspective.

Postscript. I have been heartened by the complimentary reception of this essay. A few readers have wondered about the headline. That means it has been effective to provoke thought. As the piece makes clear, my concern is emphatically not with anything amiss at Howard but the opposite — the derogatory attitudes held by some toward African Americans.

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