A Cambodian, a Japanese, a Korean, a Chinese, a Burmese, a Philippine, a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, and an Indonesian walked into a bar. The bartender stopped them. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t let you in without a Thai!”
A similar thing happened to me tonight, except I wasn’t going to a bar (that was Monday when the United States finally beat Ghana in the World Cup–another story, for another day). I was invited to a meeting with other Asian American leaders and activists. There were nine of us present, representing a broad stroke of different generations and Asian ethnicities.
The topic of discussion was the lack of representation and support for Southeast Asian students in higher education. In recent years, Asian Americans have been actively advocating to colleges and universities about the importance of disaggregating data in student achievement. There has been an ongoing perception that all Asian Americans are high academic achievers; over represented in higher education; great in math, science and engineering; and are the model students. For example, at the University of Washington (go Huskies!), Asians make up 28% of the total student body, compared to 7% in Washington State as a whole.
This looks wonderful at first glance. “Hooray for equality! We told you Asians are great students.” But equal enrollment does not translate to equal opportunities or outcomes. The US Census reveals that large disparities exists among Asians with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Southeast Asians—such as Laotian (12%), Cambodian (14%) and Hmong (15%)—fall on the low end of the spectrum, whereas Taiwanese (74%), Japanese (48%) and Chinese (52%) are among the highest.
There are many reasons that explain these numbers, like socioeconomic status, language access, or refugee status. But the larger issue at hand is we need to stop assuming all Asians are the same. Do you hear that mom? Just because Shirley gets to live in London and works at Amazon doesn’t mean I can do it too! Did Shirley teach you how to use the dishwasher? I don’t think so. Lumping all Asian subgroups into single category is a social justice and civic rights issue; the results of which greatly harm the Asian American students. How can we possibly support Southeast Asians if we think they’re the same as Taiwanese and Japanese American students?
It doesn’t just end with Asians though. We still classify every “Black” person as “African American.” There’s little recognition of African immigrants like Somalis or Ethiopians. This failure of recognition doesn’t align with our American values of honoring individuality and autonomy. As an Asian, it is also super annoying. No, I’m not Korean. I don’t have Sriracha sauce in my fridge. I’ve never met Hello Kitty. And when I order Thai food, I only want 1 star. 1 freakin’ star, got it?
So what happens when you put nine Asian Americans in a room together and ask them to solve disparities in higher education? You get nine different answers and perspectives! But you also get better decision making and solutions. We all agreed on the importance and urgency of increasing support and resources for Southeast Asian students in order to reduce the gaps in educational opportunities and outcomes. It’s critical that educators and decision-makers recognize and understand the unique needs of Vietnamese vs Japanese vs African American vs White students.
Where our group disagreed on were the strategies to achieve this vision. Do we focus on recruitment, retention or graduation? Will a part-time Southeast Asian recruiter solve this problem? How about a full-time recruiter? Can we build a long-term plan while achieving short-term results? How far up the chain do we take this? The university president? Board of Regents? And why didn’t anyone bring some bánh mì to this meeting? It’s 6 o ‘clock.
Far too often, tables where decisions are being made do not include communities of color and minorities. When they do, people assume that one Asian person can speak for the entire community; it’s tokenizing and makes us feel invisible. “Hey James, you’re Asian. Tell me how your people feel about healthcare in America. Oh by the way, we love sushi. Maybe we can have that for lunch at our next meeting?” It’s just like letting men make decisions about women’s health, raising minimum wage to $15 without consulting small businesses, and asking vegans to make steak. They are all recipes for disaster.
The correct answer really should be “I’m sorry, but we can’t make these decisions without the input of a Thai! And a Cambodian, a Japanese, a Korean, a Chinese, a Burmese, a Philippine, a Vietnamese, a Malaysian, and an Indonesian.” When people are given the opportunity to contribute and participate, they will think of innovative solutions and accomplish amazing things—like beat Ghana 2-1 despite a first-half hamstring injury and broken nose. Ok, now that I got this out of the way, it’s back to World Cup 2014.