I chose Swarthmore College because they boasted about diversity. Diverse identities, races, sexual orientations, commitments—this was, as it probably is for many others, the reason I came to Swarthmore. The underlying expectation was that I would see parts of myself in the classes I take here, that I would not have to take a separate class on Asian Studies to see myself represented. The idea that I could learn subjects I genuinely cared about without having to compromise my racial identity was captivating.
A quick disclaimer because race is always a sensitive issue. I can only speak of my experiences. Remember during orientation we’re told to use “I” pronouns? I’m doing this here. But after two years and 16 courses, I still ask: Where am I?
I am an Educational Studies minor, so I am not so delusional as to believe that I have taken all the education courses offered at Swarthmore. Yet with the exception of Introduction to Education, I have deliberately chosen to take courses that claim to involve diversity in the curriculum. But after each course I am left wondering—where am I?
In classes and seminars, we learn that as future teachers our curriculums must be diverse, that our curriculums must be reflective of the students we teach, that we must somehow affirm aspects of their identities, and must affirm they exist. But do we have that in our classes now? Are we affirmed in our classes? Do we see the teachings of giants Pedro Noguera and Lisa Delpit practiced right here at Swarthmore college?
My answer is no, I don’t. I don’t see myself in classrooms, I don’t see this “Asian American” identity, “Asian American” myths being challenged or even present when we dispel myths of the supposed “culture” of Latinx and black students. Recognizing and pushing against the oppression of Latinx and black people is extremely important, and this effort must be supported by all other minority groups, including Asian Americans and Native Americans. I cannot stress this enough. But I don’t see us, and if I do see parts of us, it is in the form of the whites and Asians vs. the Blacks and Latinx. This is wrong. We are not white. We are not just Asian. We do not mean or exist to be pitted against black and Latinx communities, nor are we here to play misery poker. Nor do we enjoy the same privileges as white people. In fact, have you ever heard of the “bamboo ceiling?”
So why are we, a minority, never talked about when we talk of advancing opportunities for blacks and Latinx in classrooms? We are placed on opposing sides, with this underlying attitude of “Oh, it’s OK, they’re Asian. They’re an anomaly. They do well, adapt well wherever they go. They are insignificant in this discourse of equality and representation.”
This is where the fear comes in. What if these future teachers at Swarthmore endorse this idea of the model minority? For example, Pedro Noguera writes of his student Julian Ledesma, who wished to explore the truth of this model minority myth in 1995. Surveyed students and teachers at Fremont High School in Oakland were asked which group was perceived as the “most academically talented,” and the overwhelming answer was Asian students. But the average GPA for Asian students was a mere 1.9. The conclusion made was that “because Asian students were perceived as academically successful, little effort had been expended to provide them with the kind of academic support or special services that had been made available to other students,” (Noguera, City Schools and the American Dream, 44). What if the budding educators here at Swat go out in the world and become inspiring teachers who preach and practice “diverse” curriculums, but only for Black and Latinx students? Imagine that these teachers unknowingly endorse the idea of Asian Americans in classrooms as nothing other than the model minority, simply because Swarthmore had failed to include the discourse on Asian American education. How many Asian American children will walk away, disappointed and disheartened, feeling insignificant and isolated from the main discourse?
I acknowledge that there are many problems with just labeling us as “Asian.” For example, I am Korean. This superficial category “Asian” is imposed upon us by CollegeBoard when we might actually be Chinese, Japanese, Singaporian, Taiwanese, Thai, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, and a whole lot of other Asian identities that I can’t cover in this short column. But I believe in taking small steps, that even talking about “us” is a huge step. Yet at Swarthmore, I have not seen us. I have more often than not seen us as the silent, uniform, model minority in my classes. I have often been mistaken for another Asian girl in lectures and seminars alike. I have been told by some of my peers that all Asians look the same (in response, I bring up this beautiful Korean actress and ask if we still look the same and they say yes — but I know I do not look like her). Often times, however, we are not even discussed. We are seen as that group that slipped through the cracks of injustice, have been sprinkled with seemingly flattering statements of “model” and left to be glossed over, left to fester.
Perhaps this is why I am skeptical and puzzled by the diversity requirement. Why are we not asking what we can do with the existing curriculums, but intent on adding a new requirement? Why is even learning about diversity a requirement? Why are we pushed into a space of being required to learn diversity when a simpler solution is for our existing curriculums to acknowledge diversity.
I leave you with this idea. We, as a community, cannot expect to be successful in advocating and advancing the rights, political involvement, and cultivation of a holistic view of culture for only a specific group without uplifting other groups as well. If we do not make a collective effort to support all other oppressed groups, we are left in a stalemate. Another cycle of -isms.
And professor, I actually suck at math.