THE BLOG
12/29/2015 06:58 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2016

Asian Americans as People of Color and Activists for Safe Spaces

Earlier this month, The Smith Sophian, Smith College's independent newspaper, published a piece "Rethinking Smith's Bridge Program" by Dominica Cao '18 questioning the importance of the Bridge Program, a pre-orientation program for entering students of color. The writer stated that because Bridge stands for cultural inclusivity, the program should be open to white students to truly be inclusive. Without knowing the ethnicity of the writer, it's easy to presume (as I did) that she is white and that her voice adds to white privilege and culture that demands people of color feel guilty about addressing systematic discrimination. However, upon realizing that the author is actually Asian American, I saw the piece in a different light. I saw a younger version of myself, someone who was not equipped with the vocabulary to talk about the experience of being a person of color without disturbing the façade of respectability culture surrounding race and the Asian American experience.

In her piece, Cao notes her reasoning behind why she finds the Bridge program as unnecessary and even disturbing:

What I find most disturbing is that the Bridge program claims to be an experience that will help make participants' "first year at Smith College a success." So are we claiming that to not participate would lead to failing freshman year? Why are only students of color guaranteed this success as opposed to the entire entering class? If the Bridge Program's main purpose is to facilitate the transition from another institution to Smith, then why are we assuming that only students of color need additional aid? The eligibility requirements neglect any of the needs that white students may have.

As a Bridgee myself, I remember asking the same question. I signed up for the Bridge orientation not because I wanted a community and a space for students of color, but because I saw an opportunity to start college a week earlier than the rest of the entering student body. I also asked questions like why white students weren't allowed to join Bridge and why the program "excluded" our white peers. Looking back, I asked these questions because appeasing white people and ensuring that I never disrupt the status quo is something that came natural to me, I had been doing it my entire life. I never had a space to embrace my identity and experience as an Asian American. Because I had never been formally introduced to the concept of white privilege, it never occurred to me that being treated like a second class citizen, in both subtle and obvious ways, was something that could ever be addressed or changed. Growing up, when talking about racism and discrimination, I would quickly be shut down by educators, classroom peers and strangers telling me that I was overreacting to racist remarks and discrimination. That if I just stopped being so sensitive, I would see that no one is discriminating against me.

Because the racism that Asian Americans experience is different or not as publicized as that of black and Hispanic communities, many Asian Americans grow up thinking that their stories do not have a place in our country's history of racism and discrimination. And as a way of coping and surviving, we force ourselves to believe that the less severe forms of discrimination that come in the form of model minority stereotyping of being strong students and model citizens and remarks like "you're basically white" are the best we can expect when trying to assimilate into predominately white communities, like most university spaces are. When we do this, however, we end up losing our voice as not only people of color, but as activists and allies for one another.

This is why when I arrived at the Bridge program, I remember experiencing a complete culture shock and being in awe of my peers, particularly those of black and Hispanic backgrounds, who were not only vocal about the discrimination that they faced in school and in public spaces, but were so eloquent and aware of what exactly they experienced. I remember taking in every word that L'Tanya Richmond, the Director of Multicultural Affairs, spoke during orientation not only because she was verbalizing and legitimatizing my experience as a child and student of color, but because she was saying what I simply did not have the courage or the confidence to say out loud. In Richmond's response piece to Cao's op-ed, she writes

Put simply, race still matters. Students of color face a challenge at selective, predominately white institutions that persists even when factoring out non-racial factors such as socioeconomic class or first generation status. That challenge is developing a positive racial identity in an environment where one is underrepresented. Until we can collectively accept that students of color experience a unique set of difficulties in assimilating to predominately white spaces, we cannot have an honest conversation about race and its relationship to academia and education.

I have no doubt that Dominica Cao, the writer of the Bridge op-ed, is intelligent and has the potential to become a great leader. That being said, I think her thought process is one that is very common with Asian Americans. Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, are raised and treated by society to resist disrupting the status quo and that by playing the role of the successful model minority, we will be rewarded with successful assimilation and acceptance in mainstream society. This promise, of course, falls flat because if our voices were actually to be respected and heard, we would be free of the archaic passive model minority citizen stereotype. Even today, as mainstream media attempts to have an honest conversation about race, Asian American voices continue to be ignored and excluded in national conversations on racism and discrimination.

The danger here is that if smart, talented and inquisitive future Asian American leaders continue to support and live in this inauthentic bubble of respectability culture and mentality that fears the judgment and disapproval of white people and culture and falsely believe that we have achieved racial equality because the discrimination that we face looks different than the type we see in popular media, we won't stand a chance in achieving equality and understanding our stories.

The reason why inclusive programs like Bridge are absolutely crucial to college campuses is because it not only helps create a safe space for students of color, but it also helps us understand, embrace and share our stories with one another. It's impossible to empathize or find solidarity in one another's experiences if we do not understand how the system affects us and the lives that we lead. How can students take advantage of their education and grow to become effective leaders if they are not given the opportunity to process their stories and bring change to the systems that have failed to protect them and the students before them? My hope is that we continue to encourage communication and opportunities for students of color so that we're able to better understand our own experiences and that of others, finding solidarity in our stories' commonalities and unique differences.